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Washington wins bike-sharing race; is Portland far behind?

Posted by on April 28th, 2008 at 1:15 pm

Washington DC has beat Portland in
becoming the first U.S. city with a
bike-sharing system. This photo shows a
construction site where one of the new
SmartBikeDC racks will be located.
(Photo: afagen on Flickr)

Now that Washington D.C. is getting national media attention for their “first of its kind in the U.S.” bike-sharing system, I figured an update on Portland’s bike-sharing plans was in order.

The City of Portland issued a Request for Proposals (No. 106720) back in October 2007 to “Deliver and Operate a Bicycle Fleet For Rent to the Public.”

The detailed, 28-page proposal says that the city “prefers” an initial fleet of 500 bicycles, requires the contractor to “provide use of a bicycle helmet” for riders less than 16 years old, discusses possible advertising options, and includes a list of preferred kiosk/parking locations.

PDOT is currently in the evaluation phase of their process to select a contractor and has narrowed their choices to three companies. A selection was expected back in December, but has been put off until an unknown date. Once the award for the contract is issued, it could take up to a year for the contractor to implement a program and Portland might not see a bike-sharing system on the ground until Summer of 2009. (It was over one year ago when I first reported that Washington DC would win the U.S. bike-sharing race).

Below is an update on the three remaining competitors vying for the Portland contract:

Bill Burton of Library Bikes
(Photo © J. Maus)

Library Bikes
Library Bikes, has been in Portland recently looking for opportunities to put their fleet of Parisian rental bikes to use.

The man behind Library Bikes is Bill Burton. Burton owns a fleet of bikes that were used in Paris’ “Roue Libre” system — which many credit as paving the way for the successful launch of the much more ambitious, “Velib” system that has brought them worldwide acclaim.

Burton — who started Library Bikes as a non-profit community bike provider in Arcata California — held a press conference in downtown Portland in February, he hosted an Alice Awards after-party at the Jupiter Hotel, and he was seen participating in the Bunny on a Bike Ride in March.

Burton’s proposal calls for 500 short-term rental bikes on a “Call a bike” system. Each bike would have a unique phone number and renters would call the number and use a credit card to secure the rental. The first half-hour would be free.

Portland Bike Company

Gary Duvall is the founder of family-run Portland Bike Company. Duvall says Portland Bike Company has already deployed a trial bike-sharing system for City employees in Vancouver and Portland.

(Photo: Portland Bike Co.)

The system favored by Portland Bike Company is based on a series of bike stations. The stations have a row of bikes and a kiosk where payment is made. Would-be renters would pick a bike and then punch that number — along with their credit card information — into the kiosk. Once the bike is released, the renter would ride to another station where the system would log the trip details and refund the deposit or levy a nominal charge (depending on how much time the bike was out).

Clear Channel Outdoor
Dwarfing both Portland Bike Company and Library Bikes is the third company still in the running for the contract; global media juggernaut Clear Channel Outdoor.

crowds and random stuff at the National Bike Summit-8.jpg

SmartBikes were available for
test-rides at the National Bike Summit.
(Photo © J. Maus)

Clear Channel is (along with French media company JCDecaux) one of the world’s leading providers of bike-sharing systems. They have a decade of experience with the technology, have several successful systems in place in Europe, and are currently working in Washington D.C. on the first large-scale bike-sharing system in the U.S.

Clear Channel utilizes a system called SmartBike which consists of bikes parked at docking stations that can be checked out only with a special card given to subscribers. Once you’ve got a card (subscriptions are $40 a year), you simply wave it in front of the card-reader, follow the on-screen instructions and off you go.

Clear Channel Spokesperson Martina Schmidt said she couldn’t comment on their Portland plans (because the proposals are still being evaluated), but did share this statement:

“Clear Channel Outdoor is very excited about the City of Portland’s plans for a public bike sharing program. We believe that Portland is an ideal candidate for it, also given their current initiatives and extensive activities to make Portland more bike friendly.”

