A rider on an electric bike in Santa Cruz
Nico Brown and son Paz took advantage of the BCycle e-bikes during a visit from Carpinteria.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
City Life

Everything you need to know about BCycle, Santa Cruz’s spiffy new bike-sharing program

It’s been nearly a month since the latest fleet of e-bikes hit the roadways of Santa Cruz, including around UCSC. Lookout’s Wallace Baine took to the streets for a primer on what you should know about our new transportation option.

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Many of the most prominent and talked-about stories of the 2020s so far, both nationally and locally, have had to do with the fundamental problem that faces each of us every day — how to get our inconvenient human bodies from present Point A to desired Point B.

The dramatic boom in sales of electric vehicles, last year’s contentious Measure D debate (at the center of which was a still largely imaginary people-mover along the rail lines from Watsonville to Santa Cruz and back), the technological triumphs of Joby Aviation and its potentially game-changing air-taxi service, they all point to proposed solutions in the realm of transportation to free us from the twin tyrannies of traffic and carbon emissions.

And now, to the byways of Santa Cruz, here comes BCycle.

The City of Santa Cruz is just short of a month into a new bike-sharing program designed and managed by a company called BCycle (BEE-cycle), which is owned by the bicycle manufacturer Trek. If you’re just back in town after a monthlong vacation, you’ve probably noticed the white bikes and their black racks everywhere, as if they just sprouted up overnight — which is pretty much how it happened. There are now 300 new e-bikes on the streets of Santa Cruz, and another 160 on the UC Santa Cruz campus.

The purpose of the program? Primarily, it’s to give locals and visitors another viable option in getting around, but perhaps secondarily, it’s to take a few cars off the surface streets.

I gave up cycling in Santa Cruz several years ago after one too many close calls with oblivious drivers. But I wanted to get a sense of the bikes and how the program works, so I’ve spent the past couple of weeks taking them around town. Here’s a few basics that I’ve learned:

These are not motorscooters. Yes, the BCycles are battery-powered electric bikes, but there are different classes of electric bikes, and these bikes operate by what’s known as “e-assist” technology. That means the bike only amplifies your own efforts at pedaling. No wide-open throttling to take big inclines. The motor itself is all but silent, but when you’re pedaling, you can certainly feel a little zip, like a wind at your back. You’re still getting exercise, but you’re expending roughly half as much energy on any given trip than you would on a conventional bike. Big hills aren’t suddenly a breeze to conquer on the three-speed BCycle bike, but they are considerably easier to take on. And if you’re hauling around a 60-year-old body, as I am, it makes a difference. However, if you hit a speed of 17 mph, for instance on a downhill, the motor shuts off. You’re not going to get extra speed when you don’t need it.

BCycles at racks outside Santa Cruz City Hall.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

I took a ride from downtown Santa Cruz to the middle of the city-on-a-hill UCSC campus (a trip that is, after all, one of the primary justifications for the program). It took me about 25 minutes to get there, and I arrived feeling exhilarated but not exhausted. It’s not a trip I would normally consider on a conventional bike. The way back downtown on the downhill took about 15 minutes.

The bikes are not free to use. Alas, we do not yet live in a socialist paradise and walking still remains the only transportation option that’s free (or free-ish; don’t forget to factor in the cost of your sneaks). The bikes cost $7 per ride, which is pricey, bordering on prohibitive for many people. However, there is another option: $30 buys one month of unlimited rides, and an annual plan of unlimited rides goes for $150. If you can swallow yet another subscription (the plague of modern life), that’s obviously the best way to go. Actually, scratch that: The best way to go is to enroll at UCSC, where undergrads and grad students alike can take part in the program for $12 per year.

There is a time limit. Whatever pricing plan you choose, you are allowed only 30 minutes for each ride. Beyond that, you’re charged $3 for every additional 30 minutes, even on a monthly/annual plan. Why? For the same reason there’s a limit on downtown street parking, to prevent privatizing a resource meant for public use. Without a time limit, there’s nothing to stop anyone from just taking home a bike all day for their exclusive use.

A rider on an electric bike in Santa Cruz
The BCycle app helps would-be riders find, pay for and unlock e-bikes from racks around Santa Cruz, and to find empty racks when it’s time to return them.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

There’s an app involved. Of course, there’s an app involved. How could it be otherwise? The bike is unlocked from its rack through the app. You pay for it through the app, and the app tracks your rides and tells you where bikes and empty bike racks for returns are available. There is a learning curve to figure out how the app interacts with the bike rack to release a bike. It involves finding a bike on the app, pushing a button on the corresponding bike rack, then telling the app to release the bike. The first time, it’s a tad aggravating. The second time, it’s a bit easier. After that, it’s almost mindless.

Santa Cruz County has three times as many people biking to work as the national average in addition to thriving road...

Wait, didn’t we do this before? You’re thinking of the previous bike-share system in Santa Cruz, which was called Jump. That program lasted only a couple of years and was canceled right about the time of the pandemic shutdown (only a coincidence). A change in ownership of the Jump bikes led to the new owners wanting to bring in a similar program for scooters, at which point Santa Cruz, committed to a bike-only program, bowed out.

“Immediately upon Jump leaving, my phone and my inbox was filling up with ‘When is something [like Jump] coming back?’” said the city’s Claire Gallogly, who ran the Jump program and is now running the BCycle program. Gallogly said the Jump program (2018-20) was a success. “We were seeing great numbers. We were seeing more than five trips per bike per day. The average trip distance was about 2 miles. It was everything we wanted to see in a bike-share system.”

The new program is fundamentally different (and better) than the old one, in one key way. In the parlance of the industry, the new BCycle program is a “docked” program, while Jump was “dockless.” That means you must return the BCycle bikes back to a rack when your ride is done. Jump had no such requirement, making it super convenient for users who could go from point to point without worrying about racks. The downside, though, was considerable. During the Jump years, the trademark red bikes were scattered everywhere, sometimes causing issues for non-riders, and sometimes the aesthetics were terrible — bikes lying by the road, down in ravines, half-buried in beach sand.

Kyle Klein worked for the crew that tracked and maintained the Jump bikes and now he’s in the same job with the BCycle bikes. “I bought multiple grappling hooks and multiple climbing ropes to dredge bikes out of the river, or out of the ocean,” he said of his experience trying to stay on top of the Jump bikes. “I spent endless nights chasing bikes around.”

Santa Cruz transportation planner Claire Gallogly sets out on a BCycle ride-share e-bike
Santa Cruz transportation planner Claire Gallogly sets out on a BCycle e-bike.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Klein admitted that the Jump bikes were more convenient for the user, and BCycle riders might have to walk a couple of blocks after racking their bikes. But the dockless system was “vastly worse, in my opinion. I’m very much of the mindset that dockless bike systems will never work, purely because you have to rely on 100% of society treating bikes as if they owned them. And that’s just not the case, unfortunately.”

But what if I don’t live in Santa Cruz? Sometime in 2024, bike-sharing will be shared itself as the BCycle program will expand to Watsonville, Capitola, Cabrillo College and the unincorporated parts of the county.

In the first three weeks of the program in Santa Cruz, BCycle has recorded close to 11,000 rides, with more than 500 trips per day. In September, when UCSC students arrive on campus surrounded by new e-bikes, that number is likely to increase.

The number of new bikes might be jarring this summer, but in coming years, it might look like a tiny pilot program compared to where the program is headed.