Portland's Bureau of Transportation is asking city council to sign off on a request to pursue local funding for a long-discussed project that would bring a massive bike share program to downtown Portland.

A bike sharing rack in Mexico City.
  • A bike sharing rack in Mexico City.

If the project become a reality, 74 stations hosting 740 shared bikes would pop up throughout downtown and the very inner Eastside. The program envisions people taking 500,000 trips on the shared bikes in their first year of operation.

"This is a transportation system that's meant to target new riders," says Bicycle Transportation Alliance policy advocate Gerik Kransky, who has been working on the plan with the city and more than a dozen other partners for about eight months. "It works well for people who might not be able to ride a bike from their home in Hillsboro to work, for example, but could grab a bike to ride to the dentist during lunch. We're viewing this as an extension of transit."

But the project has got quite the pricetag—$4.5 million, with half of that planned to come from private matching funds. While the project has letters of support from some heavy hitters—including Mayor Sam Adams, Congressional Representative Earl Blumenauer, and over 1,000 signatures on a Bicycle Transportation Alliance bike sharing petition—the source of that money has some active transportation advocates worried.

Is it really fair, some ask, to spend millions on downtown bike sharing when there's major basic transportation needs in undeserved parts of the city?

The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) is asking city council to request that the project be funded with $2 million from Metro's Regional Flexible Funds (RFF) for transportation. Active transportation advocates fought hard last year to keep $6.62 million of the RFF dollars reserved for bike/ped projects.

Bike sharing is only one of five active transportation projects that are trying to get a share of the RFF cash. There's also $3.37 million requested for East Portland "Transportation to Transit" improvements, $1.25 million requested for the Sullivan's Gulch Trail, $2 million requested for SW Barbur Street streetscaping, and $1.25 million for Foster Road safety improvements. Now Portland city council has to decide which of those projects they'll recommend Metro fund with the limited money.

In addition to bike sharing, PBOT is recommending city council ask Metro to fund the East Portland Active Transportation Plan and Foster Road Safety Improvements (read about those projects in this giant pdf).

"I was very concerned because the Regional Flexible Funds is one of the few pots of money we have that takes equity into consideration in a meaningful way," says Heidi Guenin of Upstream Public Health. "Downtown Portland has pretty good transportation options including free transportation options already. Until we address some of our really basic transportation needs in the region, we shouldn't be using Regional Flexible Funds for bike sharing." Upstream Public Health wants City Council to drop bike sharing and recommend funding the SW Barbur improvements along with the East Portland and Foster improvements. Last year, 26-year-old Angela Burke was killed while trying to cross SW Barbur.

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"It's a question of what Portland can do to attract new riders," responds Kransky. "One of the barriers to riding a bike is actually access to a bike. If you make bikes more available, more people will ride them."

This version of bike sharing would be a far cry from the grassroots "Yellow Bike" program that many Portlanders recall—where bright yellow bikes are placed around the city for anyone to ride and hopefully not steal. It would be along the lines of Zipcar-like bike sharing programs in other cities, like Montreal, Washington DC, Mexico City, Minneapolis, and Paris, which require a credit card to check out a bike at one of hundreds of stalls around the central city. The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) had more or less shelved the idea of bike sharing a couple years ago, when they couldn't figure out how to come up with the hefty startup cost.

City council will vote on the funding recommendation during its meeting next Wednesday, August 17th.