North Vancouver entrepreneur launches country's first electric bike-share program

Its a hundred years since electricitys arrival on the North Shore revolutionized the way people got around with a streetcar system, but it seems that old electric wheels still in spin.

Today, just steps from where they plugged in those first trams at the foot of Lonsdale, a new public ride-share partnership between two North Vancouver art institutions hopes to prove that such revolutions are cyclical.

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Enter Cafe for Contemporary Art owner Tyler Russell. Youve met him in these pages before, but never as the boss of the North Shore Electric Bikeway, a partnership between CAFCA and the Presentation House Gallery to build the countrys first and so far only electric bike-share program.

So fresh is this eco start-up idea, in fact, that when The Outlook caught up with Russell last week, all that the new business had to its decidedly cool name was a licence, a 60-person membership list and zero bikes.

But thanks to an eleventh-hour deal with North Vans Evolution Bikes to provide a single electric-assist bicycle, that first stumbling block is now safely in the rearview.

The bike itself is an Easy Motion power-assisted pedal cruiser from the Spanish-owned BH Bicycle Corporation. It has three speeds of assistance, all controlled from a switch on the left handlebar which lets users set the pace of their ride once theyve cranked the pedals around and built some momentum.

Since the hills are so steep here, I bought myself an electric bike and I find it extremely helpful, says North Vancouver city mayor Darrell Mussatto, lending his full support to the North Shore Bikeway project.

However, a spiffy new e-bike does not a bike-share business make. Similar to North Shore car-share success story Car2go, whose recent move into North Vancouver has proven popular among city and district dwellers, a successful bike-share has to be able to track who is using its product and where.

So Russell enlisted the help of ViaCycle, an American bike-share company whose GPS tracking units and sign-out software are the brains of similar pedal-bike systems in Las Vegas, Philadelphia and Atlanta, where ViaCycle began just over a year ago.

ViaCycle co-founder and chief operating officer, Koiji Intlekofer, is today based out of Seattle and didnt mind making the trip up to meet with CAFCA staff and The Outlook to demo the companys product.

On the ground we have about 100 units in four programs and a lot more coming down the pipe, Intlekofer said of ViaCycles growing presence in the U.S. This year we hope to double that.

How the melding of Evolutions e-bike and ViaCycles e-brain works is the unit is mounted onto the bikes rear rat-trap rack and secured to the frame.

The brains solar panel charges a battery that provides all the power the unit needs for its GPS locator and wireless sign-out system. A heavy steel bolt secures the bike electronically to any standard rack and locks the wheel when the bike is not in use.

Once a user registers through ViaCycles software, they can sign out a bike by sending a text message no smartphone required or by the mobile app or website. And with that, voila, the bike is theirs.

Because the ViaCycle system relies on online accounts and a GPS tracking system, its fairly inexpensive for small businesses like CAFCA and the Presentation House to operate or to join. Compared to bike-share operations that rely on kiosks and dedicated bike racks, the infrastructure costs of the ViaCycle model are minimal.

That means the North Shore Bikeway requires no dedicated street furniture like kiosks or racks. There arent even stations in the traditional sense. Instead, the system relies on whats called geo-fencing, a GPS tool that allows bike-share operators to put a virtual fence around any part of the city they want for a station, and when the GPS locator on the bike enters that fence and is locked, it stays locked and becomes available for the next rider to rent.

Whats novel about geo-fencing is those stations can be as big as a city block or as small as a single bike rack. And, they can be temporary.

Maybe you want to set one up around the farmers market but only once a week, Intlekofer tells The Outlook while standing beside the soon-to-be station outside CAFCA. You can do that because it literally takes two minutes to set up a station. The operator goes online and says I want this bike rack to be a station and just chooses the perimeter and its done; every ViaCycle bike thats locked up to that location will automatically check itself back in.

Mayor Mussatto says the use of existing city bike infrastructure for the North Shore Electric Bikeway is quite innovative and says that if there exist any bylaws prohibiting such profitable use of city property of which he isnt aware, hell work to overcome them for the benefit of the bike-share program.

When the bikeway launches its inaugural demo rides this week, it will consist of only that single e-bike and the two stations at CAFCA and the Presentation House on Chesterfield Avenue. Its a short route, less than a kilometre, but Russell hopes to bring four more bikes on stream this summer and then let consumer demand take it across the North Shore and, hopefully, across Metro Vancouver.

From now until May 26, wanna-be members or otherwise curious types who bring a bike helmet, some photo identification and a deposit can test drive the countrys first electric bike-share at CAFCA.

After that appetite-whetting grace period, bikeway membership will operate on a two-tiered model with pay-as-you-go membership going for $200 per year and all-you-can-ride membership for $500.

For pay-as-you-go riders, the first half-hour on the bike is free, the second half-hour will cost 75 cents and each subsequent half-hour will be $1.50.

But the bikeway isnt looking only for riders, Russell says.

Because of the low cost of setting up a station as little as $1,500 to $2,000 depending on the bike and on a number of benefit and advertising packages the bikeway will offer Russell hopes more local businesses will pile on the bandwagon to host a station, sponsor a bike, or both.

In fact, theres already been some interest. Fabio Scaldaferri is the co-founder and CEO of the South Burnaby-based MattressRecycling.ca and he tells The Outlook he plans to get in on the ground floor of the North Shore Electric Bikeways advertising with the hope that one day hell be able to ride the bikeway around his own neighbourhood.

But for now, Russell says the pace of his new ventures growth will take a cue from the North Shores history and, like the old electric streetcar system, grow organically, block by block.

When they started the B.C. Electric Railway, it went from the waterfront to Third Street; that was all they did at first and then they gradually grew it throughout the community, Russell says, describing the initial inspiration for the North Shore Electric Bikeway name. I wanted this to reference the electrified transportation system that existed on the North Shore many years ago. Its like everything old is new again.

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