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  • 19 Dec 2014

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Portland bike-sharing system copies others

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF ALTA PLANNING & DESIGN - Citi Bike is a new bike-sharing program launching in May in New York City. Portland hopes to learn from other cities in starting its program next year. Occasionally it’s nice not to be first, says Steve Hoyt-McBeth of the Portland Bureau of Transportation. Take Portland’s planned bike-sharing program, likely to debut in spring 2014 with Hoyt-McBeth as project manager.

Robust bike-sharing programs have already been rolled out in Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., Montreal and Denver. Portland’s Alta Planning & Design, a consultant on some of those programs, signed a contract with its home city in early January that puts Alta in charge of developing and operating Portland’s system. Hoyt-McBeth and Alta President Mia Birk are pleased they aren’t having to, well, reinvent the wheel here.

“We’re usually the ones who are brain dead going through the growing pains, innovating new forms of transportation,” says Hoyt-McBeth.

Not this time.

Birk already has prototype bikes to show off, since they’re similar to those used in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.

Extra-wide wheels that nobody bothers to steal because they don’t fit into other bike frames. A sturdy frame with unique parts that aren’t worth cannibalizing. Internal chain system. A fatter-than-normal seat stem so the seat can’t be stolen and reused.

Birk is spending a lot of time talking to Bill Dossett, executive director of Nice Ride, the bike-sharing system in Minneapolis. Nice Ride just completed its third year of operation with over 1,320 bikes on the road. Portland’s program likely will resemble Nice Ride, Birk says.

Portland riders can expect 500 to 750 bikes available the first year, with more as ridership grows. There should be at least 75 docking stations to start, holding up to 10 bikes each, scattered around the central city. Minneapolis now has 145 stations.

Priced for short hops

Minneapolis offers two ways to sign up for a bike. Riders can pay $65 for an annual subscription and get a keychain fob that allows them to take and replace bikes whenever they want. Or riders can swipe a credit card, pay $6 and get a one-day subscription that allows them to take and dock bikes during a 24-hour period.

In addition, users pay each time they use a bike more than 30 minutes. In Minneapolis, if a rider returns a bike in less than 30 minutes, their only cost is the subscription. But if they use the bike for an hour, it costs an extra $1.50. It’s $4.50 for an hour and a half and $10.50 for two hours. More than six hours costs $65.

The object is to get people relying on the bikes for short trips, and to discourage them from taking the bikes on long treks. The sturdy three-speed bikes are not ideal for taking long trips anyway.

The pricing is based on the theory that four out of 10 trips in an urban area are under three miles, and that a bike can make those trips just as fast as a car.

“We’re trying to create an incentive. If you’re downtown and you’re going to lunch, we want you to dock (return) a bike, go eat lunch and not worry about the bike,” Dossett says. “And then you’ll take a different bike when you head back.”

Logistical challenges

People need to be assured a bike will be available where and when they need it, Dossett says, and that a docking spot will be available at the end of their ride. Those goals are better met when bikes are rented for short periods of time.

In Minneapolis, 98 percent of the trips by riders with annual subscriptions are for less than 30 minutes. Almost all are short trips across the downtown area. Conversely, people taking out 24-hour subscriptions, many of them tourists, often go for longer than 30 minutes. Those subscribers provide two-thirds of the program’s rider revenue.

Birk hopes to find corporate sponsors over the next six months to contribute more than $2 million. Corporate logos will appear on everything from the bike frames and fenders to the solar-powered docking stations to the fob that annual subscribers use to unlock bikes.

Birk says docking stations will be found largely in the same neighborhoods served by streetcars — downtown, the Pearl District, South Waterfront, OMSI and Northwest Portland. Eastside stations may extend as far as 39th Avenue and Hawthorne Boulevard.

One of the keys to making the system work, Birk says, is flexibility. Docking stations must be movable so bikes and docking slots are always available when people need them. People coming downtown to work might get off MAX at Jeld-Wen Field, take all the bikes from a station there, and need empty slots all over downtown. A similar scenario might occur around 5 p.m., only in reverse, with empty docking slots needed at Jeld-Wen. Maintenance staff will have the job of moving the docking stations around to fill the need.

“You have to be nimble,” Birk says.

Alta won’t have the luxury of starting small and banking on initial revenue to finance growth, she says. Starting small means not enough bikes and docks to encourage people to become regular users.

Rain or shine

Portland’s system won’t resemble Minneapolis’ in the winter, because their system shuts down then. Dossett says it’s not the snow but salt on the streets that damages the bikes, forcing Nice Ride to store its equipment inside from November through March.

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF ALTA PLANNING & DESIGN - Capital Bikeshare offers short-term rental bikes at stations like this one in Washington D.C. and nearby suburbs. Alta, which will run the Portland system, operates the D.C. program.Portland’s bike-sharing system will stay open all year, Birk says, and Dossett says that’s smart. Storing bikes and reconnecting docking stations is expensive, and putting bikes away for five months keeps some riders from making them part of their routine.

“It’s easier for people to understand it and appreciate the value of it if they feel it’s always available,” Dossett says.

Birk hopes that having bike sharing here during the winter months will encourage more cold-weather bike riding. Many mornings start with a threat of rain, which discourages commuters from riding their bikes to work. Those fair-weather riders can take TriMet to work and, if it’s sunny at noon, get a shared bike to ride around downtown during the day or even to ride home after work.

Currently, Alta foresees $75 to $100 for an annual membership in the Portland bike-sharing program. A 24-hour membership should run between $5 and $7. There should also be opportunities for reduced fees through social networking specials and employer partnerships, Birk says. Bike rental fees should be similar to those in Minneapolis — free for a ride that is 30 minutes or shorter, increasing steeply after that. Phone apps will show where bikes and docks are available.

Many Portlanders don’t yet feel comfortable riding bikes around downtown. Birk is hoping the bike-share program can overcome that, while getting people to make short trips by bike instead of by cars or public transit.

“This removes the barriers to entry,” she says. “You don’t have to own a bike. You don’t have to own a lock. You don’t have to know the bike routes or figure out where to park.”