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Q&A: How bikes meet tech in Austin, Portland’s chillest sister city

Posted by on August 20th, 2014 at 2:47 pm

Nate McGuire of Austin bike-tech startup Spokefly.
(Photo by Michael Andersen/BikePortland)

Nate McGuire is part of two worlds that Austin, Texas, is still pretty new at: digital entrepreneurship and biking.

His startup, Spokefly, uses a mobile app and combination U-locks to turn people’s underused bicycles into income-generating shared bikes that float around the city until their owners need them. (At that point, the company will fetch it and deliver it home.) Though it’s not yet available in Portland, he’s preparing to launch in a handful of cities soon and was in town last week to scope our city out.

When he stopped by BikePortland’s office for a talk, we saw a perfect chance to hear more about biking and related issues in one of the U.S. cities that Portland most resembles in size, culture and reputation.

What is it with tech people and bikes? It seems like there’s a thing with tech people and bikes.

It’s logical — I think that’s the biggest thing. One of our advisors actually used to work at Segway. They did a whole bunch of market research around the efficiency of different transportation modes. And bikes are by far the most efficient.

I think that affluent engineers that can choose where they want to live are going to choose to ride a bike. I don’t think it’s, “I’m going to ride a bike and I’m a bike rider.” I think it’s, “What’s the most logical way for me to go to work?”

When you’re talking to investors about funding, how do you sell them on the idea that bikes are a meaningful market?

If you compare it to Uber, the taxi market is, like, $11 billion. NPD’s market research team says bike rentals are about a billion, and if you take bike rentals plus bike share, it’s about $1.5 billion which is about a tenth of the size. And the transaction is actually probably higher in the daily bike rental, because most people are going to rent by the day. You can make just as much money if not more.

Let’s talk about Austin’s bike scene. Do you know much about Social Cycling Austin? They seem amazing.

The giant bike ride? Yeah, I’ve been on it a few times. Quite a few times. The Thursday night social ride is their biggest. That’ll have anywhere from 200 to 400 cyclists, which is pretty cool. But also this same group does a ride every day of the week. So there’s Bikin’ Betty’s, The Humpday Noon Ride. The Saturday caffiene cruise is racing types; the Thursday night social ride is anybody. It’s pretty impressive. You can get all this on their Facebook page.

Austin’s economy has really been booming for the last five years or so. One of the things you sometimes hear about Portland’s economy is that we do surprisingly well considering we don’t have a big university bringing lots of smart young people here.

I think that’s true for Austin. I don’t know if it’s a requirement. I graduated UT in ’08. I think my graduating class was one of the last few where most people said, “I’m going to go to Houston or Dallas or New York. I wish I could stay in Austin, but there are no jobs.” I think that’s really changed with the tech sector growth.

I think there’s an idea here in Portland that because people have been willing to move here even without jobs, we will never have to worry about attracting young workers, even though that’s a huge issue in most of the country.

Increasingly what you’re seeing is people who want a place they enjoy living. They want to live a place that makes them happy. The Internet is everywhere; why work 100 hours a week and pay 60 percent or 70 percent of your income on rent and never be at home?

When Portland has its next Nike or whatever, whether it’s in sports or computers or whatever, any company can be a fast-moving company. And I think all of those people who are coming to Portland without jobs, their prospects start to look up.

It’s funny to me that people talk about Portland as the city where young people go to retire. People used to say that about Austin: it just moves too slow. But I don’t feel that at all.

Qs & As edited.

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  • Rob Chapman August 20, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    I like this idea. Shared cargo bikes anyone?

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  • Peter R. August 20, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    Attached market idea……buy some beater bikes, lock them up with this technology, and start earning money on a bike you’ll never use. Just a whim of an idea, no clue what the feasibility would be.

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  • Brad Ross August 20, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    I’ll be there for CX Natz in January. Looking forward to it.

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  • Huey Lewis August 20, 2014 at 3:55 pm

    I’d like to say that Austin is not chill. It’s a giant, sprawling suburb style city and it kinda suuuuuucks. With horrible weather.

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    • Cheif August 20, 2014 at 4:15 pm

      Yeah.. I think Austin’s reputation is based on how it seems in comparison to the rest of the state it’s in. Just because it’s one of the least worst places in one of the worst states in the country doesn’t mean it’s a place you’d want to spend any actual time in.

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    • fool August 20, 2014 at 4:21 pm

      having moved to portland from austin in 07, and having spent a month there twice in the last two years, i can tell you that you are only seeing part of the city. does it sprawl? absolutely. can you ride your bike across it? no problem – bike lanes the whole way, if you have 4 hours.

      There are large portions of austin that feel much like portland – small town within a city. while there are less people that don’t drive (i was one for the last year i lived there, plus when i visit), there are still scads of biking and a good-to-great cycling community – so rated only by size of the social participant pool. (i feel like portland’s cycling community is superb by size and activity level)

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      • fool August 20, 2014 at 4:22 pm

        ..but the weather does suck.

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      • Huey Lewis August 21, 2014 at 10:29 am

        Yeah, I lived there for a year. That was a number of years ago though. I had fun. Met cool folks. I just wasn’t that impressed.

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    • Inge August 21, 2014 at 4:07 am

      And cue the geographical bias…

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  • RH August 20, 2014 at 4:01 pm

    “Where young people go to retire” – I always viewed this as being able to not live on much and still have a great time since you have so much free time. Cheap living expenses, multiple happy hours, low transit costs…This has changed a bit though.

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  • Zach H. August 20, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    Ugh, the word “chillest” in a headline.

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    • Granpa August 21, 2014 at 10:01 am

      Thank you Zach. “Chillest” is not a word and the just making up words or validating schoolgirl slang diminishes the language and distracts from the article.
      Is Austin the coolest city? the most relaxed city? Why don’t we just call it the most Coolaxed city and throw away the dictionary?

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  • Mossby Pomegranate August 20, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    Has Austin had the same legacy as Portland when it comes to young white progressives displacing people of color?

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  • Opus the Poet August 21, 2014 at 8:48 pm

    The Texas Hill Country tends to have pretty good weather, lots of sun, and fairly warm winters with mild summers compared to the rest of Texas. I live outside Dallas and I have had to ride in summer weather that is the stuff of nightmares and Houston is even worse in the summer. Austin is not bad in the summer.

    Where all of TX falls down is bike infrastructure, outside of Austin everybody uses the AASHTO bike manual, which is great if all you want to do is get bikes out of the way of cars for the most part… The NACTO manual that Austin uses is based on what you guys in Portland have come up with. Of course what they should be using is the CROW manual.

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