With the initial trial period for dockless bikeshare ending in April, LimeBike may be trying to sprint to the finish line — or to get a head start if the District Department of Transportation extends the trial period — by introducing electric bikes and scooters.
I saw the Lime-S scooter turning heads recently, so I took it for a test ride. I also rode LimeBike’s electric-assist bike, the Lime-E, immediately after riding competitor JUMP’s electric-assist bike. To assess whether LimeBike’s new models will help distinguish the company from competitors, I looked at practicality, appeal to riders, and the much-discussed issue of how and where riders park dockless vehicles.
Electric boost and the “fun factor”
Neither the Lime-E nor the Lime-S provided as much electric boost as I expected. From a practical standpoint, this matters because some DC neighborhoods are quite hilly, and one goal of electric bikeshare (and shared scooters) would ostensibly be to make it easier for the average person to take trips without cars. An electric boost could be inviting to those who want to explore transportation but who are not in peak physical condition. Arriving at one’s destination without being overly sweaty likely has universal appeal.
When I rode the Lime-E, I could feel the electric motor working the whole time, but the boost it provided barely compensated for the weight of the bike. The Lime-E is a single-speed bike, and its gear ratio seemed fine for flat streets. Climbing a moderate hill with the Lime-E, though, required me to invest more than a little effort. I wondered whether I might have been better off simply riding a lighter-weight traditional bike — especially one that would let me shift into a lower gear.
The JUMP bike I rode moments before provided much more assistance on the same hill and met my pedaling efforts on flat streets with a noticeable boost.
LimeBike’s website claims that the Lime-S scooter can reach a top speed of 14.8 miles per hour, but the only way I was able to break 10 miles per hour was by going downhill. On uphills, the Lime-S had some appeal. Although the motor refused to provide any boost until I accelerated the scooter to three miles per hour by riding it like a traditional scooter for one or two kicks, the motor happily took me up the rest of the hill without requiring any effort on my part. A briskly-walking pedestrian might have almost kept up with me — especially because I felt the need to slow down for bumps — but I arrived at my destination without breaking a sweat.
If I had wanted to balance convenient hill-climbing with moderate exercise, the electric bikes would probably have been a better bet. Other than requiring one or two traditional foot strokes on hills and a light push on flat streets, the Lime-S stands out from the electric bikes in that it has a throttle and can operate in full-electric mode. Lime-E and JUMP bikes, on the other hand, have sensors that provide electric boost only when the rider continues to pedal.
In my assessment of the fun factor, JUMP bikes continue to be a joy to ride. The Lime-S is fun at least as a novelty (although, as I mention below, some safety concerns mitigate my enjoyment), and the Lime-E misses the mark by providing inadequate boost given the weight of the bike.
Rider appeal and simplicity
Fun is only one component of appealing to riders, of course. Ease of use and simplicity go a long way, too. JUMP launched its dockless effort in DC with eight-speed bikes, but it has modified to its fleet to consist mainly of three-speed bikes at this point. This may have been an effort to appeal to new riders with simplicity. After all, deciding which gear to use might be an extra distraction for a rider who is trying for the first time to get a sense of how the bike’s electric-assist algorithm works. LimeBike may have been following a similar philosophy by offering the Lime-E as a single-speed bike.
The Lime-S goes even further when it comes to simplicity. One can hardly miss the green “Press To Speed Up” label on the scooter’s throttle. Furthermore, although preparing to sit on a bike often requires riders to adjust the placement of their bags or the contents of their back pockets, the transition from walking to riding a scooter requires only the freeing of one’s hands. (Sorry, coffee lovers — there are no cup holders on the Lime-S.) Other than that, the posture of riding a scooter is nearly identical to that of walking. This may make the scooter inviting.
Scooters are great for kids wearing sneakers, but will pedestrians feel comfortable hopping aboard a Lime-S if they are wearing fancier footwear? One pedestrian I interviewed told me she would not ride a Lime-S if she were wearing nice boots because she would not want to scuff them. High heels were out of the question, as were sandals, and she was undecided as to whether she would ride the Lime-S wearing work-appropriate flats. She said she would not feel comfortable biking in heels or sandals either, although she would consider it in flats and boots.
A final factor regarding simplicity may be the ease of unlocking. Although the Lime-S looked as if I could simply hop onto it and take off, it still took time for me to unlock the scooter with my phone, which happens not to have blazing-fast data speeds.
Riders should not neglect the kickstand, either. All of this takes just a few seconds, but one has to keep in mind that the Lime-S may be appealing only for short trips. Waiting a few seconds for a dockless bike to unlock bothers me less because I can cover a mile or two quickly once I unlock it. With a slower top speed and higher pricing, though (I paid $3.25 for 15 minutes), the rider experience on a Lime-S may need to be extraordinarily convenient in order to be more appealing than walking half a mile or so.
One prospective Lime-S rider I observed tried to unlock a scooter, failed, and walked to a nearby model where he had better luck. This type of friction in transactions may turn away riders who are planning only to ride the scooter a few blocks. Every second counts for short trips, so perhaps future versions of the Lime-S could offer quick-unlock features similar to swiping a WMATA card or unlocking a car with a keyless-entry fob.
Public asset, not sidewalk trash
During the trial period, the top complaints about dockless bikes seem to be safety and parking.
Compared with non-electric dockless bikes, the Lime-E indeed felt sturdier. Contact points such as the handlebar grips and seat appeared to be made of higher-quality materials. I might have been imagining it, but the tires seemed to do a better job of absorbing shock from the uneven pavement of many of DC’s streets.
The brakes appeared to use a high-quality disc system, but they did not seem to be adjusted optimally and felt squishy in a way that did not inspire confidence. The Lime-E’s stopping power may have been just as good as the other non-electric dockless bikes, but the JUMP bike I rode moments before provided braking that was noticeably more responsive.
