E-Bikes Drive Push for Better Storage on Transit

Editor’s note: This article appeared in MinnPost on May 16 and is republished with permission using a Creative Commons license.

An e-bike is just what Amy Blumenshine needed to continue bicycling as she ages. 

“I’ve been a bicyclist for 60-plus years. And here I am with a maturing body and in an urban setting where it’s really great to have a dependable mode of transportation,” she said, adding she can now take on a headwind, steep hill or long trip with confidence. 

“I don’t have to fret. I don’t have any anxiety about being able to bike where I need to go,” Blumenshine said as she walked her e-bike alongside a crowd of demonstrators at an International Workers’ Day rally earlier this month in south Minneapolis. 

Blumenshine is among thousands of Minnesotans who have purchased an e-bike in recent years. And as the state prepares to dole out $2 million in rebates for those who purchase e-bikes this summer, the e-bike owner ranks will likely climb even more. 

While more e-bikes could help cut down transportation emissions, the trend is also challenging cities and transit agencies to figure out how to improve bike parking, bike bus racks and more. 

Transporting E-Bikes

Most transit agencies in Minnesota are able to handle bicycles, either on a front-mounted rack, on board a bus or train, or both. Some agencies using smaller vehicles, such as Rolling Hills Transit, which serves rural Dodge, Winona, Olmsted, Fillmore and Houston counties in southern Minnesota, allow people to bring their bike on board. 

But Bill Spitzer, transportation director at Rolling Hills Transit, says the process of bringing a bike onboard their buses is cumbersome because they would have to use a lift, which could add 10 minutes to a pick-up every time they use it. “Less than ideal and very time consuming,” Spitzer said in an email. 

Rolling Hills Transit had one bike rack that was destroyed in an accident. The agency has not been able to afford the cost of replacement, which ranges anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000, plus the cost to modify a bus. But Spitzer sees the benefits. “A bike rack would not require that additional time spent on a pick-up/drop-off. At the end of the day a bike rack would greatly improve our ability to service bike riders,” Spitzer said. 

Meanwhile, many of the state’s larger agencies, including Metro Transit, have bike racks mounted on the front of the bus that can handle up to two bicycles. On Metro Transit buses, each slot can handle a bike that weighs up to 55 pounds, as well as tires around two inches in width. 

A Metro Transit bus with a loaded bike rack on the front.
Most transit agencies in Minnesota are able to handle bicycles, either on a front-mounted rack, on board a bus or train, or both. Credit: Metro Transit/Creative Commons

But not all e-bikes may fit on those racks, either because they are too heavy or their tires are too wide. Sophie Nikitas, an Uptown resident who brings her e-bike on the Route 94 express bus on some mornings when she commutes to work in downtown St. Paul, had issues with taking them off of those racks. “I was really struggling to get my bike out of the rack because it just gets kind of stuck in there,” Nikitas said. 

Both Duluth Transit Authority and Metro Transit will deploy fat tire racks on their buses later this year. Metro Transit’s deployment, on new buses serving the METRO B, E, and Gold rapid bus lines, follows a pilot project on two buses over the past year. Metro Transit’s racks, manufactured by Washington-based Sportworks, cost around $1,200 and can handle two bikes up to 78 pounds each, as well as tires around five inches wide. 

But Metro Transit isn’t sure the demand will be there. They don’t have a way to count the bikes they transport, though they tried in the past. (Duluth Transit, on the other hand, tallied 24,263 bicycles last year using their farebox.) They are also skeptical that the racks are compatible with bikes that require skinnier tires. 

“When they’re sitting deeper, depending on the size of the tire, they may not have the same tension from the hook that goes over the front wheel,” Metro Transit Chief Operating Officer Brian Funk said. “We wanted to try to make sure that we were rolling this out smartly, trying to ensure we weren’t introducing something that we think, you know, would have solved a challenge for one user group but created problems, in this case, for more of the primary users.”

Nikitas with an e-bike.
Sophie Nikitas, an Uptown resident who brings her e-bike on the Route 94 express bus on some mornings when she commutes to work in downtown St. Paul, had issues with taking them off of those racks. Photo: H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏

Meanwhile, Metro Transit acknowledges that not everyone is able to lift a bike up onto a rack. They are not considering installing racks inside buses because of a failed experiment involving now-retired buses that ran on the METRO Red Line, a rapid bus route connecting Mall of America to Apple Valley on Cedar Avenue. “It ended up taking up a significant space on a pretty narrow vehicle compared to a train — ended up with the people who are brushing up against it and damaging clothing and things like that,” Funk said. 

Instead, Metro Transit is exploring options for its own covered bike parking pilot that would also replace existing bike storage boxes, which can be rented for up to a year. The hope is the new storage would have features that allow e-bike users to leave their bike to charge and retrieve it later. 

Secure Storage

Meanwhile, both Metro Transit and the City of Minneapolis have uncovered bike parking options, which can be as simple as a short metal post with a giant ring toward the top. 

