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As CitiBike launches, what’s next for Portland’s Alta Bicycle Share?

Posted by on May 29th, 2013 at 6:30 am

Alta Bicycle Share principal Mia Birk explains Portland's future system to possible sponsors
Alta Bicycle Share principal Mia Birk explains
Portland’s future system to possible sponsors
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

The Portland-based company that leads the nation in bikesharing just enjoyed its biggest launch yet, kicking off a 6,000-bike deal worth tens of millions of dollars over the next few years. And for Alta Bicycle Share, 2013 is only going to get more interesting.

Alta’s system is planning to launch in Chicago in “late summer.” San Francisco and the Bay Area are slated to join Alta’s empire in August with 350 bikes, and Columbus will get a 300-bike fleet in July. Alta already operates systems in Washington, Boston, and now New York City, meaning the company’s municipal bikeshare systems will be in five of the country’s 10 biggest metro areas by year’s end. Waiting in Alta’s wings: Vancouver BC, Seattle, and of course Portland. (Atlanta and Philadelphia, two more top-10 metro areas, seem to be on their way to bikesharing, too, and Alta will be a strong contender.)

This sort of growth is huge for a company that’s less than four years old — and also risky for a company that just lost a top executive to a possible competitor and has had to weather serious technical delays and complicated labor issues in the middle of its rapid expansion.

So I decided to talk to two national bikesharing experts about Portland’s locally-grown industry leader and the future of bikesharing in general. The two were Matt Christensen, managing editor of Bikeshare.com, a Santa Monica-based website that posts jobs and other news about the bikesharing industry; and Paul DeMaio, founder of DC-based bikeshare consulting firm MetroBike LLC, who’s been publishing The Bike-sharing Blog for six years now.

bikeshare experts Matt Christensen and Paul DeMaio
Bikeshare.com’s Matt Christensen and MetroBike LLC’s Paul DeMaio.

Both of these guys were thoughtful, frank and upbeat in their assessment of where Alta and the concept of bikesharing are headed. The questions and answers below have been combined from separate interviews that covered many of the same subjects.

Seems like Alta’s got a very busy year ahead.

MC: They have a massive amount of work ahead of them.

PD: It’s amazing growth for any company, let alone this wacky idea of bikesharing, so I don’t know how they’re going to do it. But I know here in the DC region we’ve been really pleased with the company. As long as they can find good staff.

MC: I’ve heard [staff] cited as pretty much the number one factor when it comes to the success of the program. It’s not the equipment; it’s not the station siting.

Alta Bicycle Share-style bikes.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Do you mean finding the right staff to pump tires, or the right staff to shake hands?

MC: From a management perspective it’s very important to have an effective leader. … On the ground, you have people who are at the stations on a regular basis … Kind of engaging with the public, making sure that things are being addressed.

So can Alta do it?

MC: It’s hard to say one way or another. I’d like to think that they can, because they have a proven business model. They know how to be successful in these cities. … They have a lot of opportunity to generate revenue outside of just membership and user fees.

Is [Alta principal Mia Birk] going to be able to take on all this responsibility, address media concerns, address other sorts of things that pop up? And then – pardon my French – is [Alta equipment supplier] PBSC going to get their s*** together? There is a ton of equipment that needs to get on the ground.

Part of the reason Alta’s year is so busy is that they had to delay last year’s launches because of problems with a new software package. Do you think that’s over and done with?

PD: I can’t imagine that Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Sadik-Khan would have allowed the service to launch knowing that it still had problems.

Bixi Toronto, a non-Alta system that uses the same hardware, is in terrible shape and considering selling off their equipment. Seems like the problem has been that Toronto isn’t a big enough city with enough tourists for bikesharing to work without a subsidy, as they have been. Is that right-ish?

MC: Their business model was basically flawed from the get-go. … I’m under the school of thought that bikeshare is basically public transit [and therefore requires a public subsidy].


“Once there are more tried and true models, for-profit models of bikeshare, I see these for-profit companies going head-to-head with public-private partnerships.”
— Paul DeMaio, bikesharing consultant

In five years, will growth in bikesharing come from more use in the big cities, or from new cities coming into the market?

PD: There’s going to continue to be growth for many years. Right now I think a lot of the larger cities are taking the lead. A lot of these cities are either very bike-friendly or are cities that are progressive. … Because of bikesharing in these first-tier cities, I think we’re going to see a lot of pressure from the populations of these second-tier cities to promote improved bike facilities.

