Tips for renting an electric bike in San Francisco with Bay Wheels

Tips for renting an electric bike in San Francisco with Bay Wheels

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On the way to the center from the mission one day last year, my friend Baris suggested: “Let’s rent some e-bikes!”

I hesitated.

I had been riding San Francisco’s bike-sharing system since it launched in 2013, but hadn’t yet had the courage to try an e-bike. Not wanting to disappoint a friend, I hopped on one and soon found myself gliding down 18th Street toward Valencia.

The first few seconds were nerve-wracking, but my anxiety soon turned to excitement. Since that fateful day, I have rented e-bikes time and time again. They are now my favorite way to get around town.

Why an e-bike?

Renting an e-bike has all the advantages of riding on your own, but with fewer disadvantages. E-bikes are fast (but not too fast). And while you’re still working out, there’s a lot less sweat when you’re climbing uphill. Your rental bike can’t really be stolen (unless you don’t dock it properly). And there is no reason to cycle home from the same place you left your bike. You can buy a new one almost anywhere.

A Lyft e-bike is parked at a Market Street station. | Benjamin Fanjoy/ The Standard

Compared to cars, e-bikes are more environmentally friendly, which is something to feel good about. And for me, e-bikes also win over public transport, as you can get exactly where you want to be – and faster. I can cut my travel time from Mission to North Beach or Presidio in half. There’s no Covid risk, no long transfer times, no waiting (except for traffic lights and stop signs), and you’re above ground enjoying San Francisco’s most pleasant weather the entire time.

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Oh, and did I mention e-bikes are ridiculously fun?

Tips for renting your first electric bike

  • To get started, download the Lyft or Bay Wheels app and add a payment method (or link your Clipper card). Then, to unlock an e-bike from these apps, tap “Scan to Unlock” and scan the bike’s QR code.
  • You can see a mix of black and white e-bikes – the white are of the second generation, and they are extra fast. I’ve ridden to the top of Nob Hill on one with little effort and little sweat.
  • If you are at a docking station with many bikes, you can rent it as well most mileage. Scroll below the “Scan to Unlock” button to see a list of nearby bikes and how many miles they have left on them.
  • Adjust the seat post to suit your height and once the bike is unlocked, start riding to ensure the e-assist is working. If not, return the bike immediately at no charge and exchange the bike.
  • When you’re done with your ride, it’s best to leave the bike at a docking station (or face the potential for a long battle with Lyft if it’s stolen). You can also unlock it at a bike rack, parking meter or street sign for an extra $2. If you are not at a docking station, end your ride by moving the cable on the right side of the bike from the holder to the hole with a lock icon next to it.

The catch? The cost

So of course there is a catch. E-bike rental is not exactly cheap. It costs $3.49 just to unlock a bike — more than a MUNI ride across town. After that, it’s $0.30 for each additional minute, plus tax. A recent 7-minute ride cost me $6.07, and another 20-minute ride cost me $10.30.

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But it’s all relative. Even at these prices, e-bike rentals are cheaper than a tank of gas, a carpool ride, or the cost of parking in a parking lot. And you can’t get a parking ticket: parking is actually a breeze.

If you are among the cost-conscious of us, you are a cycling enthusiast Lee Markosian have some tips to keep costs down.

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Lee suggests getting an annual Bay Wheels membership ($169) if you can afford it. This makes all non-e-bike rides free. He also says: “Try to use non-e-bikes for half your trips (especially the downhill ones). And take an e-bike when that’s all the station has (then it’s the same price as the standard bikes), and avoid lock-up fees at to lock the bike at a docking station.”

Lee Markosian tweets about the benefits of a Bay Wheels membership. | Twitter

For people who qualify for CalFresh, SFMTA Lifeline Pass or PG&E CARE discount programs, there are discounted ($5/year!) annual memberships, free 60-minute standard bike rides and $0.05/minute electric bike rides. You can also become a “Bike Angel”, cycling from crowded docking stations to empty for points that you can convert into rental credit.

Give it a spin

So will these rental e-bikes make you want to own your own e-bike? Maybe. But for now I personally enjoy the lack of upfront costs and maintenance and the fear of having my bike stolen. The cost of renting a bike may be insignificant, but getting a healthy habit that makes me exercise and gives me joy is also worth a lot.

With an ultimate goal of having 7,000 bikes across San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville and San Jose, hopefully there’s an e-bike near you right now.

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If you haven’t yet jumped on an e-bike rental, give it a try. Wear a helmet for safety and follow the traffic rules. Then relax – enjoy the wind whipping through your hair and the sun shining on your skin as you get some exercise and get where you need to go – fast.

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