BikePortland

Guest article series: Bike share in Portland: A status report


Tom Miller riding in
the 2006 Bridge Pedal.
(Photo © J. Maus)

Welcome to the first in a six-part series; Bike-share in Portland: A status report. The author of this guest article series is Tom Miller. Miller is the current Chief of Staff for Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams and he’ll follow Adams into the Mayor’s office in January.

Besides being Adams’ right-hand man, Miller is a major bike believer. This series arose from my constant prodding to Miller about the future of Portland’s bike-share program (an effort that began in February of 2007 but was shelved before a contractor was found).

In six parts, Miller will share his insider perspective on the inspiration, current status, and future potential for bike share in Portland.


Part One: Bike share in Portland; a brief history

Bike share in Lyon, an inspiration for Portland.
(Photo © identity chris is/Flickr)

About two and a half years ago Commissioner (and now Mayor-Elect) Sam Adams attended a sustainable development conference at the request of Mayor Tom Potter in Lyon, France. For Sam the greatest inspiration came not from the conference but the host city. The City of Lyon in partnership with global advertiser JC Decaux had developed a bustling trade of community bicycles for low cost, short-term hire.

“It was amazing. Where residents previously were confined to transit schedules or the considerable expense of a private car, I saw folks blissfully whizzing about on shared bicycles. It was as if Portland’s [first generation honor code] yellow bike program had met its aspirations.”

“Bike share’s allure is intoxicatingly attractive to municipal leaders eager to join the sustainability party.”

Indeed, bike share’s allure is intoxicatingly attractive to municipal leaders eager to join the sustainability party. In almost every model, the host city pays nothing out of pocket. All costs are absorbed by a private provider who funds the program with proceeds earned from lucrative sales of advertising rights in the eyeball-heavy public right of way.

In exchange, programs done right—like those in Lyon or Paris—can deliver a holy grail of good public policy: instantaneous widespread behavior change to a travel choice that is cheaper, more humane, more user-friendly, and more sustainable than any other urban travel mode. Amsterdam, the world is on to your secret.

Sam returned home with intent to establish a bike share program as soon as reasonably possible. The premise was straight-forward: Portland is the nation’s most bike-friendly culture and would eagerly embrace a bike share program. We distributed a Request for Proposals and got down to two finalists.

“Naturally, a bike share program funded with public dollars will get much more scrutiny than one funded by a private entity.”

We assumed the strongest proposal would compellingly answer the logistical questions of how many bikes, where they go, how much we charge, how it’s paid for, etc. These questions are particularly important for Portland because, unlike other cities, Portlanders consistently express distaste for private advertising in the public right-of-way. Without being able to use to the traditional funding model for our bike share program, we presume a need to use public dollars. Naturally, a bike share program funded with public dollars will get much more scrutiny than one funded by a private entity.

In light of this dynamic, we asked ourselves whether success seemed inevitable. Regrettably, it did not. We held off.


This is a six-part series, the rest of the parts are below…

  • Part Two: Off to Scandinavia
  • Part Three: Lessons from Stockholm
  • Part Four: What’s at stake for Portland?
  • Part Five: Questions to answer if we want to “get it right”
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