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Helmets required? Who’s it for? More info on Portland’s bike sharing plans

Posted by on August 8th, 2011 at 2:29 pm

SmartBike DC-1

Learn PBOT’s take on rental station
density, the helmet question, whether
or not infrastructure improvements
will come with bike sharing,
and more.
(Photos © J. Maus)

As I reported last week, a plan to bring bike sharing to Portland is alive and well. But, what exactly does the plan entail? How will Portland’s system compare with the 15 other bike share programs already in place throughout North America? Will helmets be required? Will it be expensive to use?

During research for that article, I came across some supporting documentation for a federal grant to fund the Portland Bike Share project (full PDF here). Among that documentation was a “Component analysis of bike share systems.” It provides an in-depth look at how various components of the Portland Bike Share project will look.

Below, I’ve pasted each component followed by “Portland’s approach” and then the City’s rationale for the decision…

Station location: Densely concentrated vs. spread expansively
Portland’s Approach: Densely concentrated
Rationale: Paris’ Velib bike share planners noted that stations should be every 300 meters. Dense systems tend to increase bike utilization rates, whether the systems are large (e.g., Montreal 500 stations at 27 stations/sq mile with 2.5 trips/bike/day) or Dublin 37 stations at 15 stations/sq mile w/ 10 trips/bike/day). Conversely, Minneapolis system has about 9 stations/sq mile which allows more districts/neighborhoods access to the system but has a much lower utilization rate at roughly 1 trip/bike/day. Portland plans to mirror Montreal in station density. Effective utilization not only requires a density of station but a high density of uses within the service area to be successful. Portland has chosen to locate the vast majority of stations in the city’s highest density districts related to employment, residential, commercial activity and tourist destinations.

Ride-along SW Broadway-9-6

The City would be wise to make
downtown safer for bikes if they
encourage tourists to ride.

Infrastructure improvements
Portland’s Approach: Yes
Rationale: Portland believes a successful bike sharing system is predicated on having at least a basic level of bike infrastructure to facilitate comfortable and safe bicycling by novice users. A decade ago, Paris was known as one of western Europes worst cities for cycling. Before implementing Velib, Paris added nearly 125 miles of bicycle facilites. Portland has over 300 miles of bike facilities and the Central City provides a variety of bike lanes, bike paths, neighborhood greenways and lower traffic streets. All of these are complimented by traffic signal timing that keeps traffic speeds in the CBD at 12 mph and allows cyclists to keep with traffic in nearly all travel lanes. The proposed cycling improvements will include signage and road treatments to direct less experienced cyclists to lower trafficked streets, encourage bicyclists to “take the lane,” and lessen contact with road hazards such as streetcar and light rail tracks.

Market analysis: Membership pricing plan
Portland’s Approach: Undecided, but leaning toward lower cost structure
Rationale: Montreal’s Bixi has generated the most bike sharing trips (3.3 million in its first 10 months) in North America, yet paradoxically has the highest cost ($78 US) for an annual membership. Dublin has the world’s highest utilization rate and has a very low cost for annual membership ($16 US). PBOT has projected similar levels of membership revenue for each pricing model given the projected higher membership uptake with a low price point, but there are concerns about the cost of operating a system with a very high utilization rate and customer dissatisfaction due to uncertainty of bike availability. Conversely, a low price point extends access to the widest range of users.

Market analysis: Who is the audience?
Portland’s Approach: Commuters, students, business travelers and tourists
Rationale: Large North American and European systems (Minneapolis, Paris, Lyon, etc.) have consistently found commute (to work and school) and work-related trips to comprise the majority of bike sharing trips. Business travelers and tourists are a significant portion of the total market (~40% of trips in Minneapolis) and provide a lucrative revenue stream; while over 95% of trips by annual members are less than 30 minutes (Montreal, Minneapolis and DC/Arlington) and thus do not generate rider fees, tourists and travelers are more likely to view rider fees associated w/ longer trips as nominal.

