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Is there “bicycle inflation” in Portland?

Posted by on August 18th, 2009 at 10:00 am

A Better Cycle -6.jpg

Bikes for sale at A Better Cycle
on SE Division.(Photo © J. Maus)

An article published Monday in the popular New York Times blog, Freakonomics, claims that used bikes in Portland are overpriced.

In, Bicycle Inflation in Paradise, reporter Robin Goldstein sets out to buy a used bike during a recent visit to Portland and then is shocked to find out the going rate for a road-worthy used city bike in Portland is about $500 — much more than the $35 he spent for a squeaky junker last time he was in a bike shop.

Here’s an excerpt:

“… what’s up with this bike micro-inflation? Why does there seem to be no market in Portland for used bikes that are actually cheap?”

And then, after pointing out that Costco sells a Schwinn city bike for $200 (a “far inferior bike” he admits), Goldstein writes:

“But you’ve got to love a city whose citizens put a set of moral/aesthetic principles — whether it’s riding a bike with proper disc brakes or refusing to support the Big Box stores — this far above their own financial well-being.”

I’ve also noticed the lack of big box store bikes in this town (even at mass events like Bridge Pedal). But the fact that used bikes here cost a bit more than you’d think, goes beyond simply “moral/aesthetic principles” and the supply/demand curve.

“The word on the street was that so many people are selling their cars (or taking their cars off the road) and using bikes to commute to work that there just aren’t enough bikes to go around.”
— Robin Goldstein, Freakonomics blog

In Portland, used city bikes are seen as serious transportation vehicles. As such, most shops in town don’t put them on the sales floor unless they’ve got things like good brake pads, fenders, a bell, new or almost new tires, a durable drivetrain, and so on.

You wouldn’t think of doing a serious race with a cheap and squeaky 10-speed would you? Well, it’s the same for commuters and everyday transportation riders. They put in the miles and they expect the bike to perform well for a long time.

Also in Portland, there is a generally high bike I.Q. That is, many people here understand that a good, solid bike, put together by a knowledgeable mechanic (who’s getting paid a fair wage and, gasp! might even have health insurance), is actually a better value than a cheap department store bike, even if it costs several hundred dollars more.

Another factor that might keep the supply down, is that Portland is a D.I.Y. town, especially when it comes to bikes. Being a very novice mechanic myself, I’m always impressed at how many people here know how to fix and build up their own bikes. We’ve also got the cultural infrastructure in place to help them. There are several local shops known for cheap used parts and bike repair classes come in all shapes and sizes — from private lessons to free wrenching nights at shops.

I agree with Goldstein in some respects. Demand for used city bikes is outstripping supply and, to a certain extent, the higher price reflects the local socio-cultural milieu. Next time, maybe he should just rent a bike.

Read the full New York Times blog post here.

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Nick
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Nick

He even had an interesting note on renting:

Even to rent a bike for one week from the Recyclery costs $175 — more than I paid for my weekly rental car the previous time I was in Portland.

Dave
Guest
Dave

There isn’t enough “bicycle inflation.”
Bicycles are an underpriced commodity compared to many–and many bike stores reselling used ones, specifically Citybikes, do a VERY thorough job of rehabbing used iron. What people seeking cheap bikes fail to realize in their ignorance is that the rider of a $100 bike is playing in the same traffic, on the same concrete, as the rider of a $10K bike. Both bikes need to be prepared to the same standard since they are being ridden in the same environment. Drivers don’t get nicer and pavement doesn’t get softer just because you’re too cheap or stupid to ride a properly maintained bike.

April
Guest
April

If you want a cheap used bike, you stalk craigslist. Some bikes are overpriced, and you have to know a little about what you’re looking for, but you *can* get lucky. I paid $60 for mine, got it tuned up with new tires/tubes, and it was fine! I’ve put, and am putting, more money into it, but I didn’t have to, I wanted to.

