Torpy at Large: Atlanta’s shareable bikes. Today’s horse and buggy

Bill Torpy on one of Atlanta’s Relay shareable bikes. He said he couldn’t find a Relay rider to interview, so he did the next best thing. Photo by David Flanigan

Bill Torpy on one of Atlanta’s Relay shareable bikes. He said he couldn’t find a Relay rider to interview, so he did the next best thing. Photo by David Flanigan

Holy market disruption, Batman!

Three years ago, in June 2016, former Mayor Kasim Reed extolled the civic virtues of shareable bikes as the city launched the Relay bike share system. The idea had been around for a few years and had taken hold in cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C. Atlanta was jumping in and playing catch-up. The sturdy, clunky, light blue Relay bikes were going to be everywhere.

"Quite frankly, I expect to leave those other cities behind," Hizzoner said at the time. "We've done our homework, we've studied the other programs, and we know what works and what doesn't."

Well, little did he know, but it was akin to diving into the horse and buggy business in 1910.

Things went well, at first. Relay put 500 bikes in 70 stations across the city. A year into the program, it was averaging 11,000 rides a month. In May 2018, Atlantans (or visitors) rented Relays 12,054 times, the second-highest monthly total since the bikes hit the streets.

But during that same May 2018 period, Bird, the electric scooter company, introduced its devices into Atlanta’s transportation ecosystem. (That’s a nice way of saying they dumped them all over the place.) And with that move, the business model for the rentable/shareable pedal bikes was pretty much cooked.

Now, a year after Bird’s landing, the blue Relay pedal bikes largely sit in their parking docks. During the past four months, the blue bikes averaged about 3,000 rentals a month. Last month, it was just 2,321.

Hizzoner (Atlanta’s then-mayor Kasim Reed) leads a pack of Relay riders. Photo by Bob Andres / AJC file

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In all, there are about eight scooter or other "micromobility" companies allowed to operate in Atlanta, and they have cool, edgy names like Bird, Lime, Bolt, Lyft, Wheels and JUMP. Actually, JUMP, the brand of red electric bikes owned by Uber, just pulled out of the saturated market.

The city has capped the number of scooters at about 12,000. But on any given day, half that number of scooters are actually being used — that is, when they’re not being tossed from overpasses, into streams or generally getting battered about.

The e-scooters and other e-devices are popular. During the first six months of this year, people in the city of Atlanta took 2.9 million trips on dockless devices (mostly scooters), racking up 3.1 million miles, according to the city's own figures. Proponents call it the "last-mile transportation option," meaning you can take the bus or train, then finish off your trip on a scooter. Leave your carbon-belching car at home.

They are the future — provided these companies stay in business. The field is glutted and capital intensive, and it’s hard to see how anyone makes money. Relay, a division of CycleHop, which also has e-scooters, would seem to be taking a bath, although no one from the company got back to me to discuss it.

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However, CycleHop spokeswoman Chelsea Davidoff told the urbanist website Curbed Atlanta that Relay is "in it for the long term" and is retooling its fleet to add e-bikes next year.

That’s also when the city will cut the number of scooter companies allowed to operate in Atlanta to make things more manageable.

Davidoff also told Curbed Atlanta that bike-share contracts allow “vendors to make long-term investments” and cities can “attract grants and allocate transit funds towards transportation projects, and offer an affordable service to the public. Most bike share programs require public support, as ridership alone doesn’t cover the operating and capital costs.”

It’s kind of like a two-wheeled MARTA. But less expensive.

I wanted to find a Relay aficionado to interview, so I searched the streets of Atlanta and walked the Beltline. But finding such a creature these days is akin to locating a unicorn.

On the Beltline, I encountered Taja Edwards and Elijah Bolden fiddling with the Wheels product, a hybrid that looks like a motorized e-bike that mated with a scooter.

Edwards used to ride the Relays, but that was a couple of years ago. Since then, it’s been Limes, Birds, and now — if she could just get it to start up — the newish Wheels contraption.

“They say you need Bluetooth, but it won’t let me in,” she said after trying without success. “It’s confusing. I almost want to go back and ride the Relay.”

Taja Edwards (right) and Elijah Bolden try to get the Wheels device moving on the Beltline. Photo by Bill Torpy

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I found Christian Williamson riding a Wheels on the Beltline near Ponce City Market. He said he looked at Relay. “It was pedal or motor. We went motor.”

And why wouldn’t he? I rented a Relay, and it reminded me of delivering newspapers on my old Schwinn Typhoon. There is something about pedaling a heavy bike in 92-degree weather. Something not good. It makes you want to go electric.

“The market has completely changed,” said Atlanta planning czar Tim Keane. “There is no e-aspect” to the Relays, he said. “In a hot, hilly city like Atlanta, you want that.”

Relay worker Antrel Adams helps keep afloat Atlanta’s fleet of shareable bikes. Photo by Bill Torpy

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Keane said the city will retool the mix of scooters and shareable bikes. “We support the public bike sharing system. It does need an update. Right now, it’s somewhat outdated,” he said. “The bike component needs an e-component.”

Interestingly, the JUMP bike brand had an e-component but bailed out because the company was presumably lighting $100 bills on fire to compete in this saturated environment. Working out a deal with a bike company probably means “public support,” as the CycleHop spokesman suggested.

Keane said the industry’s quickly changing technology has “created a sense of urgency on our streets.”

For years, the bicycling folks had argued for bike lanes and safer streets. All of a sudden, there are zillions of folks on these newer devices and some of the riders are getting hurt and even killed.

Now, he said, there’s a sense of “What happened? We need to do something.”

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms last month called for a halt to new scooter companies and nighttime scooter riding. She said the city would double down in the next month (a time frame that has already lapsed) to make streets safer for such devices, and of course for bikes. The biking folks say they are still waiting.