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Mia Birk of Alta Bicycle Share says Portland's system "Will allow us to fulfill the 2030 vision"

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on October 2nd, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Capital Bikeshare-3
Get ready Portland, it's coming!.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

On Friday afternoon, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) announced that Alta Bicycle Share had won the contract to operate the Portland Bike Share system. Given Alta's Portland headquarters, their success in nabbing major bike share projects around the country, and Birk's own close connections with the City of Portland (she used to run the City's bike program and her other company Alta Planning + Design is a frequent contractor), the decision wasn't a huge surprise.

But while Birk's company had a huge head start in the race for this contract, PBOT must have also been aware of the flood of headlines about software problems and delays that have dogged Alta Bicycle Share for the past few months.

To learn more from Alta's perspective, and to get an update on the issues underlying that publicity, I asked Birk a few questions via email...

How does it feel to have finally been awarded the contract?

Excellent! It’s been hard work to get to this point. We’ve been working on various aspects of a successful Portland bid for a year or so. Of course, this is just the first step. We look forward to negotiating the contract, securing sponsorship, and working out a myriad of details to launch and operate the system.

"It’s not surprising that things have taken longer than initially envisioned. Officials tend to publicly pick launch dates before having everything worked through."

Given that you live in Portland and you used to work for PBOT, how will this project feel different to you than all the others you're working on?

I’ve been working on various aspects of sustainable transportation in Portland for close to 20 years. It makes me ridiculously happy how many more people cycle now (than used to), how extensive our network (although certainly we have a long way to go), and how many kids think it’s just normal to get around by bike at least some of the time. Our Portland-based staff all ride as normal parts of their daily life. We all feel that it’s a thrill and honor to work hand-in-hand with the City and community on this.

Bike share ride with Oregon team-1
Birk says DC's Capital Bikeshare is a good model for Portland.
Is there a bike share system in existence in a city you feel makes a good comparison/model for us?

Capital Bike Share (DC-area) for its high profile visibility and density of stations (I rode on that system back in March). Minneapolis [Nice Ride] is perhaps the closest comparison in terms of an already bike-friendly City with bike share. At the same time, Portland’s system will be tailored to our unique land-use patterns, demographics, and various other aspects.

Alta Bicycle Share has had some tough headlines in recent months: There's the allegations of unfair bid process in Chicago, the delays in NYC, and so on... Do you fell you can work with a clear focus on the Portland project? And can you update us on those issues?

Of course! In NYC, software testing is going well, and we’re on schedule for the March launch. In Chicago, the delay is due to a number of issues unrelated to us. We are ready to go. As to the protest, we stand by having won fair and square in a highly competitive process. We’re also working on systems in the Bay Area and Vancouver BC, as well as a couple of smaller cities. And we’re expanding the systems in the DC and Boston areas and solidifying the just-launched system in Chattanooga TN. Capital Bike Share just logged its 3,000,000th trip!

"I was skeptical... My mind has been changed. Bike share is the solution that will allow us to fulfill the 2030 vision."

The experience in North America vis-à-vis bike share is very new. The key thing to remember is that we launch and operate large-scale systems that are meant to be long-lasting. It’s like starting a new TriMet in numerous cities, each of which is doing it differently.

To me, having worked in and for government for two decades, it’s not surprising that things have taken longer than initially envisioned. Officials tend to publicly pick launch dates before having everything worked through. For example, funding issues — often a mix of federal and local dollars and sponsorship — tend to create a longer timeframe than officials (and the public) initially hope for. Capital Bike Share launched quickly because they had all government money and DC as a unique sovereign entity had complete control of the funding. The other cities don’t have that; most are using federal dollars that flow through state DOTs and/or regional agencies –with very complex and challenging bureaucratic requirements - AND they are raising private funds as well. In NYC, which wanted a completely privately financed system, we had to secure not just an underwriting sponsor but a large bank loan. It’s awesome that we were able to do this in such a short amount of time, as anyone involved in fundraising will tell you, and a real testament to the dedication and brilliance of Janette Sadik-Khan and ABS [Alta Bicycle Share] President Alison Cohen.

Then, besides sorting out funding issues, you also have to do site plans and secure permits, hire staff, buy equipment, and work though a long list of hundreds of other details. In other words, short delays are not surprising given the complexity of issues. We try to take a long view, and believe that it’s important to get it right on the front end in order to ensure long-term success.

Back to Portland: How do you respond when people say, "This is already a great biking town and everyone has bikes that will ride them... Why do we need bike share in Portland?"