Captured Shadow
Guest
Captured Shadow

I think Robin missed out on some basic economic classes. The really cheap bikes don’t make economic sense for a bike shop to fix. If you start with a broken down department store bike, fix the brakes tires adjust the bearings and make it safe you will have spent so much on labor that it will cost almost the same as a new department store bike. The only way to keep a reasonable profit margin is to put the same amount of labor into good bike. I don’t think bike shops in other parts of the country sell $35 junkers either

Gabriel
Guest

Or… go to the goodwill bins and pick up a junker for $5 – $20.

Pedalworks
Guest
Pedalworks

Evan Ross with Portland Bicycle Tours does hourly/daily/and monthly bike rentals starting at 5$ an hour $20 a day. He is located at 345 NW Everett St. In between the new and old max lines and a half block from the Chinese Gardens. Great place to visit if you have friends from out of town and they need some cool bikes.

patrick barber
Guest

I thought the most interesting part was his chart comparing median prices for used cars and used bikes on Craigslist in several cities. High used car prices corresponded with lower bike prices, and vice versa.

TonyT
Guest
TTse

You’re missing an essential element of his story though Jonathan. He ended up doing a little Craigslist research/data comparison and found that as bike prices climbed in various cities, the car prices fell.

higher car prices = lower bike prices
lower car prices = higher bike prices

Not really surprising, but interesting for sure.

becky
Guest
becky

If he was smart, he would have posted on his blog that he was visiting Portland. He then might have had a reader offer him a bike to ride for the week!

We are keeping our old mountain bikes in the garage for when friends visit instead of selling them on Craigslist for cheap.

wsbob
Guest
wsbob

Kind of a fun article to read. Wouldn’t attach much credence though to his ‘bicycle inflation in Portland’ claim.

His craigslist efforts were beside the main point he claimed he had: To get a cheap, functional bike for use during a short stay in town.

I did a simple search on craigslist $50-$100 in the bike category. Didn’t even type in ‘bike’. 493 listings came up. The first page had a bunch of bikes that looked to me like potentially good deals…Trek, Specialized, Schwinn, Ross, Peugot, Columbia.

aljee
Guest
aljee

we just dropped 2K on our new family cargo bike. if you added up all our bikes now, you would get a pretty decent car. i feel very fortunate to be able to afford this ITTET. but at the same time…AYHSMB.

i second the statement on City Bikes, best value (sub MSRP on very popular bikes) in town and great people.

bDave
Guest
bDave

There are many factors to consider when stating that used bikes are more expensive in Portland than anywhere else.

One aspect to note is that cycling to all four quadrants of our town is easy and encouraged. Try and say that about other cities! Obviously this low-cost form of transportation is in high demand. All you need is a u-lock and the city is yours! I can hardly say that of the other cities I have cycled in. Ultimately, any functioning bike is deemed more valuable due to our geographical niche.

Also, I agree with the writer when he states that the cyclists in town will shy away from the big-box-bikes and rightly so. These bikes can be ridden but eventually will end up in a free box somewhere, or unlocked against a bike staple. People in Portland also have the decency of -mostly- putting quality bikes and parts on craig’s list, because they know that other craig’s list users often chew them out for overcharging or trying to sell crap.

There is a big difference between buying a used bike on craig’s list and buying used from a shop. There is labor involved and typically some guarantee that the bike will not fall apart once you get home. On craig’s, more often than not it’s “as-is.” And getting an unbelievable bargain online may mean that you are purchasing a stolen bike, making the Bicycle Jesus sad.

The claim that bike prices in PDX are inflated is a multi-faceted issue that I would love to speculate more about, but I’ve got to go ride my bike now.

bikieboy
Guest
bikieboy

my completely subjective observation, based on nothing more than watching Craiglist & an occasional walk through shops that sell used bikes, is that some reasonable deals can still be had in the hybrid/mountain genre. But lower end road bikes, fuggedaboudit – seriously, often ridiculously, overpriced.