In Portland, the issue of funding for the program is sure to be scrutinized. Most bike-sharing systems are paid for by advertising for the vendor on the bikes, kiosks and in other places (like bus shelters). However, in Portland things will likely be different.

In Washington DC, Clear Channel negotiated for exclusive rights to bus shelter advertising as part of their deal. But Transportation Commissioner Sam Adams, whose office is organizing the bike-sharing effort, has made it clear he is not going to let anyone create a bunch of corporate billboards in downtown Portland just to make this system work.

The RFP issued by the City of Portland clearly states that any advertisements must adhere to “City policies” and “At this time, advertising on transit shelters and other public street fixtures is not contemplated, but may be the subject of future discussions.”

If Portland chooses Clear Channel — which has to be considered the favorite at this point — it will be interesting to see how this issue plays out. Even more interesting will be to watch what happens in D.C.. If the system succeeds there like it has in Paris, we’ll see more U.S. cities clamoring for bike-sharing programs.

Will Portland be one of them?

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  • CPM April 28, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    If ppl dont get off their asses demanding more and more improvements and working for them Portland\’s greatness is going to be surpassed many times over.

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  • Racer X April 28, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    This is definately one of the projects in Sam\’s portfolio that always comes up short…it stalled before the RFP (being handed to Jr staffers that kept leaving for other work) and now it is stalling after being issued.

    In the short term this is tough … the failure to follow through on a moderate visibility initiative may not look good to the public and also tough on the RFP teams…and their investors.

    In the long term it might help the program out by giving the technology and teams more time to mature…and also allow a better match of outcome to the more restrictive business model allowed.

    IMHO – not being first in the nation will be better for Portland in the long term. Though it is tough to wait.

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  • Bill April 28, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    Portland may not be first on this, but could easily be the biggest, with 500+ bikes. LibraryBikes. org already has 150 bikes ready for the City of Portland, so why wait? The Washington D.C. fleet is only 120 bikes for the whole city, and took over two years to build.

    Some of the original Paris \”Ride Me\” bikes are already stationed at the Jupiter Hotel for guests to use. This greens up the commercial community, I think other businesses might want to get started sooner too.

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  • Paul Cone April 28, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    State Farm Insurance already has ads on all the parking paystations because they apparently sponsor the sticker on them that warns you not to leave valuables in your car. Maybe it\’s not \”a bunch of corporate billboards in downtown Portland\”, but it\’s certainly one corporation being favored over another, on city property. So where do you draw the line?

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  • joe adamski April 28, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    I wouldnt worry about DC beating Portland to deployment. the measure of success will come from the endevour being financially sucessful, at leaat enough to guarantee the fleet is well maintained and has adequate numbers of bikes. A veteran of the old \”yellow bikes\”, we experienced huge losses of our bikes due to vandalism and theft. If the City promotes a viable program and the winning is funded sufficiently to suffer some setbacks before it achieves financial success, the slower deployment will be of little concern.

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  • Icarus Falling April 28, 2008 at 4:18 pm


    Encouraging more cyclists, especially considering that the targeted group would be tourists, to bicycle in a city that does not have the capabilities to protect the cyclist\’s it already has on the roads, is an irresponsible act.

    Until we have a combination of things in place, I discourage a program like this entirely.

    These things are, and are not limited to:

    A police force that will actually uphold and enforce the laws we pay them to.

    Driver\’s that see cyclist\’s as traffic rather than an annoyance, and act accordingly.

    A Dept. of Transportation that values the lives of it\’s citizen\’s over old money and corporate interests, as in the abuse of the Broadway bike lane, not to mention many other instances.

    These along with many other changes will be steps towards being a cycling respoinsible enough city to offer such a service.

    I also echo the sentiments above in relation to the Yellow bike program, and the failure of such due to theft, lack of support, etc.

