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Two-Wheeled Testimony

A specter is haunting Sacramento. The specter of bicycles. If you live in or have been to Downtown Sacramento over the past few months, you’re sure to have seen them. The ever noticeable, fire truck red bikes can be seen speeding down city streets at all hours of the day. These are JUMP Bikes, and […]

A specter is haunting Sacramento. The specter of bicycles. If you live in or have been to Downtown Sacramento over the past few months, you’re sure to have seen them. The ever noticeable, fire truck red bikes can be seen speeding down city streets at all hours of the day. These are JUMP Bikes, and they’re a force to be reckoned with — an insatiable trend whose convenience and affordability have taken Sacramento by storm. As a Sacramento Native, I have seen travelers on two wheels everywhere from MLK Boulevard to far off past East Sac. The JUMP Bikes are a fun way to stay active and experience the city, but for others they are an unregulated nuisance that serves as a unsettling reminder of Sacramento’s quickly changing landscape.

Personally, I always fell into the latter of the two categories. As a frequent pedestrian, I looked upon the bikes with disdain as they sped up on the sidewalks, breaking up foot traffic and often proving belligerent or even dangerous when the person at the pedals was obviously inebriated. Not only this, but JUMP was recently purchased by Uber for upwards of $200 million, according to the Los Angeles Times, making the bright red bikes ostensibly an extension of the sometimes questionable gig economy.

But perhaps I was looking at them all wrong. Maybe my assessment of the bikes failed to take into account the practicality of the machines. As a cyclist from time to time, I could understand how riding a bike to and from work or school could be an enjoyable experience. But my singular experience would be nowhere near someone who had driven their entire life and was just now learning how much fun riding a bike could be. Maybe these JUMP Bicycles were to serve as a harbinger for a whole new generation of cyclists, eager to make the change from four to two wheels when given the opportunity.

Maybe, just maybe, these bicycles, no matter how much I complained about them, were just good fun. So I went out with some friends to find out.

However, before I left to try out the ever-popular wheels, I got some background. JUMP Bikes, the business name for the company Social Bicycles Incorporated, are a bicycle sharing service that exploded om popularity in the summer of 2018. Currently it has markets in cities such as Austin, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. However, Sacramento is the biggest JUMP bicycle market in the U.S. In the Sacramento area alone, there are 900 dockless electric bikes, according to the JUMP website.

In fact, the distinction of being “dockless” is one of the JUMP bikes more important selling points. The main model of the JUMP bikes, the iconic red ones that now proliferate Sacramento, are so-called “smart bikes” that feature “e-assist to provide a boost every time you pedal”.

One of the bright red JUMP bikes

“The harder you pedal, the more motorized assistance (up to 20 mph) you’ll receive” the website described. The e-assist would of course be practical in a city like San Francisco, where hills are prevalent and the assist can help to maneuver some of the steeper areas. But in a city like Sacramento where the geography is especially flat, the e-assist often results in cyclists speeding down the street or sidewalk at top speed.

The JUMP bikes themselves are part of a market not without controversy. Within weeks of Uber’s acquisition of the bike sharing service, the city of San Francisco served cease and desist letters to three scooter sharing services that operated within the city: Bird Rides, LimeBike and Spin, stating that they “create a public nuisance and are unlawful”.

According to Fortune Magazine, with the surge in rental scooter use “problems quickly became apparent. Unused vehicles create new obstacles for pedestrians walking or running on sidewalks. In at least two cases, the vehicles were abandoned in local waterways. There was nothing to keep people from riding them on sidewalks or without helmets, both violations of municipal laws.

Such examples of irresponsible use aren’t unheard of either in Sacramento, whose JUMP bike population has quickly shown similar problems. As an article from the Sacramento Bee from late May, months before the full roll-out of the JUMP bike fleet, recounted “you are supposed to leave the bike locked to public bike racks in the street or on the sidewalk. But some users are leaving them locked to street signs, poles and even parking meters…the city also has gotten some complaints of bikes left blocking sidewalks”.

And in the months since the expansion of the JUMP bike system, these issues continue to become more and more apparent. All around Downtown, the red bikes can be seen locked to almost everything else but the actual bike racks. Ordinarily this would be common practice for bicycles, but for a fleet of bikes that requires periodic charging, it proves to be more of a hindrance.

But for all the preliminary research I could do, nothing would compare to actually going into the field and trying it. I met with my usual partners in crime, fellow seniors Nathan Battimarco (‘19) and Nico Sanchez (‘19) to get a feel for the JUMP bikes.

The process for signing up was quite simple. After downloading the JUMP app off the app store and creating a quick account, we were just a few taps away from reserving a bicycle for our own use. For a single ride, it was only one dollar for the first fifteen minutes and then about four dollars an hour for the remainder of the trip. Because of the proliferation of JUMP cycles in the area, it took only seconds for us to locate a fully charged bike just blocks away.

We found our bike locked on a public bike rack outside a coffee shop a couple of blocks from our location. It seemed to be in good condition, about the same as any one of the many hundreds of bikes we had all seen around town before. Unlocking the bike was a bit of a challenge. Although it was a pretty straightforward process in retrospect, it didn’t exactly owe itself to first time users. There was some confusion on whether the bike we had found was already reserved by someone else, before we found out we could just take it regardless.