City of Portland bike sharing demonstration-23

Cargo capacity a must.

Baskets: Yes or No?
Portland’s Approach: Capacity to carry light cargo required, method is open.
Rationale: The two major North American bike sharing companies in 2010 were Bixi and Bcycle who took different approaches to cargo carrying capacity. Bcycle’s basket provides convenience and prevents uncontained items from spilling while also providing additional real estate for sponsor attribution (logos). The baskets also double as a trash receptacle for inconsiderate passersby and require maintenance to maintain system attractiveness. Conversely, Bixi provides an open-toothed carrying area with a bungee-type cord that allows for a wider range of dimensions of light cargo but loose contents require the user to have a bag/box to contain them. It provides very little additional real estate for sponsorship attribution.

Helmets: Require, encourage, or ignore?
Portland’s Approach: Encourage, not require
Rationale: There are several reasons Portland will not require users to wear helmets: improbablility of distribution, helmet safety, sanitation, and inconvenience to users. Melbourne, Australia is the only city of 230 worldwide with bike sharing systems ito require bike sharing users to wear helmets and it is only generating 70 trips/day on its 600 bike system, one of the lowest trip rates for a bike share system of that size. Helmet distribution through vending machines would not only be expensive, but raises serious questions about the structural integrity of these collectively used helmets. A helmet dropped several times can lose its efficacy and there is no feasible way to assess the helmet’s safety. Hygiene (imagine a helmet used by 5 different individuals on a hot summer day) is also a great concern. Melbourne has partnered with 7-Eleven to offer $5 helmets that can be returned for $3 and are sanitized between uses, which PBOT will explore. Like our nationally recognized Portland SmartTrips programs, Portland will encourage helmet use but not require it.

Ownership model: Public and/or private?
Portland’s Approach: Open to various business plans
Rationale: In nearly all North American bike sharing systems, local governments have played a very active role – both financially and with in-kind support – regardless of whether they own the system, and Portland feels comfortable with each model. Minneapolis’ Nice Ride system is owned by the Nice Ride nonprofit corporation but seed funding ($397,000) was provided by the City and supported their $1.75 million Bike/Walk Twin Cities grant in their first year. Similarly, the nonprofit Denver Bike Sharing owns and operates its system but received $1 million from the City of Denver gift from the Democratic National Committee for hosting the 2008 convention) and had 1 FTE staff on loan. The District of Columbia’s DOT owns its bike sharing system and, with Arlington County, contracts the operation of the system to a private consultant, Alta Bicycle Sharing.

I hope this information furthers the public dialogue on this project. For more on Portland’s quest for bike sharing, read the extensive BikePortland archives on the topic.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan

  • Andrew Seger August 8, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    I also found Tom Miller’s 6 part series a great primer on bike sharing and made me feel much more confidant the city has really given this some though. (http://bikeportland.org/2008/11/19/guest-article-series-bike-share-in-portland-a-status-report-11044)

    In a perfect world bikeshare would be seen as an extension of our public transit system and have money come from the TriMet taxes all businesses pay already.

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    • boriskat August 8, 2011 at 2:59 pm

      Except that Tri Met is already having a hard enough time even paying for itself. Business that go out of business do not pay taxes, and in 2008-09 Tri Met took a huge hit in its revenue stream (and had to cut a bunch of routes and reduce trips on others). There’s no way — given the way the economy seems to be going — that Tri Met could actually support a bike sharing system in addition to its own operating costs.

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      • Dabby August 8, 2011 at 6:55 pm

        Because they are over extending and over expanding,
        while at the same time cutting needed routes and raising fares of those who need the service most.
        Tri Met sucks.

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  • Indy August 8, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    How do these programs mitigate theft of bikes/parts/vandalism that plagued Portland’s last attempt at bike sharing?

    What happens if a bike is damaged, person A returns it, and Person B goes for a ride and finds breaks fail suddenly? Where is the liability there?

