A few weeks ago, JUMP Bikes launched a pilot of 250 bikes in SF. Their fleet is dockless and electric, and I’ve been skeptical of the hype around both features, so I was excited to give it a spin.

My experience with GoBike, which by comparison both has stations and is human-powered (for now), has been fantastic. I’ve used it nearly every day (sometimes multiple times a day!) since signing up last spring. I evangelize it to anyone who will listen. It’s such a good product that I was a bit credulous that dockless, electric bikes could be as much of an improvement as everyone seemed to think. Much of this frenzy came from people who don’t spend as much time considering their transit alternatives, so I’d written it off a techno utopian aesthetic preference rather than a real improvement to the transit system.

I was excited to try it though, partially in the spirit of curiosity and partially after aggressive urging from certain individuals (ahem, you know who you are). Since I started using JUMP, my views on dockless and electric systems have updated. Here are my key takeaways on how they compare to the traditional GoBike fleets:

The electric motor makes the city much smaller. GoBike had made accessible lots of places I wouldn’t have usually gone, and JUMP expanded this even further. It is great for hills and long distances. There were a few particular destinations that required going up hills which I rarely visited simply because I didn’t want to show up totally out of break. Now with JUMP, I can go to Nob Hill or up the Haight without breaking a sweat or calling an Uber. I imagine this effect is even stronger for other people who don’t already like cycling. I don't sweat much at all, but from talking to friends, a big impediment to them biking more is they don't want to show up sweaty. This city shrinking factor is the biggest advantage to JUMP in my opinion!

Dockless leads to high variance in travel times. From conversations with friends, most people seem to have the intuition that dockless is strictly better. This never seemed quite right to me—sure, you can leave the bike anywhere, but you also have to find one at the beginning of the trip, and that’s nondeterministic. This bore out in my experience with JUMP. There have been several times where I lucked out and had a bike right outside my door, but there was another time where I had to walk 20 minutes to find a bike. I was starting from Dolores Street no less, a central location where a half hour before there had been a swarm of bikes nearby according to the app.

With GoBike by contrast, you can plan your trips in advance. You’ll have to walk to and from the start and end stations, but you know exactly how to budget for that. Also, the GoBike stations are all over the place, so the walks are almost always just a block or two. When I show the GoBike map to people who haven’t opened the app before, they’re usually surprised at the docks’ density. After showing one friend recently, he continued to point out every dock we passed while walking down Valencia, reveling in his shock at just how many there were.

In short, dockless has higher variance. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and have the bike right where you need it, but sometimes you’ll have to walk a lot farther than you expected. It’s much easier to make plans around a fleet based on the station model. On net I see this as a win for stations.

JUMP has a better chance of competing with the car. Because JUMP is dockless and electric, it’s a real contender to Uber, Lyft, and personal car ownership in a way traditional bike share isn’t. It has the flexibility and comfort of automobiles, but it’s lighter weight and you don’t have to a parking spot, the eternal struggle of an urban driver. A Slate article from a few days ago dove deep into what it was like to ride an e-bike in notoriously auto-oriented Los Angeles, arguing that it was a great substitute. From my own experience in SF, I’m convinced that it’ll bite into the car market for a segment of young, adventurous metro dwellers. And it has the capacity to spread beyond that if they market the product right, I think. I’m excited to see where this goes.

E-bikes obviously are not perfect substitutes for cars. They are more limited by speed, though for short distances they can beat cars by allowing navigation in smaller spaces and having certain right-of-way privileges. Their capacity is also much lower. A small grocery trip is fine, but you’re probably not going to trek a surfboard on the back of your bike. You also can’t fit a bunch of kids in the back, so mini vans are probably here to stay.

In my perfect world, cities would be shaped around the pedestrian and human-powered bicycle—in other words, they’d be human scale, with small blocks, narrow streets, and mixed-use, fine-grained buildings—but we’ll have to do with the world we’ve got. American cities have been built around the car. Distances are long, and metropolitan regions sprawl out with a loose array of destinations that aren’t amenable to fixed-route transit. Walking takes too long, and our mass transit has been neglected for generations. Human-powered bikes are almost a contender, but they don’t get you quite far enough, and again the sweat factor plays a big role. E-bikes could be a huge step in shifting behavior from cars to bikes. They may also make further sprawl more affordable, which isn’t so great, but you could also make a compelling argument in the opposite direction that they’ll encourage shorter, more frequent trips. I’d be interested to see research and predictions on this question to see how it nets out in terms of effect on urbanism.