For Nikitas, locking her bike outdoors makes her feel anxious. To make herself feel better, she has security measures in place for her bike. “I added an AirTag. And then there’s also this frame lock that it came with. I have this giant, like, very beefy chain lock that I use. Even if someone cuts through my chain lock, somehow cuts through the frame lock, I can at least track them at least until they realize that the AirTag is on it,” Nikitas said.

But as Metro Transit considers its best-covered bike storage option, the City of Minneapolis hopes to deploy this summer a covered bicycle parking pilot that could allow for more secure storage, as well as e-bike charging. They are working with the only company that responded to the city’s requests for proposals, Brooklyn-based Black-owned covered bike parking firm Oonee, to deploy between 15 and 20 covered bike parking facilities throughout the city. The racks, which would be their first outside of the New York City area, would be free to use, supported by ads, available to use year-round for at least the next three years and accessible by smartphone or a key fob. 

The cost incurred by the city so far appears to be the time Minneapolis’ mobility planner Russ Brooks spent in developing the pilot. Brooks said in a phone interview that the city has not identified where the bike storage facilities will be. “We want to go through a collaborative process with our partner agencies, with communities, with local businesses and others around where is the best place that we can put these,” said Brooks, adding they plan to consider where bike thefts have occurred, where they have available space, if a site has power access and where they may have potential demand, which includes access to high-frequency transit.

A row of Gazelle brand electric bikes.
The e-bike trend is challenging cities and transit agencies to figure out how to improve bike parking, bike bus racks and more. Photo: REUTERS/Mike Blake

The city may run into challenges in siting the facilities on Metro Transit property and Minneapolis parkland. Metro Transit already has an advertising contract, and state law restricts how money generated on property funded by bonds can be used. Additionally, the Minneapolis Park Board prohibits advertising on parkland

While the facilities can be deployed without ads, Brooks says they might not deploy them to parkland this time around. “The network needs to be a net positive,” Brooks said, adding they are more interested in ensuring the lockers are sited in disadvantaged communities, which could include parkland.

Meanwhile, Minneapolis, Minnetonka, Hopkins, Eden Prairie, Rochester, and Shakopee have retooled their zoning codes to require covered bike parking in developments that result from new construction — and in some cities, expansions to existing construction — so long as it meets certain conditions, such as the amount of units proposed to be built, if a developer is being required to provide more than 20 bicycle parking spaces,and if the developer intends to provide covered car parking. However, only Minneapolis and Richfield require bike parking rooms to have electricity, which could be used by someone to charge their bike. 

None of the cities appear to require sprinklers in bike rooms. The state building code requires sprinklers in dwelling units, except for garages and unheated entry areas adjacent to an exit door. San Francisco made changes to their fire code in March responding to a spate of fires caused by faulty e-bike batteries.

Choosing an E-Bike

The Minnesota Department of Revenue, which is implementing the statewide e-bike rebate, plans to accept requests for rebate certificates next month. The $2 million in certificates they plan to issue in July, each worth up to $1,500 depending on the value of the bike and the income of the requestor, are good for two months and can only be redeemed on e-bikes that they have not yet purchased. Redeemers will also only be able to purchase e-bikes with batteries that meet industry safety certifications. 

Clark Andreasen, who got an e-bike when he was living on the east side of St. Paul because he wanted to get around without a car, recommended getting a bike that is UL-listed. “Especially if you’re going to charge it unattended,” said Andreasen. “That is kind of some good peace of mind that it’s not going to burn down my apartment building.” 

Nikitas, who used to work at a bike shop, recommends going to a local bike shop to determine the best bike to purchase. “Just ride a lot of bikes and see what feels good to you. Don’t just get something that has the coolest features or looks the nicest,” she said. “At the end of the day, you just want something that’s really fun and comfortable to ride.” 

Dominic Playle agrees, after encountering challenges with getting his e-bike maintained. “They won’t touch the electronics on it because they’re not the licensed dealer. I would definitely recommend going to a local licensed bike shop and buying something with a warranty that they are willing to work on,” Playle said. 

Meanwhile, Blumenshine, the senior cyclist featured earlier in the story, cautions prospective users not to underestimate the power of an e-bike. “It’s important not to be cocky,” she said.

Reprinted With Permission

Streets.mn thanks our colleagues at MinnPost for their willingness to share good stories and informative content.

H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏

About H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏

H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏 (pronouns: they/them/theirs) is a Minneapolis-based introverted freelance journalist who reports primarily on their lifelong passion: transportation issues. Find them on a bus of all types, the sidewalk, bike lane, hiking trail or perhaps the occasional carshare vehicle, camera and perhaps watercolor set or mushroom brush in tow, in your community or state or regional park regardless of season. If you can’t find them, they’re probably cooking, writing, curating an archive of wall art or brochures, playing board games, sewing or cuddling with their cat. Follow on Twitter: @h_pan3 or Instagram: @hpphmore or on BlueSky: hpan3 dot bsky dot social See bylines after March 2020 in Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, Racket, Minnesota Reformer, Next City, The Guardian, Daily Yonder and MinnPost.