I’d attribute this to the cachet that older steel frame/drop bar bikes seem to have acquired with the 20-something demographic.

rixtir
Guest
rixtir

Used bikes are priced higher in Portland (and in the Bay Area, and in New York City) than in some other areas of the country, where demand is lower. That’s simply a reflection of supply and demand.

Nevertheless, the author really didn’t do his homework. The prices on used bikes that he encountered in shops were heavily inflated, compared to what he could find from a private party on craigslist, if he had done even a modicum of searching.

I rarely look for specific bikes here, because the prices are so inflated that it makes more sense to buy elsewhere and pay for shipping, but even here, I occasionally find a bargain, and it’s possible to find a reasonably-priced bike (say, in the $150 range, give or take a few) locally if one bothers to look, and isn’t set on a particular make or model.

maxadders
Guest
maxadders

Riding in Portland is all about looking like you know what you’re doing. It’s a fashion show.

A shiny, appropriately-outfitted new bike might rat you out as a novice, so it’s better off to get something that looks like it’s been around the block a few times. Does it look old and “fast”? Good. Now take the brand / model and stretch the truth a bit to make it sound less mass-produced than it really is. Oh, they made a high end bike once? Yours is almost like it.

Either buy it off the rack at the CCC, Citybikes, Recyclery, etc ($$$) or have some a shady guy from Craigslist (notice the basement piled with bikes) install the same caliber of cast-off used parts ($$$).

Either way, decide that it’s not cool enough in six months and buy a janky fixed gear conversion (’cause the gears never worked on that last bike anyway). Make sure you pay attention to the yarn the seller spins about the frame’s totally-above-averageness.

Then park it in front of the Bye & Bye, where all the messengers hang out.

K'Tesh
Guest
K'Tesh

I’d suggest garage sales if you’re looking for a fixer-upper.

A friend of mine last week spotted a used Raleigh at a garage sale for $15… picked it up, and turned it over in less than an hour for $100 on Craigslist…

Also there’s Goodwill

bDave
Guest
bDave

A better question is how do people live in this town when we are all posting lengthy novels on bike portland instead of working? This town becomes curiouser and curiouser with every blog comment.

RyNO Dan
Guest
RyNO Dan

If this person actually lived in Portland, this would be a non-issue.

Borgbike
Guest

I would say the Portland situation is NOT freakonomics but real supply-and-demand economics. The real freakonomics happens elsewhere where there isn’t the same sort of demand for bicycles. Elsewhere there is still a glut of used bikes. You can still buy a used bike for $60 that in the 1980s would have cost $350 to $600.

Also, having built a couple of bikes from scratch recently I can testify how the little stuff adds up quick. Add new tires, tubes, cables and other misc and you’ve just added $60 to $80 to the cost of the bike. This is just the small replaceable stuff.

I agree with Johnathan’s point about adding in the true living-wage labor costs of a bike shop when going through a bike. I would add that often times these costs are destorted by having the bulk of the labor done overseas as we see in new bikes from department stores and the main-stream shops such as Bike Gallery or Performance.

Jordan
Guest
Jordan

I would say that there is some truth to the article. A couple of years ago when I was between jobs I would go to garage sales towns outside the Portland area and pick up a couple of old road bikes and then fix them up. I would then be able to sell them for at times 50% to 100% more than what I paid. I really think that people in Portland place more value on their bikes.

That said you can find good deals on C-list and at our local shops. Especially on mountain bike parts and bikes.

PDXbiker
Guest
PDXbiker

No reputable bike shop would sell off a crap sub $50 bike as dependable transportation. As has been pointed out bottom brackets, headsets, chains, tires, brake pads, etc. all will have to be rebuilt or replaced on any older well used bike. This all adds to the price. You don’t need to pay this years MSRP for a good bike. Just be aware of whats needed on a used bike before it goes out on the street. Interesting article. The observation that “demand for city bikes is outstripping supply” just shows the strength of cycle culture in this town.

