Updated Nov. 9

The addition of 10 new vehicles to Philly’s bike share program isn’t usually a big deal. But the bikes set to join the existing fleet of 1,300 this week are different than the regular blue ones lined up at docks around the city.

For the first time, Indego is making e-bikes available to the public.

Around noon on Thursday, volunteers will mount the electric bicycles at Paine Plaza and ride them out to three locations — 29th and Diamond, 39th and Mt. Vernon, 22nd and Tasker. They’ll be dockable at any regular Indego station, and will be reservable by all users.

For now, the e-bikes will cost the same price as the traditional bikes to rent. But you’ll be able to spot the difference: the electronic ones are white, and they’ll display a lightning bolt symbol on the app.

Potential for 100 more next year

This small rollout is a part of a test. Over the next two months, bike share management and Philly’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability will evaluate how the motorized two-wheelers fit in with the current system. If all goes well with the two-month test run, Indego will put out about 100 more e-bikes next year.

“We’re trying to get a handle on whether people even like them more,” OTIS spokesperson Aaron Ritz told Billy Penn. “My guess is that they will, because it gives you a boost.”

Each time you pedal, a rechargeable battery attached to the frame adds extra force to spin the wheels faster. The models adopted by the city have motors that can generate a speed of up to 17 miles per hour. You can make the bike go even faster than that with pedaling, but the electronic part will shut off once you reach that cap. When the batteries run out, the e-bikes will function just like normal ones — except they’re a bunch heavier thanks to those batteries.

When you dock an e-bike with an empty battery, Indego will replace it.

A national trend

This foray into e-bikes is in line with nationwide trends. Individual commercial sales have increased, and bike shares have adopted them in cities across the country, including New York City, Washington, D.C., Sacramento and San Francisco.

San Francisco’s e-bikes are ridden an average of nine times a day — an impressive number, since the entire fleet totals just 400 vehicles spread around the city. In New York City, transportation officials are planning to rely on the e-bikes, directing nearly 250,000 commuters to use them when they’re displaced by the closure of the L train in a few months.

In Philadelphia, the e-bike test is part of a recently-introduced new business plan for Indego. (The plan also includes exploration of dockless bikes in the future.)

“There has been a lot of movement in this industry,” said Michael Carroll, deputy managing director for OTIS in a statement. “We believe that bike share should benefit all Philadelphians and we welcome public input as this process moves forward.”

Some people consider e-bikes more dangerous than regular bikes, thanks to their speed, their electric motors and the fact that they’re totally silent — but others note that they’re still less dangerous than riding a car or motorcycle.

Randy LoBasso, policy director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, is a huge e-bike supporter and used to own one himself. He thinks the rechargeable battery will make cycling more accessible.

“The hills in Fairmount, or going into West Philly on Walnut Street, those are not accessible to people on a regular bike,” LoBasso said. “This is going to make a lot more people want to use Indego to get around, because they won’t be sweating and straining to ride their bikes.”

(LoBasso later clarified that he didn’t mean hilly areas of the city were actually inaccessible to bicycles, just that e-bikes make them much easier.)

Popularity = slightly higher prices

How will the city measure whether this pilot run is successful? OTIS will expand the electronic program if:

  • People actually use them
  • People like them and give good feedback
  • They hold up well in the environment

Ritz acknowledged that if e-bikes are introduced permanently, the price will likely increase, though he’s not sure how much yet. The city will also have to figure out a sustainable plan for how to charge them.

“Every time you get a new product, there’s always something you learn,” Ritz said. “Making sure they’re popular and charged is going to be the crux.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...