The lifeless, neon cyan e-bikes abandoned across Richmond last month may soon find new juice.
After Bolt Mobility, a Florida-based “micromobility” startup that powered the city’s first ever bike-sharing program, abruptly folded in July, city officials swiftly scraped together a rescue plan. Within weeks, the dozens of bikes that have been sitting locked up and motionless — and potentially hundreds more — are set to resume cruising along the city’s streets and trails once again.
The Richmond City Council approved an emergency $345,000 contract during a special meeting Friday, allowing Charleston Mobility — a company owned by the original supplier and exclusive manufacturer of the battery-operated bicycles — to relaunch and scale the “dockless,” app-powered program through June 2023.
Bolt Mobility first rolled out 250 app-powered e-bikes across the city in June 2021, funded by a $1 million grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). Since then, a total of 5,824 rides have been taken, with the average trip lasting 43 minutes and 2.4 miles, according to a May report.
The bikes — capable of reaching up to 15 mph with pedal-assistance technology — were most popular with visitors at the Richmond Marina, Keller’s Beach, and Lucretia Edwards Park. They racked up more than 14,200 total miles and saved 12,568 pounds of carbon emissions, according to the city.
The city was not able to say how much money Bolt generated, but the e-bikes previously cost $2 to unlock and $0.10 for each minute of the pay-as-you-go ride. It’s not yet clear whether the costs and colorful designs of the e-bikes will be the same under the relaunched program.
City documents reported that Bolt not only deserted around 60 bikes at hubs throughout Richmond, but also defaulted on its lease with a local warehouse where they stored more than 150 additional bikes and equipment.
The city is now planning to launch additional hubs to provide 300 e-bikes for residents and visitors after legal details regarding bike ownership are ironed out by the city attorney’s office. According to Mayor Tom Butt, managers of the venture capital fund that developed the original bikes’ program software and design helped Richmond’s transportation officials on Aug. 8 unlock, remove and store the remaining bikes in a secure city facility.
The expeditious “plan B” emerged on a time-crunch: Butt said the Institute for Local Government will honor Richmond’s e-bikes in September for providing low-cost, clean transportation.
“Instead of wringing our hands in despair, we sprang into action,” Mayor Butt wrote on his e-Forum Saturday. “Imagine how embarrassed I would have been to accept an award for a project that no longer existed, although its demise was no fault of the city.”
Butt lauded transportation services project manager Denee Evans, interim director of library and community services LaShonda White and City Manager Shasa Curl for getting the program back up and running again.
“Having an electric bike means you can go farther and people who are not in the greatest shape or don’t have that much energy can participate, just like everybody else,” Butt said in an interview Monday. “This was approved unanimously, which I think shows you the broad level of support it has on a city council that otherwise is deeply divided over a lot of issues.”
One day after the Bay Area News Group first wrote about the troubled e-bikes, Bolt Mobility released a statement saying the company, which was cofounded in 2018 by Olympic gold medalist sprinter Usain Bolt and Shervin Pishevar, a San Francisco-based venture capitalist who has also invested in companies such as Airbnb and Uber, was “forced to significantly scale back operations” on June 30 — shifting the blame to lost equity investments.
“Prior to this decision, Bolt Mobility had every intention of remaining fully operational and even to expand into additional markets. Any suggestion otherwise is wholly inaccurate,” the statement said, adding that 25 of Bolt’s 33 markets are still operating. “Investors failing to deliver on their commitment toward funding Bolt Mobility in no way reflects upon our team’s substantial achievements of the last five years.”
Butt contends that city staff never received direct communication about the status of Richmond’s bike share program from Bolt. But that doesn’t hinder his excitement for the program’s resurrection.
“They’re getting used and they’re saving greenhouse gases, which we think is a good thing,” he said. “We think we’re on the road to reviving it.”