At the end of May, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) announced upcoming adjustments to Biketown, the city’s Nike-branded bike share program. The changes involve cuts to Biketown for All: the popular, critical component of the bike share system that has allowed thousands of low-income Portlanders to temporarily rent electric bikes, essentially free of charge. 

Despite PBOT’s claims that the program scalebacks won’t have a dramatic impact on Biketown for All users, the announcement landed with a thud amongst local bike and transportation advocates, who see the move as a potential distress signal of what’s to come. 

Biketown, which launched in 2016, is named in honor of the city’s strong bicycling legacy and culture. The program is a partnership between PBOT and Lyft, with Nike contributing some funding and giving the orange bicycles their “Nike bikes” nickname. The program has evolved a lot since it launched eight years ago, and by many measures, it’s been a great success. 

In addition to the program’s popularity, its inclusive programming has helped facilitate a lot of good work in the local transportation space. The growth of Biketown for All— the program has expanded almost 25 times over in four years, serving more than 4,200 Portlanders— has been huge for transportation equity in the city. The program has also expanded its geographic reach in the past few years, and now serves much of East Portland and the North Portland peninsula. Riders can also benefit from the Adaptive Biketown program, which rents out a fleet of adaptive bikes for people with disabilities and mobility challenges. 

But in 2024, Biketown’s major shortcomings are impossible to overlook. And much of the blame rests squarely on Lyft. The rideshare company began its foray into the bike share business in 2018, and now operates programs in seven cities across the United States. While these programs have all been popular, they apparently haven’t been lucrative for the rideshare company, which has struggled to keep its head above water since the pandemic.

As Lyft flounders, it becomes clear that the private company should never have held this kind of power over local bike share programs in the first place. We need a change. 

A brief history of Biketown 

Portland was late to the bike share game. But when we finally got on board, program leaders said it was worth the wait. Biketown’s rollout came with the largest fleet of “smart bikes” in the country, meaning the bikes were equipped with GPS tracking systems and locks, enabling riders to pick up and drop off bikes pretty much anywhere in the service area. 

Initially, Biketown launched with a fleet of non-electric (sometimes cutely referred to as “acoustic” bikes). This was fine, because most people weren’t even familiar with e-bikes back then. The prices were reasonable: Users who didn’t want to purchase a membership could pay a one-time, $5 signup fee and then $0.08 a minute during their ride, while members could pay either $19 a month or $99 a year and receive 90 minutes of daily ride time. 

Then, in 2020, Biketown switched to an all-electric fleet, and raised its prices significantly to accommodate the fancy new bikes. When the e-bike program first began, non-members paid $1 to unlock a bike and then $0.20 per minute. (It’s now $0.30 per minute, which is laughably expensive.) Notably, members no longer received any “free” ride time—just waived unlock fees and a reduced fare of $0.10 per minute (since raised to $0.15 a minute)—and they still had to pay an annual $99 fee. 

Riders, especially longtime members and local bike advocates, were upset about the price hikes. For me, the Biketown e-bikes were transformational when I moved to Portland—they introduced me to the magic of electric bicycles, and that experience was one of the reasons I felt comfortable getting rid of my car. When the second big price hike occurred at the beginning of 2023, I could no longer justify the cost of renting the bikes, and a lot of devoted users said the same. 

But the blow was softened by the fact that Biketown leaders said they remained devoted to the Biketown for All low-income program, and in fact wanted to keep expanding it as much as possible. In retrospect, I should’ve sensed there was something Icarus-esque going on here, and now, apparently, they’ve officially flown too close to the sun. 

Biketown for All cuts 

Over the last few years, Biketown has explicitly tried to get as many people as possible signed up for its low-income program. The program paired with community organizations like The Street Trust, which hired outreach coordinators to find new people who qualify for the program and get them onto bikes. 

The Biketown for All program is available to people enrolled in a variety of social programs, including affordable housing assistance, unemployment assistance, the Oregon Health Plan, Pell Grant, and TriMet Honored Citizen Pass–Low Income. But recent rollbacks have removed eligibility from people who qualify for federal college financial aid or a regular TriMet Honored Citizen pass. 

Additionally, the benefits have been scaled back: While Biketown for All members previously had access to a free monthly membership and unlimited 60-minute rides, the new program will give eligible members a ride credit of $10 a month. If users spend more than that $10, their rides will cost $0.05 a minute. 

PBOT says the $10 monthly ride credit, which will cover 200 minutes of ride time a month, “is enough to cover the average Biketown for All rider.” But the program’s previous benefits allowed riders freedom to ride pretty much whenever they wanted without worrying about running out of time. That’s a really valuable gift, and it’s now gone. 

Plus, 200 minutes is really not very much time. As someone who bikes as my primary mode of transportation, I average about 240 minutes of ride time a week between my 30-minute work commute, running errands, seeing friends, and whatever else I might want to do. 

For a low-income person without a car, Biketown could be a great, primary mode of transportation. Public transit isn’t always reliable, and not everyone can afford to purchase an electric bike of their own (or haul it up to their apartment). But the new limitations, created to save the program money, make Biketown a lot less useful. 

Bike share programs, just like public transportation in general, shouldn’t need to be lucrative in the short-term in order to exist and thrive. These programs are a public good, both for the people who use them and those who benefit from their downstream effects (fewer people driving cars means less pollution, etc.). That’s why the city of Portland should save Biketown by fully investing in it, perhaps using some of the substantial income generated from the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund (PCEF). 

If Portland’s bike share program remains mostly in the hands of Lyft and at the whims of the rideshare company’s corporate greed, Biketown will become a novelty for people with disposable income to play around on—not a reasonable way for Portlanders to get around on a daily basis.