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ON JULY 23, an odd-looking blue bicycle with a bulky computer on the back was locked up in front of Portland City Hall, conspicuous among the commuting rigs of city staffers.
It was a bike-share bike—but not the sort Portland’s been looking forward to for years. This bike, made by New York-based Social Bicycles, didn’t rely on special docking stations. Users could locate it with their smartphone, tap in a PIN to unlock it, and drop it off anywhere in a large geographic area—like Car2Go, but with a bike.
No one at city hall wanted to talk much about the blue bike at the time, but that’s about to change. If all goes as planned, 600 of these “smart bikes” will be clustered around town by next summer.
The city swears this isn’t a drill: Bike share’s finally coming to Portland.
After years of fruitless searching for sponsorship money—and looking dejectedly on as other cities adopted bike-share programs—the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) says it’s finally ready to move forward with a system of publicly owned rental bikes in Inner Portland.
The kicker? It’s doing so with cash that’s been sitting around for years.
No sponsor’s raising its hand, but by reconfiguring a years-old bike-share contract to match up with Social Bicycles’ system—a move that’ll go before Portland City Council on September 16—PBOT says it can buy 600 bikes with $1.8 million in grant money the city got from Metro in 2011.
It’s not as large as the 750-bike system Portlanders were promised in the past, but the new scheme is still a big development as Portland aspires to convince 25 percent of commuters to travel by bike by 2030, and as its once-unquestionable reputation as the country’s best bicycle city has dimmed. A lack of bike share was a major reason Bicycling magazine bounced Portland from first to fourth in its ranking of top bike cities last year (New York, with the country’s largest bike-share system, took first), and it’s prompted criticism by the League of American Bicyclists, which ranks cities’ bike friendliness.
“This is the first major system like this in the US,” says Justin Ginsburgh, vice president of business development for New York-based Motivate, the company that Portland City Council tapped to run the city’s bike share back in 2012. (Back then, Motivate was known as Alta Bicycle Share, and was based in Portland.)
In recent years, Motivate’s launched and run enormous bike-share programs in Chicago and New York under an older model—built around docking stations where riders have to lock up their rides. Here, the company’s delving into a smart-bike model that’s popped up in cities like Tampa and Phoenix.
The company bills Portland as “the innovation laboratory” for smart bikes. With plentiful bike lanes and ubiquitous bicycle parking, Ginsburgh says Portland’s system will push the limits of what bike share can be.
The reasons lie in Social Bicycle’s business model. In Portland, the company plans to install 30 special bicycle “hubs,” and designate another 30 of the city’s existing corrals for the same purpose. Bike-share users can lock up a bike at those hubs free of charge.
Users are free to lock the bikes up at any other bike rack within the system’s service area, too, but will have to pay a small fee for doing so. People who pick up a bike locked outside of a designated hub will receive a credit if they drop it off back at a hub. Motivate hopes this will reduce or eliminate the costly need to haul bikes around by truck to "rebalance" the system.
The city’s also billing this as one of the cheapest bike-share systems in the country: starting at just $2.50 for a single half-hour ride. Yearly memberships, on the other hand, would be costly—up to $15 a month, or $180 a year, which is higher than many similar systems.
This is bike share, so of course there are big questions. The largest: Will Portland finally be able to attract the sponsorship money that’ll be needed to operate and expand the system? Motivate is taking responsibility for that task, and says Portland’s at no risk if sponsorships remain elusive.
“If we struggle finding sponsorship, we’re still going to run the system,” Ginsburgh says. The city declined to release a copy of the new contract terms with the Mercury prior to deadline.
Another big question deals with equity concerns. Bike-share programs typically begin in the most-dense, moneyed neighborhoods of cities before expanding—and Portland’s no different. The proposed service area hits downtown, but goes only as far east as SE 16th. The thin Eastside service area stretches from about SE Clinton to N Killingsworth. It’s a tiny, largely privileged region of the city.
That could affect city council support for the deal. Equity has been a particular concern for City Commissioner Amanda Fritz in the past (she and Commissioner Dan Saltzman are seen as the likeliest opponents of this new plan, though their offices say neither has reached a conclusion).
Lastly, there’s a chance that a bike-share model—a lot like the one PBOT envisions—may already be in operation by the time Motivate comes to town. Earlier this year, a company called Spinlister announced plans to create a brand-new bike-share system where private owners purchase smart bikes at a discounted rate, then put them around town for public rental.
That system was supposed to roll out this fall, but Spinlister has since gone quiet. Two representatives from the company declined to share current plans with the Mercury.