Truckloads of JUMP e-bikes are being destroyed for scrap across the country — and it's raising big questions about what the micromobility industry should do more to expand bike access after its products reach the end of their commercial lives.
The video above was taken by an anonymous employee of a recycling factory in North Carolina, but the Tar Heel State isn't the only place where perfectly functional e-bikes are being crushed in the midst of a national bike shortage brought on by COVID-19. Tipsters have confirmed to Streetsblog that recycling centers in Sacramento are also destroying erstwhile JUMP bikes, and that many of the company's other markets are seeing portions of their former fleets scrapped as we speak.
Despite early reports on social media, micromobility giant Lime — which recently acquired Uber's JUMP bikes division — was not the one to hit the "on" switch on the trash compactor. That honor goes to Uber, which is also Lime's biggest investor. When Lime acquired JUMP several weeks ago, apparently, it didn't acquire the company's entire inventory of cycles — it only acquired the newest models. Uber was responsible for figuring out what to do with the older cycles it would no longer operate; those are the ones which ultimately ended up on the recycling heap.
The company said recycling was more practical than donating the bikes to the countless non-profits worldwide that service and re-deploy old bikes to riders who need them.
"We explored donating the remaining, older-model bikes, but given many significant issues — including maintenance, liability, safety concerns, and a lack of consumer-grade charging equipment — we decided the best approach was to responsibly recycle them," said an Uber spokesperson, who added that JUMP bikes are sized for adults, and that the bikes themselves weigh about 75 pounds, quashing the hope that they are suitable for children.
But some advocates think the decommissioned JUMP bikes could have absolutely been put to better use than on the scrap heap, especially as riders scramble to access sustainable solo transportation options in the wake of the pandemic. And there's even an industry precedent: dockless bikeshare company Ofo famously donated its fleets to local nonprofits when it pulled out of U.S. markets in 2018 and 2019.
Though the Ofo bikes were also built using proprietary designs, parts, and tools, local nonprofits were able to successfully service them and re-use them in the community. B Works, a bike non-profit in St. Louis, Mo. was among the recipients — and was disappointed when Lime didn't donate its own cycles when its bike division pulled out of the city as well.
"I've never worked with a JUMP bike specifically, but I can say that [Uber's reasoning for recycling its fleet] is the exact same line that Lime took with us in St. Louis — that these are specialized bikes that no one can work with. And I can also say that it's ridiculous," said Patrick Van Der Tuin, the executive director of BWorks.
Fleets of donated bikeshare cycles do require specialized parts that are no longer being manufactured, but it's fairly easy for shops to cannibalize, say, a replacement chain ring from another donated cycle that's truly non-functional. Labor costs aren't huge — Van Der Tuin estimates each bike cost about $15 to service at a living wage — and Ofo also made some specialized tools available to the group to cut down on costs further. And as the Ofo project has continued, Van Der Tuin reports that his mechanics have easily been able to find suitable replacements for those tools after even they've reached the end of their lives.
"We broke one of those tools the other day, and we went down to Harbor Freight and found something that would work for about $10," he laughs.
While the Ofo bikes weren't electric-assisted, Van Der Tuin also questioned Uber's reasoning that a lack of consumer charging technology would be an insurmountable barrier — because they could at least be converted into non-electric bikes. And he didn't buy Uber's suggestion that the fact that the batteries used toxic lithium ion was a barrier.
"The Ofo bikes actually had some lithium ion components on them too, and before the bikes were donated, [the company] actually went through and paid someone to drill out all those little pop rivets and remove the proprietary technology," he said.
The expense and logistics of preparing a bike for donation aren't zero — though it should be noted that JUMP paid to have the lithium ion components of its bikes removed to prepare them for recycling, too. But those costs and headaches are a direct consequence of the industry's choice to rely on proprietary technology rather than using standard bike components that are more readily available — all but ensuring that it will be more convenient and cost effective for companies to scrap usable bikes when they reach the end of their lives rather than donate them.
But until industry leaders make a broader shift to cut down on waste, the least they can do is take on the extra expense and effort necessary to work with nonprofits and put its former bikes in the hands of people who need them. Because when they do, it can have an outsized impact on needy communities for years to come.
"We've actually still got a lot of the Ofo bikes," said Van Der Tuin. "Just recently, we partnered with another non profit that tries to help low-income people get physically active, but because gyms are closed due to COVID-19, they're relying on bikes and other forms of outdoor exercise. Yes, it's harder and takes more labor to reuse these bikes than to scrap them, but it's worth it."
Kea Wilson has more than a dozen years experience as a writer telling emotional, urgent and actionable stories that motivate average Americans to get involved in making their cities better places. She is also a novelist, cyclist, and affordable housing advocate. She previously worked at Strong Towns, and currently lives in St. Louis, MO. Kea can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @streetsblogkea. Please reach out to her with tips and submissions.