Jesse
Guest
Jesse

I just moved to town, and I spent a good 2-3 weeks scouring craigslist for a decent “commuter” road bike. My experience is that used bikes in Portland are extraordinarily over priced. In many cases people were selling bikes from the 80’s at or above their original retail price. I found that some used bike shops were pricing their bikes fairly, but had a very limited selection. Eventually I found a bike, but it took a while. Still looking for a bike for my wife though…

Bahueh
Guest
Bahueh

I saw $8.00 tubes at River City the other day….Eight freakin dollars for a 700×23 tube?

From what I’ve seen, I’d say prices in some shops are inflated…but they’re competing with online sales and a miriad of other shops in town…

It was a tongue in cheek article/opinion piece….by ANOTHER NYT’s writer…they’ve been writing about PDX almost weekly for the past year…

steve pappert
Guest
steve pappert

I looked for a used bike in portland once. It didn’t take me long to realize I could get a brand new one for just a little bit more. I bought a great mid 80’s schwin in Montana at a garage sale. It never occured to anyone it was worth more than $5.

KruckyBoy
Guest
KruckyBoy

Gotta agree with Jesse (#22). I can’t believe the price certain clunky steel frames from the 80s are sold for. I often see the same Schwinn World Sport I rode as a kid (and paid less than $100 new) selling for $300-400 on CL with original components that are beat to hell. In PDX bikes are half transportation and half fashion. I won’t pay $100 for used Levis and I won’t pay $300 for a clunky old Schwinn, but apparently some people will.

fredlf
Guest
fredlf

My guess is that the high prices here reflect the fact that a fixed-gear converted “vintage” steel frame has become a fashion accessory. Like all things trendy and fashionable, prices are inflated well beyond the actual utility of the bike. How else can you explain Schwinn Varsities selling for $150 on Craigslist?

PDXbiker
Guest
PDXbiker

Also, for many vintage bikes out of the 60″s and 70″s, being collectible comes in to it. Many a baby boomer looking to buy that 10 spd Schwinn Varsity (40 pound sled) or 5 spd Collegiate he had as a kid will pay top dollar for one. People out there will pay nicely for the old three speeds too.

Esther
Guest
Esther

I think this article is great. The “I came as a tourist and had to spend as much as a car rental to rent a bike!” angle sort of sets up the real meat of the article, even though it’s sort of a specious proposition. I’ve bought a beater bike, when I went to New Orleans – a spray painted cruiser with rusty bolts, for $150. I paid too much, definitely, but it was 1. convenient (I found a no-name under-the-table-shop in a convenient location advertising on Craiglist, rode the Magazine street bus straight there, and bought it) and 2. I knew I could either donate it to a worthy cause like their Plan B Community Bike Project, or sell it and still have spent less for 5 days than what my friends paid to rent for 2 days. I ended up selling it to a corner mart for $50 to use as their bike delivery. I got a deal, they got a deal, I helped the bike economy in Nola, and I still spent less than renting. I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to do that here either.

As for the actual substance of the article – bike supply/demand in inversely correlative with car supply/demand – is great to know. Because lots of people complain about bikes being expensive – but look, the median price of 5 bikes, the number of people that will fit in one average 4-door car, is still almost ONE QUARTER the median price of a used car. WHAT A DEAL!

KJ
Guest
KJ

How about using this correlation (caveat correlation/=causation): PDX is also known as one of the more green and eviro-friendly cities out there, buying used is usually considered greener than buying new.

So one would expect a population that is more conscious of their consuming habits to have a higher demand in the used bike market.

Also in such a market in such a bikeable city it makes sense someone who is green might consider ditching their car for a bike, putting more people in the market.

How does that match up with the car/bike price index the author found, are the cities with higher bike resale rates and lower car also greener cities?
Seattle? yes, SF? yes, NY? yes? seems to also fit.