I can see competition. I think once there are more tried and true models, for-profit models of bikeshare, I see these for-profit companies going head-to-head with public-private partnerships. … And I also see them going head-to-head with other for-profit services like Decobike down in Miami Beach.

MC: Have you seen what they’re doing in Hoboken? … “Smart lock” rather than “smart dock” – each bike has a mini locking mechanism. … It’s going to be launched in Tampa, in Phoenix. … I think we’re going to see, at least for the short-term, an explosion of these smart-lock technologies. … They’re a lot cheaper, they’re a lot quicker to install, and they can be a lot easier to move around within a city. … But if they don’t prove resilient to the public, which can be pretty abusive at times, I think we’re going to see more of the station-based bikeshare systems [like Alta's].

It seems like Alta was smart to start with bikesharing in DC, because local government officials are always going to DC for one reason or another and would see bikesharing in action. Will New York bikesharing have a similar effect?

PD: It’s hard to understand unless you actually see it and use it. As the concept is introduced to more Americans, more North Americans, more foreigners, they can see how well it works, they can see it does work, and they can hopefully bring the concept to their own town. New York being such an international city, I think it’s really good publicity for us as Americans, really. … We are not people addicted to automobiles and gasoline and oil consumption, but we are a country of innovators.

Qs & As edited for brevity. Alta Bicycle Share didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

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Comments
  • anon1q2w3e4r5t May 29, 2013 at 9:28 am

    As another poster pointed out on another blog, it’s not CitiBike, it’s CoalBike. And, it’s not People for Bikes (Bikes Belong), it’s People for Volkswagon. Starting to see a pattern? Are we moving forward or are we moving in circles?

    Like I said before in another post, we have the wrong people in place making key decisions on behalf of the livable city/streets community. It is my hope that in the future, the people who genuinely care about livable city/streets issues, will not only support like-minded organizations, companies, etc., but will also help extricate the sellouts from the livable city/streets community.

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    • anon1q2w3e4r5t May 29, 2013 at 9:34 am

      One more thing…..

      NO ON BIKE SHARING, YES FOR REAL BICYCLISTS.

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      • Joe May 29, 2013 at 9:40 am

        Please elaborate. I think that all people on bicycles are real bicyclists.

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        • cmtmodbrkr1q2w3e4r5t May 29, 2013 at 12:34 pm

          At the very core, what I mean is that focus should be on real bicycle infrastructure for existing/new bicyclists rather than wasting resources on this bike sharing nonsense for short-term bicyclists.

          First/last mile issues will be solved in the future, so one of the so-called key advantages of bike sharing will be eliminated. Bike shops/bike rental companies need to get their act together and create an appealing “try/before you buy” bike program to attract new bicyclists. PBOT can help them out on this. One way to make it appealing is to setup a few “bike shop parklets” that are easily accessible to the people in busy areas. This would eliminate the argument for bike sharing as a “gateway drug” for potential real bicyclists.

          Lastly, real bicyclists not only contribute to the local livable city/streets movement, they contribute to the livable city/streets movement wherever they go! What happens when a short-term bicyclist visits an area that doesn’t have bike sharing? People need to think of the bigger picture here.

          NO ON BIKE SHARING, YES FOR REAL BICYCLISTS!

          anon1q2w3e4r5t

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          • anon1q2w3e4r5t May 29, 2013 at 2:17 pm

            I want to add that these “bike shop parklets” can also function as a “bike train station”. Bike trains are an integral component to increasing bicycling usage because it creates a “safety in numbers” for new bicyclists. Having a few of these “bike shop parklets”/”bike train stations” spread strategically throughout the city will increase bicycling usage significantly without having to spend a lot. The money saved can be used to further improve/expand on real bicycle infrastructure.

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          • NF May 29, 2013 at 3:30 pm

            So Anon,

            what do you think about the “Smart Lock” technology described above? It seems to resolve your “What happens when a short-term bicyclist visits an area that doesn’t have bike sharing?” conundrum.

            Also, your ‘bike rental station’ concept sounds a lot like bike share to me.

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            • anon1q2w3e4r5t May 30, 2013 at 11:36 am

              I don’t see how that resolves the problem. They’re still dependent on those bikes with “smart lock” technology to be available in the area. A bicycle is highly portable, the folding ones are even more portable, so you can take your bicycle, start using it right away, and not have to rely on any type of bike sharing equipment to be available.

