A bike-share company is backpedaling on its plan to deliver a fleet of electric bicycles to the Burlington area before college students start their fall semester, blaming tariffs on Chinese imports and technical difficulties with its mobile app for the delay.
South Carolina firm Gotcha planned to roll out 200 e-bikes in Burlington, South Burlington and Winooski to replace the 105 pedal bikes in the Greenride bike-share program. The electric assist is intended to help cyclists navigate the hilly local landscape.
But the bikes will likely still be stuck overseas when college classes start here next week. Thousands of Chinese imports, including bike parts, are subject to 25 percent tariffs as part of President Donald Trump’s escalating trade dispute with China that began in 2017.
Gotcha public relations director Caroline Passe initially told Seven Days on Monday that there's no delay and that the company needed to “discuss the details of the program” with its partners. But by then, three of the seven partners had already told Seven Days that they were well aware Gotcha wouldn’t meet its delivery target.
“[Gotcha] told us they’re having challenges with getting the bikes from China to America in a sufficient manner,” said Nic Anderson, associate director of sustainable transportation at Champlain College, a Greenride partner.
Indeed, Gotcha informed partners in an August 7 email that “complications in supply chain and arrival of e-bikes from overseas” would push back the bikes’ arrival.
Passe eventually confirmed the delay, writing in an email that the tariffs have created “negative impacts … on our operation” and that Gotcha’s mobile app has had “unforeseen technical difficulties.”
“We are working diligently to expedite our progress to get the system off the ground,” Passe wrote, adding that Gotcha will share “a realistic launch timeframe as soon as these issues are resolved.”
Greenride launched locally last spring as a partnership between the three cities, Champlain College, the University of Vermont, Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission and the Chittenden Area Transportation Management Association. For a couple of bucks, users can reserve a bike using a mobile app, ride it and return it to a designated hub. The program is primarily funded by corporate sponsorships.
Passe said the company had not yet determined user fees for the service.
Meanwhile, the trade war shows no signs of abating: Just last week, the Trump administration announced that the U.S. would levy an additional 10 percent tariff on $300 billion of Chinese products starting September 1.
Gotcha isn’t the only e-bike company feeling the pain. In May, Uber Technologies lost a bid for relief from the tariffs as it gears up its Jump bike-share program. The San Francisco company argued that China is the only viable e-bike manufacturer, as 96 percent of e-bikes imported to the U.S. are made there, according to Reuters.
Winooski public works director Jon Rauscher was surprised to learn that tariffs are partially to blame for the delay.
“It’s interesting that some of the global markets are impacting us municipalities in Vermont,” he said.
“We understand,” Rauscher continued. “We have one docking station right now, so it’s not a major impact. There’s no concern on our end if it is a little delayed.”
And technically, there’s no deadline since Burlington has yet to sign a contract with Gotcha, according to the city's senior transportation planner, Nicole Losch. Once all partners sign the operating agreement, the company has 90 days to deliver the bikes.
“That said, I think [Gotcha] knew we had very clear expectations these would be delivered on a reasonable schedule,” Losch said. “Even without a contract, that’s been our goal on both sides.”
But for now, it’s a waiting game. South Burlington planning director Paul Conner said in an email that the city is “working closely with our partners to determine next steps.” Losch said Burlington will officially sign the contract once Gotcha provides an updated timeline. She said she’s “cautiously optimistic” that the company can overcome the hurdles.
“If for some reason this is not going to work out, we have other options,” Losch said. “We’re all hoping we’ll find a way to make this work and have good news.”
Correction, August 20, 2019: A previous version of this story misstated the potential impact tariffs could have on user fees. It also misstated the number of pedal bikes currently available in the Greenride program.