Let’s look at an excerpt from the vision statement for the 2030 Bicycle Plan:

“In 2030, bicycling is now a fundamental pillar of Portland’s fully integrated transportation system, with more than a quarter of all daily trips taken by bicycle… Children, women, immigrants, seniors and other populations that have historically not bicycled in large numbers now bicycle in higher proportions than ever before…. In 2030, bicycling is fully intertwined with Portland’s regional transit system... Visitors to Portland find bicycle transportation to be a signature feature of their experience…. Bicycling is not seen merely as a sport or the exclusive purview of young progressives. Portland residents do not identify themselves as ‘bicyclists’, but as users of a preferred means of transportation for regular daily activities.”

I wrote this statement about 4 years ago as the volunteer co-chair of the citizens’ committee. Since that time, bike share has taken off in a big way. Back then, to be honest, I was skeptical…my feeling was that developing a world-class bikeway network was arguably a higher priority for Portland than bike share.

Since then, my mind has been changed.

Bike share is the solution that will allow us to fulfill the 2030 vision.

I say this based on experience gained by launching and operating the nation’s largest bike share systems in DC & Boston, and by our partner PBSC in Montreal, Toronto, and London. Add in the experience of the hundreds of cities in Europe, China, Mexico, and beyond, and it’s clear: done right, bike share is a game changer.

A lot of cities have done bike share a small scale – a few stations here and there. Nice, but not at a scale to fulfill its potential. Done right – with the right planning, scale, funding, equipment, and operator - and virtually overnight you create a long-lasting, win-win healthy, sustainable transportation solution. This has been our experience.

Can you offer any estimation of when we can expect bike share to be on the ground?

Certainly we are hopeful for next Spring or Summer. As soon as we are able to negotiate a contract, we’ll be working with our non-profit partner – Portland Bike Share Inc – to secure private sector system sponsors. We’d appreciate any ideas, contacts, or leads in this vein.

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Comments
  • Dave Thomson October 2, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    Portland bike share should be awesome. I just spent a week in London and there were huge numbers of commuters riding the "Boris bikes" as well as those riding their own. Of course London has a much better transit system than PDX and I suspect that makes bike share very popular for connecting between tube stations and ultimate destinations.

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  • Andrew K October 2, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    I am choosing to stay optimistic about bike share. Hey it's different, and if it ends up working here, then great! If it doesn't, well we at least tried. Even in difficult economic times I think it is important to not just keep chugging along acting like everything is fine.

    I'd much rather see our city take a chance on bike share over a lot of other things.

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  • Andrew Seger October 2, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    I'm super excited for modern bike sharing to finally come to Portland. Bikeshare is definitly one of those things that you have to experience before judging it. I just wish it was more widespread beyond the central city, but hopefully that happens quickly. It's a shame you can't take a bikeshare bike to the businesses on Clinton or William. Hopefully local business owners will push for expansion of the network.

    Mia Birk also mentioned that launching bikeshare was liking launching a new transit network. I think I've read on the twitters that Rob Sadowsky was floating the idea of TriMet funding bikesharing in the metro region. I couldn't agree more. Bikesharing in the suburbs seems like it could have a very bright future, too. Eg, would you rather have the peak only 53 line in central Beaverton (http://trimet.org/schedules/r053.htm) or a host of bikeshare stations, and for the same or less manpower costs?

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  • Dan October 2, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    Based on NYC's experience, Alta currently has no working software to run the kiosks, right? So...they need to develop the software, debug it, launch in NYC in March (9 months later than promised), and then launch here a few months later? I'm sorry, but this reminds me of Enron; if Alta was a public company, I'd be taking a close look at their financials and figuring out if I wanted to short it.

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    • Chris I October 2, 2012 at 3:09 pm

      If it is just a software problem, then I don't see the problem. They have the next 6 months to acquire/build the bikes and stations, and by the time they launch in New York, the software will be ready to use here. I can't imagine that there would be a significant difference in the software from city to city.

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    • was carless October 3, 2012 at 10:24 am

      What are you talking about? Bikeshare already has operating kiosks in several cities, including DC, Boston, and Melbourne, Australia.

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  • Sunny October 2, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    Trimet's raised fares and elimination of fareless square should increase bikeshare use. Too bad the software for both dispensing machines is buggy.

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  • Todd Boulanger October 2, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    Good luck to Alta and Portland on the next phase of its transportation investment.

    And with success too...a way to move past the local memory of the yellow bikes ... a 'hippy dippy' first generation effort of bike sharing. (I remember them all too well.)

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  • Concerned October 2, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    It's not a surprise that Portland chose Alta, due to the local connection, but don't expect smooth sailing.