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    • NF August 8, 2011 at 3:14 pm

      The latest generation of bike share bikes (Bixi) are super durable, with internal cabling, components and non-standard screws for controlled maintenance. From the experience of modern north american sharing systems, theft is not a problem. The user has a credit card on file, providing incentive to return the bike ASAP.

      I’m not sure how they’d handle the situation you describe, other than using bikes that are built like tanks and ensuring a proper maintenance schedule.

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    • She August 8, 2011 at 7:06 pm

      I believe most of the existing systems have a way that a user can indicate a function problem and the bike would not be released until that locker is reset by a maintenance person that has checked over and repaired the bike.

      I think a helmet system could work the same way…

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  • Todd Edelman August 8, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    Melbourne: “They realised that they could not legally ‘recycle’ the helmets into subsequent use as they could not guarantee they were not damaged. Returned helmets are now discarded and not reused.” – http://helmetfreedom.org/1026/bike-share-helmet-laws-will-it-blend/

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  • NF August 8, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    Once bike sharing comes to Portland, a horde of helmetless tourists, professionals, and students will be unleashed into the streets of downtown.

    It will be fantastic.

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    • Randall S. August 8, 2011 at 6:26 pm

      We already have hordes of tourists, professionals and students traveling the streets of downtown without helmets.

      There’s not a jurisdiction in the US, possibly even in the world, that requires helmets for pedestrians or motorists.

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    • shirtsoff August 8, 2011 at 8:49 pm

      I look forward to it as both a car driver and a cyclist -may have to drive a little slower and give wide passing distance, but I do both already.

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  • dsaxena August 8, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    I just returned from London where I got to try out their bike hire system and was overall very impressed by the density of the system and also by some of the improvements they are making in infrastructure (their goal is 400% bike rider-ship increase by 2025). One thing I notice is that the chains on most bikes were badly rusted which is not surprising with how much it rains there. Given that our climate is very similar, the bikes here need to keep the chain protected somehow. The first bike I had was painful on my knees to ride b/c it was in such bad shape.

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    • dwainedibbly August 8, 2011 at 6:26 pm

      Good point. Hopefully the bikes will have belt drive. More expensive up-front, but perhaps less expensive over the life of the bike.

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    • was carless August 9, 2011 at 12:11 pm

      I’d like to see bikes with fully enclosed chain guards.

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  • John Landolfe August 8, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    I hope they get it off the ground. It’d be great if I had an easy option for visiting friends. The sanitized helmet idea sounds like a perfectly good solution to me. A rental car could go through a 1001 issues between users that could compromise its safety features–but no one says that this makes the safety belts in rental cars useless. Just have users sign a waiver, encourage them to report any trauma to the helmet, and make it clear they won’t be charged for reporting helmet damage.

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  • Randall S. August 8, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    I think helmets for bikes should only be required when we require helmets for driving.

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    • middle of the road guy August 9, 2011 at 8:57 am

      Well, we already require seat belt use and all cars must be produced with airbags.

      So the precedent is already there for required safety devices. Your turn, Bikes.

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      • Charley August 9, 2011 at 10:59 am

        What about pedestrians. Now, that’s really where we need to make some new helmet laws. Because everyone loves the Nanny State!

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        • Kevin August 10, 2011 at 10:30 am

          And motorists love the increased insurance payments caused by medical bills when you slam into their rear bumper because its raining and you have no brakes.

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      • Allison August 16, 2011 at 1:58 pm

        The bike industry does not currently have that level of regulation on it – you’d have to begin with that and then you’d have to require bikes be sold with helmets and then to enforce it, you’d have to have a non-motorized vehicle licensing (like car tabs) procedure. I guess we could do all that, but it’d be *a lot* of new bureaucracy and it’s a bad idea, so I’d fight you in the political process.

        Cars are dangerous, that’s why they have safety equipment. Bikes aren’t dangerous. That’s why it’s an option for the operator to choose.

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  • Jim Labbe August 8, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    Helpful information. Thanks!

