Will Urban Ride-Hailing Survive The Onslaught Of E-Bikes?

In China, the solo driving trip looks anachronistic compared to cheaper and faster e-bikes. The same might apply to some U.S. cities.
By Asher Meyers | Dec 12, 2017 |
By Asher Meyers | Dec 12, 2017 |
A Buddhist monk rides an electric bike.

Dockless bikeshare swept China first, and now the world. These bikes were not electric. That is about to change. In the spring of 2018 and onward, various firms will reportedly deploy tens of millions of electric bikes. Even without electric motors, dockless bikeshare is a ‘sleeping giant’ whose promise is far from realized. Electrification will only increase the reach of this bikeshare industry - while possibly out-competing ride-hailing services.

With traffic speeds in New York below 10 mph, cars are slower than commuters even on non-electric bikes. In China, ride-hailing is already losing market share to non-motorized bikeshare. Ebikes, which casual riders can take farther, will hasten the decline.

For traveling alone along congested city streets, ride-hailing offers little if any speed advantage, at a much higher cost. Electric bikeshare will be an especially potent rival. At $2 per half-hour, 15-28 miles per hour top speed, and with trips averaging six miles, e-bikes will be far cheaper than a cab for just one rider, and often faster. Research suggests that e-bike ridership is less sensitive to bad weather and air quality, and is more likely to draw people out of cars, as well as buses.

Riders might choose regular bikes for trips of 1-3 miles, and ebikes for those of 3-10 miles. 29% of Americans have work commutes of 5 miles or less; another 22% have commutes of 6-10 miles. For longer distance trips, bikeshare will be an integral link to high-quality, high-speed transit, as it already is in China.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to e-bike adoption is buying one – for someone who already owns a car and a bicycle, an e-bike costing $1,000-3,000 can seem like an extravagance of questionable utility, even before considering the risk of theft. With the cost of entry being $2 instead of $2,000, bikeshare removes that problem.

The safety of local streets is another critical element, but is (unfortunately) beyond the ability of bikeshare firms to fix. As more people begin to ride, politicians will find it easier to kowtow to the all-powerful bike lobby, by making streets safer. Bikeshare firms won’t rest until they have become, as LimeBike co-founder Toby Sun put it, "the default short-trip, on-demand service for getting people around cities.”

Given the pace of adoption in China, bikeshare, electric or not, could have a dramatic impact on urban transportation elsewhere within the next two years. Similar moped sharing services have already appeared in cities around the world, including San Francisco, Brussels, Rome, Barcelona, Vienna and others. With prices as low as $0.30 a ride for dockless mechanical bikes in the U.S., the price of bikeshare is better suited than ride-hailing to daily use for most people in cities.

Uber and Lyft could see their market share flatline, and even decline for shorter trips, where bikeshare proliferates. Average ride-hailing trip distances will increase. Their biggest rivals abroad – Grab, Didi, and Ola – have already integrated bikeshare into their apps, or invested in it. If multinational Softbank succeeds in buying both $10 billion of Uber stock and a stake in Chinese bikeshare firm ofo, bikeshare could show up on the Uber app.

“But driverless cars!”

Driverless cars are on the horizon: 2019 for GM and Uber and 2021 for Lyft, among others. Will they bring the bikeshare party to a halt? Not likely: the cost is too damn high.

GM is among the most aggressive, in its plans to roll out driverless cars quickly – and also among the most vertically integrated, with its strong focus on in-house vehicle development and production. But even GM is projecting that it will be seven years until costs reach $1 per mile. Above that price, it will be too expensive to replace suburban solo highway driving, and too costly to compete with e-bikeshare in dense urban areas.

Self-driving carmakers like GM are eager to deploy their wares in cities like San Francisco and New York City, because they can command the highest usage and price per mile, and have cheaper hardware requirements. Yet, this is precisely where e-bikes are most competitive - in speed, price and flow.


Given their size and appeal, solo trips in cars cannot be both fast and cheap in dense urban areas – congestion or road pricing to prevent it are inevitable, further decreasing their real-life speed and/or increasing their cost. Self-driving cars will increase road capacities, proponents promise – but serious claims are limited to highways, not city streets.

From a design perspective, a car is simply massively overwrought - why hire a $50,000 car that seats five and can go 70 mph, when one can ride alone along low-speed city streets? If one no longer owns a car but hires it per-trip, as driverless carmakers promise, the need to acquire a car big enough for every possible use will disappear. When people are picking a different vehicle for each trip, cars will be exposed to an unprecedented level of competition with other travel modes.

Where would driverless cars offer the most value? As long as their per-passenger costs are far above the prevailing driver costs of $0.40 a mile (ignoring parking), driverless cars may not get mass uptake. A recent rush-hour UberPool trip alone cost me $0.75 a mile, pre-tip – and yet it didn’t seem like many others on the road were using Uber. Perhaps people would rather drive than pay double to noodle around on their phone for another hour a day, the purported primary consumer appeal of autonomous vehicles.

Shared rides are a possible bright spot for driverless cars in the near future, if they can gain enough riders to bring the cost per passenger mile and need for detours down. Transportation experts agree. At this stage, it is hard to say whether autonomous shared rides of 2-4 people, versus, say, autonomous microtransit of 6-12 people, will predominate in cities initially; that will likely depend on local policy and density.

Either way, automation is likelier to end the car’s reign as a mass cocoon of privacy than sustain it. And the rise of e-bikes could further threaten this solo-rider model. The fewer human drivers on the road, the safer streets will be for walking and cycling. And despite all its promise, sitting idly as a passenger lacks one quality common to riding a bike: the sheer joy of the ride.