    Also, after reading many articles about this, and reviewing many photos of the bikes offered. The bikes to be offered are european style city bikes, suitable for flat ground, flat footed riding, one thing which Portland in no manner at all calls for.

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  • Scott April 28, 2008 at 4:27 pm

    Icarus Falling, by your logic, cycling should not be encouraged in essentially any city. Portland is the most bike friendly big city in the country. As someone who grew up in and biked in Cleveland and then St. Louis before moving to Portland 15 years ago, I am thankful daily for what we have in Portland.
    We should continue to make it better, but you really seem to be taking what we have for granted.

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  • Icarus Falling April 28, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    Well Scott,

    By my logic, which is fairly well on the mark, cycling should not be overly encouraged in any city. This is correct. Boy you got me there…….

    As someone who grew up cycling on the streets and neighborhoods in and near Los Angeles, I am thankful for what we have here. (the same places where the editor of this site grew up, as I have enjoyed the memories brought back by some of his recent photos)

    Yet I can see through the wonderful little bubble well enough to still recognize the big problems. I am not going to try fool myself and others into thinking that we live in some cycling wonderland, where it is safe for all to wander onto the streets. We don\’t, and it isn\’t, yet.

    I do know that one day we will.
    Until then, we should all be very careful who we encourage to do what.

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  • true April 28, 2008 at 7:04 pm

    I still want to know who the target consumer for bike rentals is in Portland.

    D.C. has a perfect set up for the casual tourist to rent a bike, cruise up and down the traffic free Mall, pass the Smithsonian and the monuments, return the bike, and go back to the hotel. It\’s also flat. Paris is also conveniently set up for tourist bikes. It\’s flat and has one landmark after another, easily put on a reasonably bike friendly route.

    What is the average tourist going to do in Portland on a bicycle? What will make this business work?

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  • Axe April 28, 2008 at 7:56 pm

    I think the police will be more inclined to enforce bicycle laws if there are a bunch of tourists riding around town. City folk can look out for themselves, but tourists need the cops, right? Something like that…

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  • Schrauf April 28, 2008 at 8:17 pm

    I am not a tourist, and I would use these bikes.

    Sometimes I have to drive to work downtown, but once there, having access to a bike for a quick trip during the day or in the evening would be fantastic.

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  • kyle johnson April 28, 2008 at 10:30 pm

    why can\’t the city just for and maintain the bikes? it would not cost that much and if the city invested the correct amount of money into it the program would benefit the city in ways that would provide a positive externality that would make up the small sum of money being invested in the program. just copy paris\’s program only have ours be socialized! that would be something, a city in the united states socializing something before a european city.

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  • Icarus Falling April 28, 2008 at 10:30 pm

    You point out what is exactly part of the problem.

    Why should we even have to hope that having more tourist\’s on the road would create more and effective police enforcement?

    Shouldn\’t they just be doing the job they are paid to do in the first place, regardless of who is on the road?

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  • Dan April 28, 2008 at 10:39 pm

    I bike commute to my job downtown, and I\’d still use these bikes. For instance, my gym is about 18 blocks away from my office. I have secure bike parking at work and I\’d prefer not to leave my bike locked up outside my gym…but it\’s far enough that the walk to my gym takes some time. I\’d be happy to be able to pick up a bike near my office and drop it off at/around the gym.

    If the lock/unlock procedure was quick enough, I\’d also use them to go out for lunch, rather than going into our basement parking garage, unlocking the bike room, unlocking my bike, etc. etc.

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  • Michael M. April 29, 2008 at 7:54 am

    If Clear Channel has anything to do with this, I wouldn\’t touch it.

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  • Josh April 29, 2008 at 8:29 am

    So I remember from before all the clear channel is bad blah blah blah. I don\’t remember reading about them having an annual subscription. This is good for the few locals that would use this but it seems like an awful idea if tourists are supposed to be the main target. How do tourists get a subscription? And as far as Portland being too hilly… Portland is known for biking and the waterfront and eastbank esplanade are perfect for the tourist who wants to do something portlandie, aka biking.