Looks like I picked a bad example… you can bring a surfboard on a bike! But I suspect most people probably aren’t going to make that happen.

You don’t get as much exercise with an electric bikes. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Something I love about GoBike is that it’s a good way to incorporate exercise into your day-to-day. With the electric bikes, you don’t get the extra 20-30 minutes of pedaling. This could also be a disadvantage for people who’d prefer to not get their heart rate up when going from place to place.

On JUMP, you’re going much faster, but it doesn’t really feel like it. The sensation of biking with an electric motor is strange. It doesn’t feel that different from biking manually, but you arrive in 1/2 to 2/3 the time you normally would, so clearly you’re going quite a bit faster. A lot of the difference is in the acceleration. When you put your foot on the petal when a stop light turns green, the motor kicks in and brings you to full speed almost immediately. It also helps that you barely change speed on hills. From an enjoyment perspective, it’s nearly the same sensation as cycling through the city. I’m fairly sure that it’s not much more dangerous, because the top speed doesn’t feel much higher than when you’re on a normal road bike—the key difference is that your lowest and median speeds are a lot higher—but I worry that it may actually be much more dangerous but mismatched in the amount of fear I have around that danger because the physical sensation doesn’t differ by much.

The membership plans are structured differently. This isn’t about dockless and electric vs not, but it’s still an interesting difference between GoBike and JUMP. With GoBike, most frequent users buy a year-long membership for $150, though you can pay $3 for each 30 minute trip. With JUMP, you pay $2 for 30 minutes, every time. I’m extraordinarily sensitive to marginal costs (probably much more than I should be), but they impact others’ behavior too. Since I have the annual GoBike membership, it’s free to jump on a bike and go wherever I want. There’s definitely an aspect of induced demand here; if it weren’t so cheap to ride GoBike all over the place, I’d probably take slightly fewer and shorter trips. It also makes it more attractive relative to alternatives like transit or Uber (or, gasp, having my own car in the city). I can certainly afford to do the same with JUMP, but that extra $2 charge each time definitely makes me think about it just a little bit more. Overall, I expect I’ll end up spending roughly the same amount on the two services at the end of the year, but the fact that you pay-as-you go with JUMP shifts behavior a bit. There’s a big difference between free and cheap!

Dockless e-bikes will expand and change the makeup of the bike share market. When I first considered GoBike vs JUMP, I thought the proper question was “Which one will beat out the other?". I’ve come to realize it's not as much about one system replacing the other but rather serving as complements. My friend Alex Forrest of Train Twitter fame always points out that it's not about one mode beating out all others (yes, even trains!). It's about creating the breadth of options that support the lifestyles we want and the lifestyles we want to encourage in ourselves and others. This always seemed right to me, but my new experience with JUMP makes me think it’s also right when applied to the more subtle differences between bicycle systems.

I'll admit that my usage of GoBike is lower than it was before signing up for JUMP. There is clearly a component of substitution, and from a revenue perspective GoBike is probably hurt from JUMP’s entry into the market right now. However in the long run it seems plausible that this will grow the size of the entire market for bikes and bike share programs and not just eat into the current market. I've preached mentioned the advantages of bike share to several friends who'd never shown much interest in GoBike before (for which I was an aggressive evangelist), but it wasn't until JUMP that I heard inbound interest from others. Many of the same people who'd roll their eyes at me when I started getting into yet another conversation about GoBike were enthusiastically describing the benefits of JUMP and insisting I give it a go.

TL;DR: I’m excited to see the effect of causing people to think critically about their transportation choices!

An interesting side note—the weekend JUMP announced its public launch, I downloaded the app… only to find myself in the waitlist! Luckily a friend let me use his account, and then a few days later I got off the waitlist, but in my quest to gain membership I learned something interesting: the reason JUMP Bikes has only 250 bikes despite overwhelming demand is because Ford GoBike has an exclusive agreement with the City of San Francisco. It allows for pilots with other operators up to 250 bikes, but no more. (Note: the specifics here are hearsay from a friend, so I may have the details wrong. This article from the SF Examiner from October 2017 goes into a bit more detail, though circumstances have clearly changed since then.) It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. From what I’ve heard, JUMP is betting on saying that the fact their bikes are electric exempts them from the exclusivity around bicycles, but that seems a bit dicey to me.