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Bike sharing plan, though controversial, could become reality

by: PHOTO: COURTESY ALTA BICYCLE SHARE - This composite illustration shows what bike sharing could look like in downtown Portland, where 75 stations holding 10 bikes each should begin operating in summer 2014.It isn’t prime bike-riding season, but Portland bike enthusiasts are getting excited about the prospects for the city’s long-awaited bike-sharing program, which appears likely to begin operating next summer.

It’s been two years since Portland’s City Council approved a bike sharing plan with the condition that most of the funding come from private sources. In that time, dozens of cities have unveiled their bike sharing programs while Portland has been spinning its wheels while searching for corporate sponsors.

“We’re seeing headlines where Louisville, Ky., has one. Every little city around the country has one, and it’s just become more and more embarrassing that Portland hasn’t been able to get it together,” says Jonathan Maus, editor and publisher of

But Portland bike insiders say the funding has been secured and an announcement should come soon.

“They have the money, it’s confirmed,” says Maus, who found an application the city had recently made for a grant to extend the bike-sharing network once it was established. On the grant application, city officials had checked a box confirming they had the money to begin operations.

A number of cities have funded the majority of the start-up expense for their bike sharing programs using federal transportation dollars, but Portland chose not to, leaving about $2.8 million in start-up costs to be raised from private sponsors. A $1.8 million federal grant has been secured for the project.

With a sponsor in hand, city transportation officials say in order to move the project along as quickly as possible, the city may need to loan money to the program to be paid back as the sponsorship and federal grant money come in.

In some cities, large corporations have picked up the slack. In New York, Citibank ponied up $41 million to have their logos on the bikes, docking stations and keys. But Portland transportation officials, working with private contractor Alta Bicycle Share, have had a hard time finding corporate sponsors.

Sponsors scarce

Maus says the initial excitement about bike sharing in Portland became lost as part of a public backlash against more money for biking infrastructure. In addition, public health advocates have complained that the proposed first phase of bike sharing here won’t provide bikes in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“To this day I think (city officials) lost their confidence about talking about bikes,” Maus says. And, he says, that might have made it more difficult finding corporate sponsors.

“It’s less of an easy sell because it’s not novel anymore,” Maus says. “We missed the whole opportunity to be first. Now everybody is laughing that we don’t have it. I think that takes some shine off the company that gets involved.”

In addition, Maus says, other cities have encountered start-up problems with their programs. Alta has had an ongoing dispute with one of its software providers and New York City’s bike sharing had a delayed start-up.

Even Maus’ own website, with its legions of bike enthusiasts, has seen a number of detractors. “This idea, in another city, of putting hundreds of bikes on the street is so amazing,” Maus says. “In Portland there are a lot of people that look at it and think, ‘Do we really need that here? Everybody has a bike.’ ”

Still, Maus says he expects the Portland program to succeed. “I’ve used it, I’m totally sold, there’s no reason it won’t work here,” he says.

Bike owners use rentals

Mia BirkThere’s new evidence that a city with a high proportion of bike owners is fertile ground for the bike sharing rentals, says Mia Birk, president of Portland-based Alta Planning and Design and Alta Bicycle Share, which will devise and operate Portland’s bike-sharing system. Alta has established and runs systems in a number of cities, including New York.

In New York, a third of all bike trips in the central business district are taken on bike-share bikes, she says. Many if not most of those riders own bikes, but choose the shared bikes for short office-to-office or lunch-hour trips.

“We think that’s part of the reason why bike-share is going to be so successful in Portland,” Birk says. “People who already own bikes like biking and are comfortable getting on a bike-share.”

Birk previously has said that it would take Alta about six months to get the bike-sharing program up and running once funding is secured. So some time this summer the first of 75 docking stations and 750 bikes should start appearing on Portland streets. Each station will hold up to 10 bikes and they will be scattered around the central city.

The bikes will be intended for short trips of no more than 30 minutes, but recently released data from Chicago shows it will be tourists providing most of the revenue. Alta runs the Chicago program, called Divvy, and in its first five months Divvy produced close to $2.5 million in revenue.

Chicago’s bike-sharing program is similar to most, with annual and 24-hour passes available. Annual passes, preferred by residents, cost $75. A 24-hour pass, frequently used by tourists, costs $7. Both passes allow unlimited use of bikes, which can be taken and left at any docking station, as long as individual trips stay under the 30-minute limit. That’s easy for downtown office workers who can take a bike to lunch, dock it a few minutes later, and take another bike back to work.

About $700,000 of the Chicago revenue came from late charges when riders kept bikes longer than 30 minutes, and almost all of that from people who bought 24-hour passes, presumably tourists. The Chicago program charges overtime riders $6 for the first 90 minutes and $8 an hour after that. So a single bike leased for the entire day can easily cost more than $60, unless it is docked and exchanged every 30 minutes.

Birk says Alta’s experience in Chicago and the experiences of other cities will benefit Portland, once the bike-sharing program is wheeled out here. She says Alta will be looking at way to create more relationships with conventions, hotels and festivals here to encourage visitors to buy day passes.

Two-wheel ambassadors

Another lesson learned: bike-share employees who move from station to station during the day fixing bikes and docks need to be ambassadors for biking in addition to mechanics.

“They’re the public face of the system,” Birk says. “We’re classified as a transportation company, but at our core we’re a customer service organization and we’ve learned a lot more about how to do that well.”

A fleet of nimble mechanics is considered vital to ensuring the success of a system, according to Birk. Riders need to be certain bikes will be available where they want them, when they need them. The same goes for open docking spaces.

That will require mechanics to continuously move the bikes and entire docking stations around the system to meet the needs of commuters. For instance, commuters who might take bikes from a MAX stop to a variety of downtown docking stations in the morning will need empty docks back at the MAX stop when they reverse the process after work.

One of the trickiest issues to navigate in Portland, Birk says, has been overcoming the objections of those who think the bikes should be placed in disadvantaged areas in North and Southeast Portland, even though there are fewer bike riders there, and even fewer who will be taking short trips from one docking station to another. In other cities, Birk says, Alta was allowed to launch the bike-sharing program with the understanding that in time a pilot program could be started to try bike stations in areas farther from the city core.

In Portland, that wasn’t good enough. A number of local organizations formed a committee to work with Alta on the issue of equity, and in February, Alta signed a contract that it had never had to consider in other cities, according to Birk. The contract commits the Portland bike-sharing program to providing a percentage of its jobs to disadvantaged residents, as well as starting a pilot program to increase access for people who don’t have credit cards to swipe at docking stations.

In addition, Alta agreed upfront to expand the biking stations into underserved areas over time. The program’s initial 75 stations are expected to be placed in the Pearl District, South Waterfront, near OMSI, and Northeast Portland, in addition to downtown. On the east side, a few stations will stretch as far as Southeast Cesar Chavez and Hawthorne boulevards.

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