Nathan gives Nico a hand in relearning to ride a bike.

This was the first lesson of the day: if the bike is locked, it’s fair game. The mechanism for determining whether a ride is complete or not is derived from the bike lock, so whenever a bike is locked up, anyone is free to pick it up for themselves. Since the bike was locked outside a coffee shop, there was a perfectly good chance that someone had gone in expecting their bike to be outside by the time they left, but we chose to ignore that possibility.

Since Nico had decided he would pay for our little cycling foray, he got the first turn on the bright red bike. He did so reluctantly, as he immediately told Nathan and me that he had not rode a bike and years. Shakily, Nico rode up the sidewalk, with Nathan holding the rear end of the bicycle for balance in a paternalistic manner before letting him go on his own.

It immediately became clear how powerful the e-assist was on the bike. Despite being an inexperienced rider, Nico found himself across the block in seconds leaving Nathan and myself in the dust.

The three of us walked a short distance to an open space without cars so we could better assess the capabilities of the JUMP bike. It was in the wide open area that it became clear how powerful these bikes were. One could speed from one end of the lot to the other in only seconds. It became difficult to accurately take pictures of our tests because of the sheer speed of the bike.

However, for all of the untapped potential of the bike, the young man on the pedals was having some trouble. Nico was evidently finding braking on the motorized bike a little tricky. His strategy of putting his feet on the ground in lieu of braking was not working particularly well as he started picking up speed.

Then, in a chance encounter, we were approached by a woman, looking to be in her mid-thirties, who took some interest in Nico’s plight. Seeing he was having trouble, she offered to show him how to better handle the cycle. The woman, who introduced herself only as Monica, called herself a “bicycle advocate” and one of the people involved in bringing the JUMP bikes to Sacramento.

Monica showed Nico the proper form for riding a bike (remember to raise the seat), how to mount a bike to ensure maximum control (the trick, it seems, is to line up the right foot with the right pedal when pushing off, to ensure plenty of power as you start out and to avoid wobbling), as well as to make sure to use both of the bike’s handbrakes to make sure you aren’t pulled forward when stopping. It was a surprising turn of events, and after giving us a quick tip about wearing helmets (make sure to tighten them!) she went on her way.

Endowed with this knowledge, Nico started to get the hand of riding the JUMP bike. He did a few laps, gradually picking up speed until he felt comfortable. Afterwards, he passed the bike off to Nathan, who immediately knew what to do. He did a few laps too, gathering more speed than even Nico had. He also got a bit risky and rode the bike up a ramp and onto an elevated walkway; luckily, there were no injuries.

In particular, Nathan was surprised about the weight of the bike, which he theorized to be somewhere around three-fourths of his own. When I took my turn next, I was surprised by how heavy it was, too. When stationary, the bikes are very difficult to turn or shift in place. This is in large part be cause of its design, which is centered on a massive curved bar about three times the size of that of any sensible bicycle. The size and shape of the bikes are largely the way they are to ward off thieves, who would presumably be unwilling to steal such unwieldy bikes. Such designs are not uncommon, and have become a mainstay of bike sharing systems across the country.

Nico gets the hang of the JUMP bike

As I mounted the JUMP bike, the comments of my friends all started to make sense at once. Yes, the bike was heavy, very much so. But as soon as I pushed off and started to ride, the e-assist immediately kicked in. At once it felt like you were riding something half the weight of a normal bike, and it would only take you one or two pumps on the pedals to be propelled several yards. In fact, I was so unprepared for the kind of speed I would be reaching on the bike I had some trouble keeping control of it.

It was rather disconcerting to see how easy it was to ride, albeit it was a little difficult to maneuver. The JUMP bikes are by no means surgical instruments and precise turns are almost impossible, especially with the added momentum of the e-assist. From my perspective, it seemed that these bikes were best for slower activities, and actually using them to get from place to place quickly could definitely prove dangerous. To summarize, the amount of power you are offered is liberating, but the amount of control is not.

I take the JUMP bike for a spin

As our excursion came to a close, I reflected on what we had learned from the experience. It was now quite evident why these bikes had become so popular — they offer an alternative to walking or driving that proves to be very exciting. Riding one of these bikes is admittedly pretty exhilarating, and a lot of fun.

Does this mean that they are blameless for all the criticism they have received? Absolutely not.

But for the consumer, it makes sense to patronize JUMP cycles. The rates aren’t ideal, but they are not incredibly unreasonable either. The app is relatively easy to use as well, and the system as a whole is pretty convenient.

But as much as I enjoyed my ride, concerns still remain. How responsible is it for the city of Sacramento to put so much faith in a private corporation, who ultimately has their bottom line as their primary concern? How much of the popularity of this service is just kitsch, and why should this take the place of legitimate public transportation? And perhaps most ominously: what happens if or when this experiment in Sacramento runs out? What will happen if the market and Sacramento becomes unprofitable? Not just in terms of the bikes, but of the infrastructure, such as the public bike racks that have been specifically installed to accommodate JUMP bikes? What happens to them if this all goes south?

JUMP bikes have proved themselves to be a fascinating new chapter in Sacramento’s landscape, and for all the discourse over them, they do signal change coming to our town whether we like it or not.

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