BURR
Guest
BURR

Dude could have just brought a folder with him, that would have cost him $1K +/- for a Brompton or a Strida, a bit less for a Dahon or equivalent.

PDXbiker
Guest
PDXbiker

I know we’re there when I se a used bike lot on 82nd ave.

BURR
Guest
BURR

SE 50th and Division isn’t close enough?

😉

Oliver
Guest
Oliver

..Or… go to the goodwill bins and pick up a junker for $5 – $20…

Wash off the grime…put some new tires on it… and flip it for 250 – 300 bones on CL.

Got a pal who’s been doing this daily for months.

Personally, I think that hints at a bit of (over) inflation.

PDXbiker
Guest
PDXbiker

Ah yes BURR, I stand corrected. Of course the Bike Exchange.

Nick V
Guest
Nick V

But what does it cost to rent an apartment in NYC?
Or, gulp, buy a house?

mmann
Guest

As a regular pdx craigslist “stalker” I have to agree that in general, decent road bikes are priced pretty high and creeping up, though it will get a little better when the wet/cold weather comes. But diligence and luck play a part as well – I just rode the Portland Century on an ’87 Trek 560 I picked up for 80 bucks (and totally rebuilt). But the seller did say he had over 20 responses in the first couple hours. I also agree with bikeyboy (#13) that if you’re willing to look at older mountain/hybrid bikes, it’s much easier to find good deals. For what most pdx riders need, these bikes are fine and maybe even better than something with drop bars and skinny tires, but they’re not as “cool” unless (like me) you have a thing for old steel mountain bikes.

Best deals will nearly always be at garage sales, but it’s a real crap shoot and you have to be willing to put in the time and the miles.

rixtir
Guest
rixtir

One of my favorite bikes for navigating through the minefield of potholes and train tracks downtown is a used mountain bike. It’s a good upper-mid-level 1991 model, cromoly steel with Deore LX, a virtually unused garage queen, that I picked up locally off craigslist for $100.

For most purposes in town, a used hybrid or mountain bike is not only the best option in terms of value, it’s also the best option for the combination of riding in traffic (a semi-upright riding position, all controls at your fingertips), hills, and rough city streets that define city riding here.

That said, my current favorite is a skinny-tired, drop-bar road bike. 😉

Ethan
Guest

There are still deals to be had on craigslist, but I totally agree with the general idea. Go look at the bike prices inside CCC, light years different than 10 years ago.

Dana
Guest
Dana

There is a difference between bicycle inflation and people thinking their 1980’s Peugeots are worth $500.

Looking for a fairly priced bike in Portland on Craigslist is a full time job.

Geezer Guy
Guest
Geezer Guy

We care what a New Yorker has to say , , , Why ? ? ?

jordan
Guest
jordan

I just left portland. My girlfriend is in Milwuakee and having the same price experience. I’m in Massachusets and experiencing the same. i don’t think it’s just in portland.

-j

Dan
Guest
Dan

Ditto on the beater mountain bike. Mine is a 1999 steel hardtail (I’m the original owner), and it’s great. I’ve replaced the drive train a few times, but everything else is holding up fabulously, and it beats the snot out of anything else out there to ride rough pavement, through parks, down stairs, and off curbs.

jv
Guest
jv

I agree that bike prices are a little high around here, though it is interesting that his Seattle comparison shows for even higher bike prices up north. From living up there I feel like CL prices are significnatly lower up there in SEA than in PDX. I think the “vintage tax” is certainly in effect here in Portland , but that is not neccesarily a bad thing. After all, the supply of mid ’70s Japanese and European frames is not increasing, while modern Taiwanese frames are being cranked out at an increasing rate. If there is social cachet in rolling a vintage bike then is it really so bad for people to voluntarily waste their money on that, even though a more modern bike would likely be more functional? I think it is fine in the marketplace…there will always be beater bikes to be bought from garage sales, the “unfixed” CCC bikes, and random questionable characters. I think this reporter didn’t look hard enough for a squeaky, rusty bike, but instead wanted to have some PDX material to interest his NYT editors to justify his trip. That said, I find his craigslist car/bike analysis amusing. I spend more on buying my bikes than I do my cars…all which were acquired for under $500.

