Biketown rolls out on Portland streets

1,000 bikes fill Portland streets

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales grabs a bike on the first day Biketown was in service, July 19, 2016 (KOIN)
Portland Mayor Charlie Hales grabs a bike on the first day Biketown was in service, July 19, 2016 (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Last week, in the hot July sunshine, two young workers on Northwest 19th Avenue were revealing the purpose of the orange metal loops that have been appearing in trendy Portland neighborhoods recently. Emily Leuning and Alena Almquist-Heater were removing yellow caution tape and applying decals to the steel bike racks which are reserved for the 1,000 shareable Biketown bikes which become available to the public July 19.

They had been riding around all day on Biketown bikes, which are equipped with GPS units and solar rechargers so the bikes can always be tracked.

A Biketown rack being installed along SE Taylor in Portland, July 13, 2016 (KOIN)
A Biketown rack being installed along SE Taylor in Portland, July 13, 2016 (KOIN)

A thousand of the orange bikes will be available in the Biketown bikeshare system as of Tuesday July 19. The effort is a joint venture of Portland Bureau of Transportation and Motivate Co., a Brooklyn-based company that also operates bikeshares in many cities, including New York, Toronto, Seattle and the Bay Area. The electronics are by Brooklyn-based Social Bicycles (SoBi).

Station to station

In echoes of the retail outlet, Niketown, Biketown is sponsored by Nike. (In New York the Citi Bike system is sponsored by Citi, formererly known as CitiBank.)

The workers pressed on stickers, removing every last air bubble with a scraping tool. The stickers and gel pads protect the enameled metal, and the bike frames, from scratches. They say LOCK BIKE HERE so people don’t cause a confusing cluster of bikes on the minimal orange paddles, which each have a small hole. Three such teams have been going to out hit the one hundred racks six at a time.

Orange is the new bike

As they worked, squatting by the side of the road, passers-by stopped to see what was going on. Such systems rely on buzz and high visibility branding to get them started. Nike’s $10 million sponsorship over five years increased the number of bikes in the bike share program from 600 to 1,000.

9CE48E19B2C340ADAA7B07A92CCB1BBANot all the bikes are orange. Nike has created a branding opportunity beyond merely adding swooshes. The shoemaker has wrapped 10 per cent of the bikes in color schemes representing their classic sneakers, the Nike Air Max 95, Nike Air Trainer 1 and Nike Air Safari.

Some residents have already complained of losing parking spaces to racks or stations. Some just find them garish, but they do need to stand out.

And they will provide a few jobs. Dorothy Mitchell, Motivate’s general manager, told the Tribune in June that they will hire 12 positions for operations, including mechanics and “rebalancing” duties — returning the bikes to the proper stations by van and trike/trailer combo.

PBOT also removed bike parking – the traditional blue corrals or bars – in places to make way for Biketown stations. For example at Northwest 21st and Johnson (City Market) and Northwest Thurman and 24th (Dragonfly Coffeehouse).

Money matters

B6D9E789B5194E549F99A3838F1C8427 (1)Money though: will the Biketown bikeshare system make any? According to John MacArthur of the Transportation Research and Education Center at Portland State University, transit is taxpayer subsidized, and it’s best to think of bikeshare programs as an extension of public transit.

“With transit there has always been a first mile/last mile problem. This will really help,” MacArthur told the Business Tribune. “In other cities they’re not just being used by tourists. The locals are using them.”

He says “I think the intent is to move people around and then at some point to break even,” referring to the administrators making money, rather than the city.

One of the benefits he sees is the Car2Go model, where the customer searches for a vehicle on the app’s map, reserves it and walks to it. That electronic technology is built into the bike, not the docking station, which is just steel plates on a rubber mat.

Unlike Car2Go, you cannot park the bike almost anywhere. “One can lock a bike to another bike rack but they are discouraging it with fees and they have rules about when and where you can do it. They really want people to use the orange racks but there are options.”

Portland slow off the mark

In contratst to how Portland usually rolls, Portland has come after other cities in starting a bikeshare. MacArthur thinks the city has benefitted from waiting for new bikeshare technology. “This technology allows it to be more flexible. Other cities are station-based, you had to find a station then walk to your destination. Here you can dock it at a normal bike rack.”

MacArthur is an engineer and city planner by trade. He lives in a one-car family and commutes to PSU from the Mt Tabor neighborhood. Although his nearest bike station is 39th and Belmont, he says he will get a $12 a month membership and use it for quick trips around downtown, say from the campus to a meeting with ODOT.

“Sometimes you don’t want to wait for the bus or the MAX and a bike is the best way.”

He also saw the light recently when his son asked to get Adobe Photoshop, which seemed like a big investment until McArthur senior realized it’s now done on a monthly lease basis.

“The technology moves so quickly, why would you want to get stuck with an old version and have to upgrade? Why not have the latest, best version?”

BaaS: Biking as a service

So although the technology of the bicycle has barely changed in a century, the tech attached to the rack on the back has changed a lot in just a year. There is better mapping, billing and onboarding software, than when say Citi Bike launched in New York. McArthur thinks people will pay for that up to date tech, by the month.

He adds that Los Angeles is taking the next logical step and having the bike share program run by the metro rail system, so all subway and bike rides can be billed to one ticket or account.

As an academic he is looking forward to the data that reveals how the bikes are used. In the future, just as Car2Go users have to answer some onscreen questions before they drive away, bike riders could be electronically surveyed about their habits too.

FuelBand reborn?

Ten million dollars over five years should be enough to see if Bike Town USA, as Portland likes to be called, needs another thousand bicycles. The bikes could be like Nike’s doomed fitness wristband project, Nike FuelBand. Who will control the trip data?

The bikes will be owned by PBOT, while the trip data will be jointly owned by PBOT and Motivate, says PBOT Communications Director John Brady.

“We’ll use the data to optimize the system’s performance and also to do research about such things as usage patterns. The data will be anonymized, so we will have no personal information about the users,” he said in an email to the Tribune.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media partner. 

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