- Lyft recalled 2,500 e-bikes from its bike share programs in New York City, Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area.
- Dozens of e-bike riders reported oversensitive front brakes that caused them to flip over the handlebar.
- Shimano, the brake manufacturer, blamed the lack of an internal power modulator to prevent the brake from overcompensating.
At first, it looked like a series of accidents. Reports trickled in that e-bikes run by Motivate, the largest bike share operator in the U.S., were experiencing stronger-than-expected braking on the front wheel, causing riders to spill over the handlebar. At least one rider broke his hip, and dozens of others reported close calls, scrapes, and other minor injuries.
Motivate, owned by the ride-hailing app Lyft, had been in the midst of a big push to add pedal-assist e-bikes to its programs in New York City (Citi Bike), Washington, D.C. (Capital Bikeshare), and the San Francisco Bay Area (Ford GoBike). Now, it faced a tough decision: What to do about the braking issue?
On April 14, the company recalled all of its e-bikes—at least 2,500 across the three cities—taking 15 percent of its national fleet out of commission. Lyft said it will replace them with conventional, human-powered bikes.
“After a small number of reports and out of an abundance of caution, we are proactively pausing our electric bikes from service,” Lyft said in a public statement. “Safety always comes first.”
Officially, the cause of the problem remains a mystery. Lyft said a third-party engineering firm will perform an analysis to figure out what happened. But a picture is emerging of what may have caused the excessive braking, and why bike share management didn’t catch it earlier.
Motivate’s e-bikes use a kind of drum brake made by components manufacturer Shimano. The Japanese company denied that its brakes—the BR-C6000-F—were the source of the problem. Instead, it blamed the designers or manufacturers of the bikes themselves for not following instructions.
“Shimano provides specification requirements for bicycle manufacturers to refer to when designing bicycles,” a Shimano spokesperson said. “When designed and assembled to these specifications, the brakes perform to global standards.”
In the case of Motivate, which designs its own bikes and then contracts out the manufacturing, the problem may have been the lack of a tiny, internal power modulator that would have stopped the brake from overcompensating.
“With regards to this specific case… the specification requires the use of a power modulator for this brake,” the Shimano spokesperson said. “It appears this specification was not followed by manufacturers of some of the bicycles in question.”
A Lyft spokesperson declined to confirm if this was the case.
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GenZe, the Bay Area company that manufactured Motivate’s first line of e-bikes for Ford GoBike, said its models were not part of the recall. When Lyft acquired Motivate, it moved GenZe’s bikes to San Jose and replaced them with modified bikes taken from Motivate’s existing fleet, according to Holly Brinkman, head of marketing for GenZe.
“In terms of expansion, it was more affordable to electrify their existing bikes rather than acquire new electric bikes,” Brinkman said. “They essentially did a makeshift electric bike with their existing frame and model.”
Meanwhile, a New York-based shop mechanic for Motivate, who agreed to speak anonymously to protect his job, said employees were not trained to work with the electronic braking systems or e-bikes in general. As reports of crashes came in, mechanics were told to run through a series of basic maintenance tests, including torquing and re-greasing the brakes. None of these seemed to work.
“I do believe it was a fundamental lack of knowledge about what was going on,” the mechanic said. “It seems like we were getting repairs into the shop before most mechanics knew how to work on them.”
The fact that the brakes were sealed inside tamper-free shells—a built-in design feature on most bike share models—further complicated the problem. For now, the mechanic said, the bikes are sitting in storage or roped-off on the shop floor.
Lyft declined to comment on whether it plans to repair the bikes or send them to the scrapyard. Uber, Lyft’s ride-hailing competitor, acknowledged this month that it had a similar braking problem with Jump, the dockless e-bike share service it bought last year. In that case, Uber said it added power modulators to the bikes and put them back into service—but only revealed so after Lyft’s brake issues went public.
Overall, the case underscores a need for tech start-ups to more effectively, and transparently, deal with technical problems as they pivot into bike share.
“The e-bikes seemed a bit rushed, almost like they were trying to make it out first rather than taking the time to do things right,” Lyft’s shop mechanic said.