Pittsburgh has invested heavily in bike lanes to encourage people to pedal safely around the city, but steep hills in many neighborhoods might make some people hesitant.

Healthy Ride, the public bike-sharing program that rents out conventional pedal bikes, intends to change that. Healthy Ride is replacing its fleet of 500 bikes, and half of them will be electric bikes.

“There’s things like this happening around the country and it’s really exciting that Pittsburgh’s one of the places leading the conversation,” says David White, executive director of Healthy Ride. “We’ve seen cities around the country that have launched electric-assist bikes do really well. They’ve proven to be wildly popular, and Pittsburgh residents have been asking for them for years.”

Healthy Ride also is customizing its bike stations with racks fitted with on-street charging stations and docking hardware for scooters and other motorized devices. These mobility hubs will be places where people can access not only bikes and e-bikes but also car-shares and buses. They’ll also have space for personal bike parking, says White.

A $900,000 federal grant and $225,000 from the city will help pay for the project. In May, The Heinz Endowments awarded a $750,000 grant to Healthy Ride for electric-assist bikes.

New bikes are ordered and expected to arrive by spring unless disruptions in the supply chain continue, says White.

“We’re still working out details of manufacturing and supply,” he says. “We’d hoped to have them here already, but we feel comfortable saying we’ll be able to introduce the bicycles in spring. There’s so much uncertainty, and our industry is not immune to the disruptions. We’re replacing all of the equipment in our entire system — stations, bikes, software and kiosks.”

The mobility hubs will transform bike stations into places where visitors can choose from a number of transportation modes, White says. Healthy Ride’s ambassadors are talking with residents about their needs, working with the city on bike infrastructure and encouraging the development of places where people can pedal bikes.

Electrified bikes are fun to ride, says White.

“It’s really a great way to get around, especially in Pittsburgh. It’s sort of like riding a bicycle with superpowers. You still have to pedal and put some effort in, but you feel like your legs are taking you a lot faster and farther.”

The e-bikes have a small electric motor but no throttle, so it’s not like a motorcycle, White says. A sensor gauges the amount of effort the rider is putting out and matches that with similar electric boosts.

Ridership through Healthy Ride has grown steadily since 2015 — from 60,000 trips the first year to 114,000 in 2019 — but dipped a little last year during the height of the pandemic. Users logged 103,000 trips in 2020, according to Healthy Ride’s website.

“But 2021 has been great — we’re where we wanted to be. We want to serve as many Pittsburgh residents and visitors as we can, so we are committed to making sure any changes we make are done with a lens of transportation equity and focus on mobility justice,” adds White.

“We want to make sure the decisions we make now help to connect Pittsburgh neighborhoods and give as many folks access to the system as possible.”

The city’s Department of Mobility & Infrastructure is collaborating on the project. This week, Healthy Ride began uninstalling 50 of its stations to prepare for the electrification installation next year.

Pittsburgh’s 10-year Bike(+) Plan lays out a vision for a safe, connected network of on-street and off-street facilities that enable people to use bicycles and other small mobility modes in daily life. The city has more than 70 miles of protected bike lanes and the plan aims to increase that to more than 250 miles.

Pittsburgh Bike Share, which owns and operates Healthy Ride, is a charitable organization founded in December 2012 and incubated by BikePGH. The organization was created with the help of city planners, business leaders at Walnut Capital, and bicycle/pedestrian advocates.

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.