Healthy Ride rebuilding Pittsburgh's bike-sharing program, adding electric-assist bikes

Healthy Ride is facing a daunting but exhilarating task: rebuilding its Pittsburgh bike-sharing program from top to bottom with new bikes. new stations, a new operating system and a new product: electric-assist bikes.

Executive Director David White said the nonprofit is being forced into the $2 million to $4 million project because its equipment supplier, nextbike, has shifted its concentration to Europe, leaving Pittsburgh as its only site in North America. Additionally, the system uses the 3G system for equipment to communicate, and three major suppliers of 3G in Pennsylvania are shutting down the system in February.

“It really put us in a bind,” he said. “It’s a real challenge. We’re really in full sprint here.”

As a result, Healthy Ride has spent the past two years working with community groups, sponsors and the city to design a new system that will have fewer but larger stations and will try to reach neighborhoods without good transportation options. Not all of the details have been finalized yet and supply-chain problems have left the schedule a little fuzzy, but the agency has started tearing down about 50 existing stations.

It is also in the process of identifying new station locations and plans to install 30 to 40 new ones by spring and have as many as 65 by fall. The agency also has a pending state grant request that could add 40 more stations in 2023.

The system has 105 stations now, really nothing more than bike racks where customers use a code to unlock the bikes and take a ride.

“It’s all going to change,” Mr. White said. “[The new system] will have a very different look and feel.

“Right now we have lots of smaller stations. The new system will have fewer stations, but they will be larger and more robust.”

The agency hasn’t chosen a provider yet, but Mr. White said the new system will operate on the 5G and LTE networks. The goal is to shift from 3G to 5G with no time when no bikes are available.

Mr. White said it will be “really exciting” to add electric-assist bikes to the system, an option that has really taken off in cities such as Charlotte, N.C., and Madison, Wis. He expects them to prove especially popular in this area due to the hilly terrain.

In a news release Monday, the city said that aspect of the project has received a $900,000 federal Department of Transportation grant under the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program. The city is contributing $225,000.

That program, in particular, is designed to help neighborhoods with transportation issues.

“Creating greater access to equitable mobility options has been a cornerstone of my administration," Mayor Bill Peduto said in a news release. “Ensuring our residents have access to quality transportation creates greater opportunity for all citywide.”

Mr. White said expanding in new neighborhoods is one of the benefits of rebuilding the system.

“We feel committed to leveling the playing field for transportation in our city,” he said. “We’re going to do our part to make that change.”

Mr. White said the high use of the city’s experimental electric scooters shows residents are interested in smaller motorized vehicles. The price of electric-assist bikes hasn’t been set, but he expects it to be significantly less than the scooter’s charge, which can be as much as $12 for 30 minutes.

Bike riders also can expect the current cost of renting a pedal bike to increase from the original $2 for 30 minutes. That new price hasn’t been set yet, either.

Overall, Mr. White said he’s been pleased with the success of the bike sharing program, which began in 2015. In 2019, before the pandemic, rentals grew about 30%, followed by a 10% decline after the pandemic started last year.

This year has been “a mixed bag,” he said. Individuals using bikes have dropped across the system, except in Oakland, where Pitt-sponsored free rides for the first half hour have been “wildly popular.” More groups also have rented bikes this year.

Although it has been a lot of work — with a lot more to come — Mr. White said it is “thrilling” to be able to use the knowledge the agency has gained over the past seven years.

“I feel very fortunate. Not very many organizations get the opportunity to do what we’re doing — starting over brand new again.”