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Q&A: How bikes meet tech in Austin, Portland’s chillest sister city

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

Nate McGuire of Austin bike-tech startup Spokefly.
(Photo by Michael Andersen/BikePortland)

Nate McGuire is part of two worlds that Austin, Texas, is still pretty new at: digital entrepreneurship and biking.

His startup, Spokefly, uses a mobile app and combination U-locks to turn people’s underused bicycles into income-generating shared bikes that float around the city until their owners need them. (At that point, the company will fetch it and deliver it home.) Though it’s not yet available in Portland, he’s preparing to launch in a handful of cities soon and was in town last week to scope our city out.

When he stopped by BikePortland’s office for a talk, we saw a perfect chance to hear more about biking and related issues in one of the U.S. cities that Portland most resembles in size, culture and reputation.

What is it with tech people and bikes? It seems like there’s a thing with tech people and bikes.

It’s logical — I think that’s the biggest thing. One of our advisors actually used to work at Segway. They did a whole bunch of market research around the efficiency of different transportation modes. And bikes are by far the most efficient.

I think that affluent engineers that can choose where they want to live are going to choose to ride a bike. I don’t think it’s, “I’m going to ride a bike and I’m a bike rider.” I think it’s, “What’s the most logical way for me to go to work?”

When you’re talking to investors about funding, how do you sell them on the idea that bikes are a meaningful market?

If you compare it to Uber, the taxi market is, like, $11 billion. NPD’s market research team says bike rentals are about a billion, and if you take bike rentals plus bike share, it’s about $1.5 billion which is about a tenth of the size. And the transaction is actually probably higher in the daily bike rental, because most people are going to rent by the day. You can make just as much money if not more.

Let’s talk about Austin’s bike scene. Do you know much about Social Cycling Austin? They seem amazing.

The giant bike ride? Yeah, I’ve been on it a few times. Quite a few times. The Thursday night social ride is their biggest. That’ll have anywhere from 200 to 400 cyclists, which is pretty cool. But also this same group does a ride every day of the week. So there’s Bikin’ Betty’s, The Humpday Noon Ride. The Saturday caffiene cruise is racing types; the Thursday night social ride is anybody. It’s pretty impressive. You can get all this on their Facebook page.

Austin’s economy has really been booming for the last five years or so. One of the things you sometimes hear about Portland’s economy is that we do surprisingly well considering we don’t have a big university bringing lots of smart young people here.

I think that’s true for Austin. I don’t know if it’s a requirement. I graduated UT in ’08. I think my graduating class was one of the last few where most people said, “I’m going to go to Houston or Dallas or New York. I wish I could stay in Austin, but there are no jobs.” I think that’s really changed with the tech sector growth.

I think there’s an idea here in Portland that because people have been willing to move here even without jobs, we will never have to worry about attracting young workers, even though that’s a huge issue in most of the country.

Increasingly what you’re seeing is people who want a place they enjoy living. They want to live a place that makes them happy. The Internet is everywhere; why work 100 hours a week and pay 60 percent or 70 percent of your income on rent and never be at home?

When Portland has its next Nike or whatever, whether it’s in sports or computers or whatever, any company can be a fast-moving company. And I think all of those people who are coming to Portland without jobs, their prospects start to look up.

It’s funny to me that people talk about Portland as the city where young people go to retire. People used to say that about Austin: it just moves too slow. But I don’t feel that at all.

Qs & As edited.