‘Lost Oregon’ blog unearths rare footage of Yellow Bike program

Still from video of Portland’s Yellow Bike program.

John Chilson, the local urban history buff behind the Lost Oregon blog, has shared some excellent and rare footage of Portland’s Yellow Bike program.

The Yellow Bike program (Wikipedia) was Portland’s innovative experiment in community bike sharing that was launched in 1994. These days it’s often brought up in the same breath with our more modern attempt at bike-sharing; but as you can see in the short video below, the Yellow Bike program was decidedly low-tech and had almost nothing in common with today’s systems.

With the help of volunteers at the Community Cycling Center, the Yellow Bike program consisted of hundreds of cheap city bikes that were simply painted yellow and set out for public use along with a sign that read: “Free community bike. Please return to a major street for others to reuse. Use at your own risk.” It was a classic example of what The New York Times referred to in December 1994 as Portland’s “urban whimsy.”


The video, part of the “American Promise” educational series developed by Farmer’s Insurance as a community involvement gesture, offers an in-depth description of the program thanks to an interview with the program’s founder, Tom O’Keefe.

The Yellow Bike program is usually dismissed as a quaint, yet inherently flawed and failed attempt (the bikes were eventually all lost and vandalized) at getting more people to ride bikes. However, in light of Portland’s embarrassing inability to launch a modern-day bike sharing system, it deserves respect for actually getting get off the ground.

When this video was shared on the Shift email list today, someone called the program “rad and inspiring.” “I wonder if we could have a modular system,” they wondered, “and pay for it a little at a time, rather than all at once? It sucks to have to wait around for a million dollars to fall out of the sky before we can have certain things. Anyone have a sustainable bike share plan we can implement $100 at a time?”

Wouldn’t it be something if, after all these years, and all the delays of Portland Bike Share, it’s the 20-year-old Yellow Bike program that ends up finally inspires us to act?

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