What I really have a problem with is the vast discrepancy between prices for auto parts vs. bike parts. Disc brake pads for 1982 Nissan 720 pickup = $15.00 Disc Brake pads for Tektro cheapo MTB calipers = $35 There is about 150x more braking material on the auto pads…

SkidMark
Guest

It is harder to find full-on bargain bikes. Bikes cheap enough for someone to regrease, tune-up, replace cables, tires, and grips/bar tape, and then turn a profit on. The only way I could do that now is to have a storefront and charge bike shop prices. I used to find Schwinns for less than $20 at the bins, and now they want $50 for one encrusted in rust and dirt from being outside 20 years. So, yes with the bike boom/fad prices for used bikes have went up.

I see a lot of “Are you on crack?” prices on craigslist, and I have to wonder, do the bikes sell for that money because I almost always have to come down in price to sell my refurbished bikes. It seems that $150 is the tipping point.

Be glad that a used bike market exists, in some places there aren’t bike co-ops selling used bikes, and the bike shop only have super high-end bike parts or super-cheap junk, and nothing of quality that is affordable.

bicycletothesun
Guest
bicycletothesun

I’m SICK of people on Craigslist describing their crappy Murrys and Poogoets as “VINTAGE!!!” with a $400+ price tag.

rixtir
Guest
rixtir

My last car was an Alfa Romeo Spider. My father thought it was an extravagant waste of money on an impractical vehicle, so I did a per pound cost comparison between my Alfa and his cigarettes.

On a per pound basis, my Alfa was significantly cheaper. 😉

Matt Picio
Guest

bDave (#12) says “One aspect to note is that cycling to all four quadrants of our town is easy and encouraged” – one might surmise you mean N, NE, NW, SE – what about SW, the neglected stepchild of the five quadrants? I wouldn’t call it easy nor encouraged, at least not yet – though PBOT is trying their best right now.

Bahueh (#23) – check tire prices, they’re equally (pardon the pun) inflated. It’s a combination of higher oil prices (still 3-4x what they were in early 2005), and inflation. Both items are made from synthetic rubber, a petroleum product.

wsbob
Guest
wsbob

KruckyBoy #25…on the price of old Schwinns, and not just the stingrays and cruisers. I think those bikes actually are, often overpriced on craigslist. It’s the ‘hip factor’. There seems to be a lot of them downtown too…much like the ones the Recyclery rents out for $25/day.

Apparently, people have decided it’s ‘cool’ to ride around on those clunkers…they love ‘the pie plate’. The frames might be o.k., but all the components are terrible. They’re not bikes I’d want to have to ride, but it’s kind of fun seeing other people take an interest in them.

are
Guest
are

community cycling center has rebuilt used bikes for two hundred and up, and DIYs for considerably less. bikefarm has several for a hundred or less. it should go without saying that a retail shop is not going to be selling something that is only expected to last a week. so the story is not all that well researched, but it does not really pretend to be. the specifics about trying to buy or rent in Portland is simply a frame for the city to city price comparison, cars versus bikes, which again is not statistically significant, but has a certain anecdotal appeal. as has been noted, rehabbing used is “greener” than buying new, and not buying from the big box is a matter of principle. if you don’t like the pricing on craigslist, don’t buy there.

beth h
Guest

@ # 17, who asks:
“A better question is how do people live in this town when we are all posting lengthy novels on bike portland instead of working?”

And I respond:
12 % unemployment will do wonders for blog traffic.

Meanwhile, I think that it’s hilarious for a New Yorker to complain about sticker shock in Portland, where we don’t have co-ops OR rent control. Please.
Next summer, he should vacation in the Hamptons.