Tips for How To Rent an E-Bike in San Francisco with Bay Wheels

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Heading downtown from the Mission one day last year, my friend Baris suggested, “Let’s rent some e-bikes!”

I hesitated.

I had dabbled in San Francisco’s bike share system since it launched in 2013 but hadn’t yet had the guts to try an e-bike. Not wanting to disappoint a friend, I hopped on one and soon found myself zipping down 18th Street toward Valencia.

The first few seconds were nerve-wracking, but my anxiety soon turned into exhilaration. Since that fateful day, I’ve rented e-bikes time and time again. They are now my favorite way to get around the city.

Why an e-bike?

Renting an e-bike has all the pros of riding your own bike, but with fewer cons. E-bikes are fast (but not too fast). And while you’re still getting exercise, there’s much less sweating as you climb uphill. Your rental bike can’t really get stolen (unless you don’t dock it properly). And there’s no need to ride home from the same spot you left your bike. You can pick a new one up almost anywhere.

A Lyft e-bike is parked at a Market Street station. | Benjamin Fanjoy/ The Standard

Compared with cars, e-bikes are more environmentally friendly, which is something to feel good about. And for me, e-bikes also win out over public transit as you can get to exactly where you want to be—and faster. I can cut my travel time in half going from the Mission to North Beach or the Presidio. There’s no Covid risk, no long transfer times, no waiting (except for traffic lights and stop signs), and you’re above ground enjoying San Francisco’s mostly pleasant weather the whole time.

Oh, and did I mention that e-bikes are ridiculously fun?

Tips for renting your first e-bike

  • To get started, download the Lyft or Bay Wheels app and add a payment method (or connect your Clipper card). Then, to unlock an e-bike from these apps, tap “Scan to Unlock” and scan the bike’s QR code.
  • You might see a mix of black and white e-bikes—the white ones are the second-generation ones, and they’re extra speedy. I have biked to the top of Nob Hill on one with little effort and little sweat.
  • If you’re at a docking station with lots of bikes, rent the one with the most mileage. Scroll below the “Scan to Unlock” button to see a list of nearby bikes and how many miles they have left on them.
  • Adjust the seat post to fit your height, and when the bike unlocks, start riding to ensure the e-assist is working. If not, return your bike immediately for no charge and swap bikes.
  • When you’re done with your ride, it’s best to leave your bike at a docking station (or face the potential for a long battle with Lyft if it gets stolen). You can also lock it up at a bike rack, parking meter or street sign for $2 extra. If not at a docking station, end your ride by moving the cord on the right side of the bike from the holder to the hole with a lock icon next to it.

The catch? The cost

So of course there’s a catch. E-bike rentals aren’t exactly cheap. It costs $3.49 just to unlock a bike—more than a MUNI ride across the city. Then it’s $0.30 for each additional minute, plus tax. A recent 7-minute ride cost me $6.07, and another 20-minute one ran me $10.30.

But it’s all relative. Even at these prices, e-bike rentals are cheaper than a tank of gas, a rideshare trip or the cost of parking in a parking lot. And you can’t get a parking ticket: In fact, parking is a breeze.

If you’re among the cost-conscious of us, bike share enthusiast Lee Markosian Has some tips to keep costs down.

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Lee suggests getting a yearly Bay Wheels membership ($169) if you can afford it. This makes all non-e-bike rides free. He also says, “Try to use non-e-bikes for half your trips (especially the downhill ones). And take an e-bike when that’s all the station has (then it’s the same cost as the standard bikes), and avoid lock-up fees by locking your bike at a docking station.”

Lee Markosian tweets about the benefits of a Bay Wheels membership. | Twitter

For people qualifying for CalFresh, SFMTA Lifeline Pass or PG&E CARE utility discount programs, there are discounted ($5/year!) annual memberships, free 60-minute standard bike rides and $0.05/minute e-bike rides. You can also become a “Bike Angel,” riding bikes from crowded docking stations to empty ones for points that you can convert into rental credit.

Give it a spin

So will these rental e-bikes make you want to own your own e-bike? Perhaps. But for now, I personally am enjoying the lack of upfront cost and maintenance and the fear of getting my bike stolen. The bike rental cost may be nontrivial, but picking up a healthy habit that makes me exercise and brings me joy is worth a lot, too.

With an eventual goal of having 7,000 bikes across San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville and San Jose, hopefully, there’s an e-bike near you right now.

If you haven’t yet hopped on a rental e-bike, give it a try. Bring a helmet for safety and follow traffic rules. Then relax—enjoy the wind whipping through your hair and the sun shining on your skin while you get some exercise and get wherever you’re going—fast.

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