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The Oregonian Editorial Board on Portland’s “risky bike share venture”

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

“Bike sharing isn’t essential, and a bike-sharing system with unexpected complications requiring city subsidies would undermine the public’s confidence in the city’s ability to set priorities and manage money.”
— Oregonian Editorial Board, December 21st, 2013.

With a big announcement about the Portland Bike Share system likely to come this month, The Oregonian Editorial Board is making it clear where they stand. Portland’s risky bike-share venture is the title of their editorial that ran on the front page of the opinion section on December 21st.

The piece reflects the opinion of the members of the O’s editorial board: Mark Hester, Erik Lukens, Susan Nielsen, Len Reed and David Sarasohn. As our bike share system gets closer to reality, we’ll be watching closely how the local media tries to frame the narrative around the project. After all, the project has all the components of a media freakout: the concept (at least on this scale) is unprecedented in Portland, bike share is usually misunderstood by people that haven’t used it (just like cycling in general), it’s an idea first championed by former Mayor Sam Adams, and it involves bicycling.

The editorial opens by making it seem like the only reason Portland is pushing for bike share is due to “peer pressure” from other cities and to maintain our reputation as America’s top bicycling city:

Portland is feeling a little embarrassed. Other cities have bike-sharing systems and we don’t… How can Portland protect its image as one of the nation’s great bicycling cities without creating its own fleet? How can Portlanders sleep at night, really, until kiosks of government-issue bikes are airdropped all over the city’s central core?

In looking back at the history of this project in Portland (we first reported about it in February 2007), competition with other cities was never the main reason to have bike share. Adams wanted it because he saw how well it worked in France and he wanted to try it here. The competition among other cities was a fun way create excitement in the community and create political urgency among City Council colleagues.

Then The Oregonian delves into its main rationale for not supporting bike share: It’s just too risky. “The risks of developing and maintaining a bike-share system are real,” they write, “Unless the city can mitigate those risks, it should pull the plug on the initiative.”

This aversion to risk on a major transportation project is notable coming from an Editorial Board that has been a constant cheerleader for the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project — a controversial and extremely expensive highway expansion and bridge project. On New Year’s Day, the same editorial board that’s afraid of bike sharing’s risk — a project that will be paid primarily from federal grants and private sponsorship — said of the CRC, “it’s time to move forward decisively.” That’s the same, $3.6 billion CRC project that the state of Oregon has spent $179 million planning and lobbying for as controversies continue to pile on and there’s still no guarantee it will ever get built.

Since bike share has already garnered a federal grant, The Oregonian proposes that the bureau of transportation redirects that money to other bike projects. Some say that’s a sign of progress.

In other cities, bike share has proven to be quite cost-effective, especially compared to other transit systems. But The Oregonian suggests otherwise:

The city’s hope is to run the system without siphoning money from city coffers, yet experience elsewhere suggests this goal is hard to reach.

Most bike-sharing systems in the United States require public subsidies, according to an exhaustive bike-share guide released this month by the New York-based Institute for Transportation & Development Policy. Subscriptions and user fees provide a “stable revenue source,” the authors found, but “rarely do they provide enough revenue to ensure that the system is financially self-sustaining.”

Bike share should be seen as simply another mode of transportation or form of public transit. We heavily subsidize auto use, buses, light rail, and streetcar, so why should we hold bike share to a different standard? It’s also worth noting that as of March 2013, Capital Bikeshare in Washington DC (which is also managed by Alta Bicycle Share) paid 100% of its operating costs through user fees from its over 20,000 members.

It’s clear that The Oregonian Editorial Board thinks bike share is nothing more than a silly vanity project from a politician whom they at one time urged to resign. But examples from other cities show that it could have a major positive impact on Portland’s transportation ecosystem. And perhaps that’s what scares The Oregonian: They’re not afraid bike share will fail, they’re afraid it will succeed.

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