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Hilly Lisbon launches electric bike share system in bid to solve congestion

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The centre of Lisbon is notoriously hilly, stopping many people from choosing cycling as a form of transport. Can e-bikes encourage an uptake of pedal power?

Wander around Lisbons city centre with its vertiginous cobbled streets, treacherous enough on foot in the rain, its hard to imagine cycling ever taking off. Some streets are so steep there are funiculars to help you scale them, and Lisboetas on bikes are a rare sight outside of summer.

Like many hilly cities around the world, Lisbon has a serious congestion problem, and its urban planners know that if more people were persuaded to cycle they could reap huge benefits in air quality, health and liveability.

Enter the electric bike. In June Lisbon unleashed 100 public hire bikes two thirds of them electric on the streets of the leafy Parque das Naes neighbourhood. They are available to beta testers across 10 docking stations, via an app. The wider scheme will eventually comprise 1,410 bikes: 940 electric to cope with the citys hills, the rest conventional bikes. They will be linked by a 100-mile network of cycle routes.

Lisbon certainly isnt the first hilly city to look to e-bikes. Madrid introduced BiciMAD, a 100% electric public bike rental service in June 2014. Londons hilliest neighbourhood, Muswell Hill, was once promised its own e-bike hire network, although the idea fizzled out. In June this year, San Francisco got its first 100 electric bikes via Social Bicycles, the company which is also rolling out an e-bike scheme in the UKs hilly seaside city of Brighton.

Transportation planners in hilly cities around the world from Hong Kong to Rio, Rome to Swansea could take note.

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A user gets ready to hire one of Lisbons new e-bikes. Photograph: Emel

Not all of Lisbon is hilly, however. According to Lisboa Horizontal, a project that sought to map the citys gradients for cycling, 63% of all the citys streets are less than 4%. Luckily for city planners, the modern part of Lisbon where most locals live and work is relatively flat. Whats more, campaigners say it is possible to avoid the very steepest hills for most journeys. Most relevant routes arent too hilly; its possible to get from the river to the castle without an excessively steep hill, says local cycle tour guide, Ricardo Ferreira. If you move to the city you know how to get around and theres no shame to walk for 100 or 200 metres.

Pedro Machado, who works for Emel, Lisbons transport body, says the bikes will be placed in the flatter parts of Lisbon the plateau area and the riverfront. Although the e-bikes are there to help with hills, thats not their only purpose.

[Were focusing on] cycling on the outskirts because its a plateau, which covers more than half of the city, he says. We have seven hills and theyre all in the city centre.

Madrid has [shown that] e-bikes solve the problem of hills but they also give you more range. If youre comfortable riding 3km on a regular bicycle, then youll be comfortable doing 8km on an e-bike, so it captures people that would not be able to use a normal bike.

The Lisboa Horizontal project mapped the citys many flat(ish) streets

Portugal has among the lowest levels of cycling in Europe and highest motor vehicle ownership levels, but the aspirational imagery for Lisbons cycle hire scheme is indicative of an administration trying to shift the perception of pedal power.

Emel has invested 23m (20.6m) in the cycle hire project, contracting Portuguese bike company, Orbita, to design and produce the bikes, stations and docks, and maintain the system for eight years. An annual pass, available to residents, will cost 36 and a daily ticket 10 a pricing which allows Lisbon to cash in on its tourism boom. The bikes will also carry advertising.

Lisbon is a city which has high commuting patterns, Machado says. We get a lot of people in the morning coming from the outside; thats a problem that can go on for two hours.

The scheme is already proving popular. There are 2,400 beta testers, with a 3,500-strong waiting list. Many using the bikes now do so daily, according to Emels Diogo Homem, saving up to 15 minutes each way per trip.

More docking stations are being installed. This month and next, hire bikes will appear in districts including the touristic Baixa, the Zona Ribeirinha and Lisbon Plateau, as well as along the riverfront.

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A cyclist passes the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology on the riverfront, one of Lisbons flat and cycle-friendly areas. Photograph: Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images

Lisbon planners hope that by building complementary infrastructure people will feel safe cycling on the streets. The 100-mile cycle network will stretch across the city to the municipal borders, with six main bike avenues for faster, longer journeys, linked by second and third hierarchy connecting paths on quieter streets within neighbourhoods. There will be measures including 20mph speed limits and narrower road widths to calm traffic, all tacked on to an existing programme of street improvements.

In January Emel took control of the citys bus services, and is now introducing electric vehicles, and linking services with other modes of transport. Crucially, it also controls parking, and is using this revenue to help fund its cycling programme.

Change isnt easy for everyone to swallow. Nuno Sardinha, a project manager at Emel, describes the firm as the most hated company in Lisbon.

The way that we see it, Machado says, the parking and mobility company is a tool that the city uses to regulate the use of public space and control the number of cars coming from the outside the city.

On Lisbons first protected bike route which runs along Avenida da Repblica, a busy arterial road Joo Bernardino and Pedro Sanches from local cycle campaign group, MUBi, explain that getting cycling infrastructure in the city has been a slow process, riddled with compromise and delay. These cycle tracks were originally intended for both sides of the road, but were reduced to a single two-way track amid concerns over a loss of parking.

Bad parking is like a plague in this city, and police just walk by, Sanches tells me. On one new cycle route that passes the local cycle caf, Vlocit Caf, and crosses Avenida da Repblica, a veritable forest of bollards has been planted across the new pedestrian space to prevent drivers leaving their cars there. We are forced to dodge cars parked where the bike route crosses side streets. Across the city, pavements and pedestrian crossings are regularly blocked by vehicles.

On a national level, though, Portugal ended a give-way rule for cyclists in 2014, scrapped rules confining cycles to bike paths and introduced a 1.5-metre overtaking rule for drivers. Campaigners say the city has become more cycle friendly. As Sanches puts it: Most days now we can ride from home to work without any problems that has changed.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/aug/03/hilly-lisbon-portugal-electric-bike-share-congestion

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