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  • Chris Tuttle August 8, 2011 at 7:59 pm

    I was tootling through the neighborhood last night, helmet-free, and some dude eating outside at a restaurant yelled “where’s your helmet?” And of course he said this while he was drinking alcohol and eating fatty food.

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    • middle of the road guy August 9, 2011 at 8:58 am

      Maybe it was his one time during the week where he indulges and lives pretty healthy all the other days.

      Don’t make assumptions.

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      • El Biciclero August 11, 2011 at 2:07 pm

        …And maybe Chris wears his helmet for every other ride…

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  • bikemike August 8, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Maybe as part of any bikeshare program the City could get rid of those silly multi-person pedi-car things! It’s a real drag to get behind one of those on a bridge or the Esplanade. Or maybe I could just be proud that folks are capitalizing on the tourism potential of our bike infrastructure. Ergh….schizophrenic.

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  • hickeymad August 8, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    I have to admit – all this energy put into bikeshare mystifies me. In a city where a decent (rideable) bike can be had for next to nothing, and where dozens of bike shops struggle to stay afloat, why are we subsidizing this? Wouldn’t our resources be better spent on improving cycling conditions? Is this just a ploy to make headlines?

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    • Kevin August 10, 2011 at 10:32 am

      Bike shops are an example of small business that don’t pay their “fair share” of taxes too. Lynch them if you can.

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      • hickeymad August 10, 2011 at 11:49 am

        ??? So all small business owners are lowlife tax evaders? “Interesting” worldview you have there Kevin.

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  • Todd Edelman August 8, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    Please note that even if they don’t require helmets with Portland Bike Share they will certainly use lots of them in their imagery – just like Capital Bikeshare, which does require helmets.

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    • NL August 8, 2011 at 11:02 pm

      From the CaBi webpage on safety:
      “While personal helmets are not provided by Capital Bikeshare, their use is strongly encouraged. Stop in at one of many local and participating stores and show your membership key or daily receipt to receive a 10% discount on a helmet.”

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      • Todd Edelman August 9, 2011 at 4:16 am

        and this refers to: https://capitalbikeshare.com/safety
        PLUS notice all the helmet imagery on the website.

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  • Hart Noecker August 9, 2011 at 7:29 am

    It would be a real shame to promote a bike share system, presumably a program designed to get more people riding bikes, while simultaneously promoting helmets, a tool whose very purpose is to prevent more people from riding. Seems contradictory in the extreme.

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    • Kevin August 10, 2011 at 10:34 am

      Just like people were encouraged to stop driving when they made seat belt’s manditory. Just think how many cars would be on the road if your logic made sense.

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      • El Biciclero August 10, 2011 at 11:46 am

        Little bit of a logical leap, there Kevin. For most people who don’t already do it, cycling is seen as an inconvenient way to get around, especially when they have a car sitting right there. What MORE convenient alternative to their cars did people have when the seatbelt requirement went into effect? I doubt many drivers thought at the time, “well, that’s it! I’m taking the bus from now on!” In spite of increased regulation, their cars were still the most convenient and comfortable way to get around. You are assuming a false equivalence here.

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  • Al from PA August 9, 2011 at 8:49 am

    The whole fixation on helmets in urban riding is an American thing–the vast majority of riders don’t wear them in the bike-friendly European cities, and the number of bike injuries is not significantly higher (in fact, it’s lower, but that’s largely because of more sophisticated [for the most part] infrastructure…).

    Once in Paris I was riding a city bike and wearing a helmet and somebody shouted (in French)–“Hey, you think you’re in the Tour de France?”

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  • Jacob Mason August 9, 2011 at 9:16 am

    Melbourne isn’t the only city with bikeshare to require helmets. Boston’s Hubway requires helmet use along with signing up. However, it’s not illegal to bike in Boston without one, so I imagine this is purely for liability reasons. Other parts of the Hubway website, however, seem to encourage rather than require helmet use.