    -Boston launch a year late...and then missed a spring launch, and then never reached the promised 61 stations in year one.
    -Boston expansion (due spring 2012) didnt start until August...and it's October and they're still not at the 110 or so promised stations, with the system set to be packed up in 2 months for winter.
    -Chicago has been indefinitely delayed, with the pending lawsuit
    -NYC has 9 month delay

    Alta has consistently over promised and under-delivered. Maybe they'll finally get their act together? It's just shocking that any business that treats their clients this way keeps getting money thrown at them. Amazing what good connections can do!

    That being said, when bike-share finally does get set up in Portland, I think residents who are skeptical will be very surprised. There are dozens of examples of successful bike share systems, with very, very few failures (and those failures are usually political, ie, mandatory helmets)

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  • jim October 3, 2012 at 12:09 am

    I didn't see any pictures of any machines to dispense helmets? Are they trying to pull a fast one on us?

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  • Andyc of Linnton October 3, 2012 at 8:57 am

    I'm just super excited, when all the bugs and burps and hurdles are smoothed out to have this in our city. Also, I'm going to London this winter and trying out their bikeshare-it's something that will draw me to that city in a new way, and I'm hoping that's what Portland will also experience.

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  • Joe October 3, 2012 at 10:11 am

    Do we know what "brand" of bike Alta plans to use here? I realize they don't use consumer-brand bikes. What I'm wondering is where the bike are made and what features they offer.

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  • Champs October 3, 2012 at 10:36 am

    I already have three bikes, but Bike Share will definitely be my fourth.

    There are definitely places and times where it's just a lot easier to leave your bike behind than get it out of the parking space, and performing the lock/unlock rituals.

    Sometimes walking is faster--until now.

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  • anon1q2w3e4r5t October 3, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    2013 will mark the beginning of the end for bike sharing, especially in the United States of America, count on it. 2013 will also see that the public will not tolerate people who use connections to get ahead at the expense of the public.

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    • Ben Guernsey October 3, 2012 at 1:17 pm

      Please file this under: #conspiracytheoriesnoonecaresabout

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    • NF October 8, 2012 at 8:50 am

      I would argue 2013 is poised to be the next big watershed moment for American bike share. NYC, Chicago are up soon, followed by Portland, San Fran, Seattle and Vancouver BC.

      That said, I'm not totally sold on the long term viability of bike share. What happens if sponsorship dries up in a couple years? What is the expected lifetimes of the equipment, and who pays for upgrades?

      Hopefully within a few years it becomes clear to the cities that bike share as a mass transit is a valuable part of their city.

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  • Ben Guernsey October 3, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    In my mind it would be a win-win for Nike to step up in it's hometown to sponsor bike share to help enable people to get around more actively.

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  • Lazy Spinner October 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    Hard hitting piece, Jonathan. I haven't seen softballs that easy to hit since I played co-ed beer league intermurals in college.

    I'd really like Ms Birk to explain how a debacle like NYC or Chicago won't happen here. Especially since it seems most PBOT staffers have Alta on speed dial and probably attend their annual holiday party. When can riders and taxpayers expect to see a working system in Portland and how will Alta NOT screw it up or cause it to be delayed until 2015 or later?

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) October 3, 2012 at 4:20 pm

      Lazy Spinner,

      Thanks for the feedback. I didn't intend for this to be hard-hitting. It was just a quick Q&A. And btw, not sure if you actually read the article, but I asked the same questions you ask in your comment.

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      • Lazy Spinner October 3, 2012 at 6:45 pm

        I did and, IMHO, you allowed her to just answer with tame PR points that didn't deal with specifics. They have bungled two large contracts, still can't give NYC a firm timetable on software fixes, and are likley getting the "old boy club" hometown handshake. Am I wrong to assume that we'll get a half-a**ed job in 3-5 years time with no real oversight? Seems to me that describes nearly every deal between PBOT and Alta.

        Why should we bet on Alta this time? Their competitor in Wisconsin seems to deliver on time and on budget.

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  • chris October 4, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    Someone else said this earlier, but it bears repeating...Please, for the love of all that is good and human-powered, don't screw this one up.

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  • spare_wheel October 5, 2012 at 10:43 am

    I see the advantage for workers and tourists but I'm curious how those who already use bikes for transportation see themselves using this system.

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    • Alan 1.0 October 5, 2012 at 11:34 am

      Example: ride in on faster, nicer bike and park it in a secure location, then use share-bikes to hop around various errands. Sorta like parking a car in a garage and then using bus or trolley. Not for everyone, just another option.

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