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            • anon1q2w3e4r5t May 30, 2013 at 12:01 pm

              and regarding the ‘bike rental station’, it’s not the same. Bike sharing is for short-term use, what I’m proposing is long-term use, or ‘rent-before-you-buy’. Keep in mind what I mentioned in my posts above is just an idea that hasn’t been fully fleshed out. Also, it has nothing to do with what I have been working on for the past few years. One reason why bike sharing is appealing is because the bicycle is right there in front of you, on the streets, ready for use. It is this reason why you think my idea is the same as bike sharing. I’m promoting a gateway to long-term bicyclists, not short-term bicyclists.

              But forget all of that for a second, I just had an epiphany. You know I haven’t been able to back up my claims against bike sharing because I don’t want to reveal yet what I have been working on for the past few years. However, this epiphany I just had will allow me to attack bike sharing from another angle, and I’m willing to discuss this publicly. I’m kind of excited now since this will at least give me some credibility on my stance against bike sharing. I’m going to need about a month to put this all together, but you will hear from me soon about this.

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          • Kimberly Kinchen May 30, 2013 at 12:05 pm

            Bikeshare IS bike infrastructure. It encourages cycling, too, just like adding better infrastructure does (though I doubt to the same degree).

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            • anon1q2w3e4r5t May 30, 2013 at 12:27 pm

              I just recently replied to another poster on here that I just had an epiphany and that I am willing to discuss it publicly when I put everything together in about a month. You, particularly, will want to keep an eye out for that.

              Sure you can call it bicycle infrastructure because it involves bikes, then I’ll just call it “weak” (and might I add costly) bicycle infrastructure for short-term bicyclists. I prefer investments on bicycle infrastructure for long-term bicyclists, or programs/whatever that benefits/encourages long-term bicyclists.

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      • Chris I May 29, 2013 at 10:09 am

        How are we supposed to increase cycling modal share with attitudes like this coming from the “bike community”?

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        • longgone May 29, 2013 at 10:13 am

          See “anons1q’s” other comment at the bottom of this weeks Monday Round up. It may give you insight, or then again maybe not.

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        • longgone May 29, 2013 at 10:23 am

          Here Chris, I found this….Read it and weep, or laugh…

          anon1q2w3e4r5t May 21, 2013 at 10:40 am
          One reason why I do not want to reveal or hint at anything yet is simple. When new ideas are introduced that make our cities/streets more livable, entities, organizations, corporations, businesses, etc. that thrive in conditions that promote non-livable cities/streets will be adversely affected. What I bring to the table will significantly disrupt their way of living and so I need to prepare as much as I can for their retaliation.

          Unfortunately, as I’m working on these new ideas, I see things moving forward that are not in the best interests of the livable streets community for the long-term, so I’m compelled to say something such as my rants here and there about bike sharing. I know if I were to reveal these new ideas now, I would be able to prove my claims against bike sharing, but at the same time I would be giving those who are going to retaliate against me a heads up.

          Can you see the predicatment I’m in? I am not purposely trying to be a tease, believe me I would like to reveal everything right now. These new ideas have been cooped up in me for years and has been quite stressful, I just want it all out for the relief alone.

          Instead of this bike sharing nonsense, PBOT should focus on the needs of EXISTING bicyclists and increasing the number of REAL bicyclists. NYCDOT is about to launch one of their biggest mistakes ever, so PBOT should at the very least watch it unfold before proceeding with its own bike sharing endeavour.

          ……………deluded, perhaps far worse than even myself, and that is sayin’ something!

          Haahahhahhah.

          Recommended 0

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          • i ride my bike June 2, 2013 at 1:32 pm

            what a joke

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        • anon1q2w3e4r5t May 29, 2013 at 2:43 pm

          Ever since I was made aware of the following quote, I always plug it in whenever I come across an opportune moment such as your reply.

          “Intellectuals solve problems, geniuses prevent them.” — Einstein

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  • John Liu May 29, 2013 at 11:39 am

    I choose “laugh”.

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  • Jim Lee May 29, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    According to today’s Oregonian Alta has been seriously shortchanging some of its workers, particularly those responsible for “re-balancing” its system in DC.

    If such unfair labor practices are upheld the company’s ability to bid on public contracts could be affected.

    Mia, as always, is smiling.

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  • GlowBoy May 29, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    “But Main Street’s still all cracked and broken.” “Sorry Mom, the mob has spoken.” Monorail! Monorail! MONORAIL!

    Recommended Thumb up 1

    • wade May 30, 2013 at 2:34 pm

      the cosmic ballet goes on…

      Recommended Thumb up 0

      • longgone May 30, 2013 at 2:47 pm

        This comment thread is more like a cosmic square dance, in a dry county.

        Recommended Thumb up 0

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