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  • kenzo August 9, 2011 at 9:26 am

    Ahhh the good ol’ helmet debate! It’s your decision, do what you want.

    I am guessing the majority of people that are against them have yet to take a spill where they hit their head…

    Once you experience that thrill of slamming your head onto the pavement without wearing one, most likely you’ll wish you were wearing one.

    That’s what had to happen to me… back when I was 12!

    Hell, I even wear a helmet when I snowboard… freak shit can happen!

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  • Chris Tuttle August 9, 2011 at 9:48 am

    @ helmet zealots: Is it morally wrong to not wear a seatbelt, not have an airbag, or not wear a bicycle helmet? Of course not. If anything, deciding to not take these safety measures probably causes the individual to be a little more careful. The question is then whether these behaviors should be legally wrong. Here, you need to look at the costs and benefits to both the individual and society. This relates to the fancy economic concept of externalities. An externality exists when an individual, while engaging in a particular behavior, is not forced to take into account all of the costs of that behavior. If we don’t require seatbelts for example, the individual is not required to take into account all of the societal health costs of a potential injury. If there are a lot more injuries, and/or if they are substantially more severe, the rest of us might incur higher health care premiums or other costs — i.e., we all are paying something for your carelessness. So seatbelt and airbag laws are probably justified – they clearly reduce the frequency and severity of injuries by a large margin. But I really don’t think this is the case with bicycle helmets.

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  • dan August 9, 2011 at 9:51 am

    Meh, France also has substantially more road deaths than the U.S. (according to Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Road_traffic_safety#KSI_by_country). I don’t see that they should be our models to emulate just because they have good shoes and live in Europe. I have crashed a number of times, only hit my head once, and will continue to wear a helmet every time I’m on a bike.

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  • Todd Edelman August 9, 2011 at 10:11 am

    In regards to seatbelts, I strongly suggest that people take a look at the stuff at this link: http://john-adams.co.uk/?s=seat+belt

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  • ac August 9, 2011 at 10:13 am

    i grew up riding without a helmet (skiing too). I wear one now, and I can’t imagine riding (or skiing) without one. And I’m baffled by many folks decision to not use one. Same with the decision to ride in flip flops. But I don’t call people out on it – that’s their business.

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    • Hart Noecker August 9, 2011 at 9:17 pm

      I’m baffled by people that are so fearful that they insist on wearing once, since all data has shown they offer little protection, and statistically you are no less likely to suffer head trauma in a crash with or without. Humans didn’t make it this far without the skull and neck evolving to take an impact in such a way as to protect the brain. Whether you like it or not, helmets offer the illusion of safety while perpetuating the myth of danger. If you want more people to ride their bikes, you should be dead set against wearing helmets.

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  • Jay August 9, 2011 at 10:24 am

    I’m really not trying to open a can of worms here; and if my posts gets edited or deleted I’ll understand. But seriusly, why do so many people seem to have a problem wearing a helmet? I may be new to the “bike lifestyle,” but I’ve been wearing a helmet since I started cycling as an adult just because I’m much more aware (as an adult) of my own mortality and safety. Any added protection is a plus. Why does everyone else seem to hate them so much? They (no offense) sound a lot like the people in the 60s who hated wearing seat belts!

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    • Alan 1.0 August 9, 2011 at 12:19 pm

      Choosing to wear one is different than compulsory use. There is lots of discussion in many places, for example https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Bicycle_helmet_laws .

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    • El Biciclero August 10, 2011 at 12:00 pm

      Try running errands on a warm day. Either you are wearing your helmet into every business you stop at, or are taking it off, figuring out how to either lock it to your bike or carry it with you, then putting a cold, wet, sweaty helmet back on your head when you get ready to go to your next destination. Try also wearing glasses that get sweat funneled onto them by soaked helmet pads. Unless you play bike racer and wear your glasses over your helmet straps (…and if you do, don’t forget when it comes time to take the helmet off…), you can’t wipe those glasses off without stopping, taking off your helmet, then taking off the glasses, wiping them, putting them back on, then replacing your cold, wet, sweaty helmet.