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  • Antonio Gramsci April 29, 2008 at 9:53 am

    Clear Channel must already be viewed as beyond the pale in Portland.

    They have placed Army recruiting posters on Trimet bus shelters all around town across from public schools in our city, a tactic which I venture to say is deeply offensive to many citizens of this city.

    They fought our elected representatives in court when the city adopted ordinances to protect nonprofit, public mural art installations from restrictions on corporate billboard advertising. They are a corporate profit machine that actively undermines civic minded protection of our public spaces by directly interfering in our political process — and to top it off, their corporate political activism is of a decidedly rightwing tendency that goes egregiously against the grain of public opinion in this city.

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  • Bill Stites April 29, 2008 at 11:18 am

    Think Local First!

    Whatever happens, please say \”NO\” to Clear Channel.

    Their history in Portland as described in posts above is what we need to consider – not lip service.
    They clearly don\’t have Portland interests at heart. And their media focus, particularly ADVERTISING, is more intrusive than most people consider …

    It also seems silly to need a subscription to use the system – no spontaneous get-ons?!?

    Think Local First!

    If Library Bikes\’ system is not ball-and-chained to stations, then that is a big plus.

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  • wsbob April 29, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    Ditch Clear Channel. Anymore of the plague that company represents, Portland does not need. Big companies with too much muscle pushing their weight around are not beneficial to a city\’s health. Either of the two other candidates, Portland Bike Company or Library Bikes are more worthy candidates.

    I\’m glad that D.C. is getting a bike share system, but it\’s disturbing that Clear Channel could acquire exclusive rights to bus shelter advertising as part of providing that system. That in itself seems to go counter to the concept of sharing.

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  • Scout April 29, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    I agree with the above complaints against Clear Channel. I find it amazing that a city like Portland would even entertain the idea of working with them, let alone consider \”negotiating\” their ability to place ads on the bike shelters. Clear Channel is one of the worst examples of corporate greed I have ever seen, and is made all the more insidious by their forcing of moral turpitude upon the populace.

    Tip of the iceberg?

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  • Christopher Zurcher April 29, 2008 at 7:27 pm

    Why require only users under 16 to wear a helmet?

    Ever land on your head after falling off a bike?

    Ever have your head hit the hood of a car after being hit from behind?

    If so, I don\’t have to ask whether you\’re glad you were wearing a helmet.

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  • Antonio Gramsci April 30, 2008 at 10:00 pm

    To people who point to the \”danger\” of \”encouraging cycling,\” be very very careful how you couch this notion.

    To the extent that anyone discourages or even \”fails to encourage\” others to ride bikes, vaguely citing \”danger,\” to that very extent one is also subtly and implicitly yet powerfully sending the message that: \”If you ride a bike and a careless motorist injures or kills you, it\’s really your own damned fault.\”

    This is an exceedingly dangerous and even actively immoral message to send, in that it blames the victim for the actions of the victimizer, and absolves of fault the perpetrator of antisocial actions that profoundly harm others.

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  • Misty June 4, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    Actually didn\’t we already have that system a few years back..where we had yellow bikes through out Portland you could borrow at any time?? What happened to that Program?

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  • Jada Win June 13, 2008 at 12:01 am

    This program will not work. These bikes are too ugly and too similar to a child\’s bicycles
    One can say that the system works when the elegant women and the most conservative people will use the program.
    I predict: only the youngster, the green and the eccentrics people will use these weird designed bikes.
    The neat and classy design of the parisian Vélib is one of the major arguments for its success in Europe.

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  • […] So what about bicycles? The idea of using bikes for public transportation is rapidly gaining speed, even in the U.S. Washington, D.C. kicked off the countrys first bike-sharing program this spring; other cities like Portland, Oregon aim to follow. […]

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