The scooter felt reasonably safe at slow speeds, but I could feel every bump in the road even at six or seven miles per hour. After this winter’s weather, I have seen potholes larger than the wheels on the Lime-S, and I would hate to see what would happen if I rode into one. The Lime-S offers an easy-to-use hand brake as well as lights at the front and rear (compared with Mobike’s reflector-only rear), but the rear light was only a few inches from the ground.
As a note for future scooter engineers, raising the rear light even by a few more inches might place it more directly in most drivers’ line of sight. Mainly because of the bumpy ride I experienced, safety concerns may steer me away from the Lime-S when I consider future trips.
When it comes to parking, though, the Lime-S may address some complaints levied at dockless bikes. When I lined up a Spin bike and a Lime-S, the scooter had a significantly smaller footprint. Even with the Spin bike’s wheel turned sideways, the Lime-S was a foot or two shorter than the Spin. More importantly, it occupied less horizontal space, which may translate into fewer complaints about obstructing sidewalks.
With a lower center of gravity when parked, the Lime-S may be less susceptible to being blown over by gusts of wind, too. Some unscientific tests led me to conclude that a pedestrian carrying a large shoulder bag on a crowded sidewalk could accidentally topple both a traditional bike and a Lime-S but that the Lime-S was slightly harder to topple.
Even with a smaller footprint and a lower center of gravity, the Lime-S may not be the perfect solution to dockless-parking woes. I found one Lime-S parked on the street like a car, which I am pretty sure is not how one is supposed to park it. Without a U-lock system like JUMP uses, riders of other dockless bikes and the Lime-S may not always feel motivated to make responsible parking decisions.
The parking situation was worse with the Lime-E I rode. I found it collapsed on the ground with the handlebars in the mud. The Lime-E seemed to be roughly in the same weight class as a JUMP bike, but it was outfitted only with a single kickstand. Regarding parking, that combination may make the Lime-E one of the most troublesome bikes.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall — and the harder they are to clear out of the way. The Lime-E could benefit from Spin’s double kickstand or, better yet, JUMP’s sturdy U-lock system. I once saw a JUMP bike locked to a tree and once saw one locked in an alley, but in my overall observations JUMP’s system of ending the ride by engaging the U-lock seems to motivate riders to park responsibly.
The launch of the Lime-E and Lime-S may be eclipsing two smaller LimeBike improvements worth mentioning.
When DC’s dockless trial began in the fall of 2016, LimeBike, along with Mobike and ofo, featured seats that could not adjust to accommodate comfortably riders taller than about 5’9.” (Spin began with a single-speed model offering a longer seat post that could accommodate taller riders, but the three-speed models Spin phased in featured seats similar to those of LimeBike, Mobike, and ofo.) In the months that followed, though, LimeBike has joined JUMP in offering long, adjustable seat posts that can accommodate tall riders. In my sampling of 20 non-electric LimeBikes, the majority featured the improved seat posts.
A rarer but equally valuable feature is an eight-speed transmission. Although JUMP concluded — rightly in my view — that eight speeds were unnecessary on an electric-assist bike, I welcome the range of eight gears on some of LimeBike’s traditional bikes. The low gears come in handy, especially in hilly neighborhoods. I have only found two of these eight-speed LimeBikes, but both of them also offered taller seat posts.
A blessing and a curse related to these smaller improvements is that the LimeBike app treats bikes with these features identically to all other non-electric LimeBikes. Riders benefit insofar as not having to pay more for these features (only $1 for 30 minutes compared with $3.25 for my Lime-S ride and $3.40 for my Lime-E ride, both of which lasted 15 minutes).
The downside is that the app provides no way of finding bikes with these features. A scooter icon designates the Lime-S, and a blue lightning bolt designates the Lime-E, but no special icon designates a bike with a taller seat post or eight-speed transmission. At least the scooter and lightning-bolt icons provide more clarity than the Transit app, which treats all LimeBike vehicles as equals and confusingly indicates that Lime-S and Lime-E cost $1 for 30 minutes.
Other chances to take the lead?
The Transit app will almost certainly correct its error in a software update. Could future improvements to LimeBike’s offerings be just as easy?
A lower price or a quick-unlock feature could make the Lime-S an even more appealing option for short-distance trips. LimeBike could reduce prices at the click of a button, and perhaps a software solution could take advantage of the near-field communication (NFC) features of many phones in order to make unlocking the scooter an even more seamless experience so that riding really does become as simple as hopping on or off.
Is the Lime-E’s electric motor simply too weak to give the bike enough electric boost to compete with JUMP (or even to stand out noticeably from conventional bikes), or can the problem be fixed with a software adjustment? Perhaps the current electric-assist algorithm places too much emphasis on conserving battery life and could be tweaked in order to unlock more potential from the motor.
If software is the main obstacle, the Lime-E may be only a few keystrokes away from offering serious competition to JUMP bikes, especially from the rider’s perspective. (To make the whole city happier, LimeBike might have to equip all Lime-E models with sensor-enabled U-locks.) To riders, though, if LimeBike lowered the price to match or beat JUMP’s $2 for 30 minutes, and if LimeBike mass-produced enough Lime-E models to make them more widely available than JUMP bikes, the Lime-E might have serious appeal.
Even spreading the word about taller seat posts and eight-speed options could help attract riders who were disappointed in the fall but who might be interested in giving non-electric LimeBikes another try.
If LimeBike’s digital teams keep up with its innovations in hardware, LimeBike may have a chance to pull ahead. They would need to act fast though, because JUMP’s build quality, pricing, and fun factor will be hard to beat, and other competitors may be working on innovations of their own.