      For a single ride with no stops or no business to conduct along the way, helmets work great (unless you get sweat on your glasses), but for practical, utilitarian bicycle use, helmets are a pain. And gross. You can say that the grossness and inconvenience are a small price to pay for “safety”, but as has been mentioned, how much “safety” is that?

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  • grimm August 9, 2011 at 11:49 am

    Who cares about helmets? If it’s legal to not wear one (over 16 I believe) then let natural selection take it from there. A helmet doesnt make a safe rider, it only prevents head injury not collisions.

    Im more caring about the placement of stations and how they engage the public with bike routes. Portland is kind of a weird situation, as so many people here already own bikes. Are commuters gonna shell out money for if on a whim they want to borrow a set of two wheels? Id easily shell out $20, but the higher that goes the less Id be likely to. And how would we make these convenient? I think a hub system, with a dense center, but out reaching areas is the answer. Obviously a lot of stations in downtown, but we need get people out to Hawthorne and over to Goose Hollow too. Of course the question is where does it stop? Personally I dont see many people on these would tackle the west hills, or go much further east the tabor. As many people already know some streets are bike friendly, they need to become bike strips. If we expect non-Portlanders to use the system need to come up with some good signage (much like Ziba did around the city a few years back) but with a bike route specific skew, so people can safely navigate, or at the nice bike corrals. Of course paper maps available at select stations would be good to.

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    • Todd Edelman August 9, 2011 at 12:22 pm

      Grimm, in regards to who will use these and more specifically to the hub idea, it is perhaps important to keep in mind that one current solution for bike + PT used in Portland (and elsewhere) is not scalable. This is of course carrying your bike on or inside a vehicle. Once general mode split for bikes – i.e. not just in one neighbourhood – gets into the double digits all the onboard solutions will be nearly permanently at capacity. This will create huge frustration.

      One solution for longer A-to-B-to-C journeys (where A is your own bike and B is the light-rail etc and B is also a bike) is to have C be a shared bike, or really I prefer to call them individual, self-propelled, motor-optional public transport. C can also be walking, streetcar, bus or skateboard…. thus the solution for B can carry as many people as possible. This is basically how it is currently done in the NL and a few other places. (In the NL it costs EUR 10- or perhaps 14- to carry a bike round trip for any distance, but only EUR 3- to rent an OV Fiets bike at one end for 24 hours, in addition to free or a small charge for parking your own bike at the other.

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    • dan August 9, 2011 at 12:37 pm

      Agreed that improved signage will be key when bike rental takes off. I’ve had people ask me a couple of times this summer how to get onto the Hawthorne Bridge (on a bike) — as one of the major bike crossings, we should really make sure that is obvious even to someone who doesn’t bike every day. I expect the same issue applies in other parts of town as well.

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  • Todd Edelman August 9, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    Should read “C is also a bike”.

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  • jim August 10, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    why not put them in the same locations as the rental cars?

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  • cycler August 11, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Although I’m a year round rider with my own FIVE bikes, I joined the new Boston Hubway, and have used it 5 or 6 times in the two weeks it’s been running. Several of my bikes aren’t great commuters (like the 1936 Lady’s Tourist) and my commuter was in the shop. Hubway is a great last mile solution for me when I take transit. I might also start to use it for mid-day errands, as our building manager is more likely to be around and scold me for parking inside during the middle of the day than before and after work. They’re getting a lot of use- I keep seeing them all over, and I hope it helps keep pushing the city in increasing infrastructure, which is sadly behind the Portland (and even Paris) model.

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  • jim August 11, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    That brings up another question. If you ride an e-bike can you still park in bike corrals? I would think you could. How about mopeds? I would think that would be ok also. What if you were to park a scooter in a bike corral? If it had a small motor on it would it make any difference? Under 50cc?

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