Gravel - Cycle Oregon

Four ways Portland’s new bike share plan could flop

Posted by on September 9th, 2015 at 12:05 pm

It’s coming. Finally. But will it work?
(Renderings via City of Portland)

Third in a four-post series today about bike sharing in Portland.

Earlier today, we wrote about why Portland’s three-year bike share delay could accidentally make its system one of the smartest in the country.

Now, let’s look at the biggest ways the system could, if approved next week, totally fail.

1) Social Bicycles could collapse

Justin Wiley, Social Bicycles’ VP of Launch
and Operations, at Velo Cult in
Northeast Portland in March.
(Photo: Lizbon Grav)

The New York-based startup Social Bicycles was founded in 2010 and received $1.3 million in angel funding in 2013, followed by undisclosed venture funding later that year.

How much money is SoBi making now that it’s scored contracts in Phoenix, Santa Monica, Tampa, Topeka, Boise, Orlando, Ottawa, and Hamilton? The public doesn’t know. But if SoBi’s growth slows, it runs out of cash and it shuts down, then Portland and its operator, Motivate, could be left with a bunch of obsolete equipment and unsupported software.

With all those systems up and running, it’s likely that someone would swoop in to buy the company’s assets, as a pair of New York City companies did when Motivate was struggling last year. But there’s no guarantee.

City staff make a strong case that a wandering fleet of “smart bikes” is best for Portland. But why didn’t they go with Nextbike, a firm with similar technology that’s already well-established in Europe?

In part, city project manager Steve Hoyt-McBeth said, because Social Bicycles was “the only [potential] partner that seems to have a functioning smartphone app.” And in part, city Active Transportation Manager Margi Bradway said, because Social Bicycles’ bike was more fun to ride.

“It was really important to us that we rode the bike and felt the bike,” said Bradway, who said she and her husband own 20 bikes between them. “People from the mayor’s staff, Commissioner Novick’s staff, our staff, all rode the bikes. … They’re the best of what’s available for bike share. Are they carbon racers? No. But they ride really well, they handle really well, and they’ve got the smart-bike technology.”

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For what it’s worth, I too rode a SoBi bike earlier this year, and I agree. They’re noticeably better to ride than the ones in most U.S. cities.

Bradway called SoBi “a pretty small but fairly successful company” and said that Motivate did a 100-page report “on the whole chain and production line” used by SoBi, to make sure it wouldn’t repeat Motivate’s previous supply-chain problems.

“If Sobi totally goes away, obviously we would start the process again and do a new purchase order,” Hoyt-McBeth said. “In the end of the day, it’s just like if anything else breaks, what do you do? There’s your legal remedies and then there are some practical considerations. … We feel good about the SoBi product and we feel good about their growth and where they’re going.”

2) Motivate could be incompetent

Portland’s chosen operator doesn’t inspire huge confidence; it nearly collapsed last year, after all, due largely to its bad deal with its struggling supplier in Montreal. Just before those troubles hit, a few of the staffers who built it jumped ship to form their own company. Though the firm bought into an existing SoBi system in Providence last year, this is the first time it’s agreed to operate largely unfamiliar equipment.

Why do Portland staffers think the company has turned a corner? Mostly because the team that bought Motivate last year has things its previous owners didn’t.

One is a CEO with a golden resume in transit operations: Jay Walder, former head of the subway systems in New York, London and Hong Kong. Motivate’s previous bosses, the founders of Portland-based Alta Planning + Design, were gifted … planners and designers.

The other is deep pockets. Motivate’s new owners are Related Partners, a New York real estate firm, and Equinox, a high-end chain of gyms.

Within months of the company’s sale, Motivate swapped out its faulty software and announced a 100-station expansion in New York and a tenfold expansion in San Francisco Bay. If they’re incompetent, they’ve got a lot of people fooled.

3) No sponsor might appear

Phoenix’ 500-bike system, launched last November, continues to solicit a lead sponsor.
(Image: Grid Bikes)

A company gets less good PR for sponsoring something that already exists than for sponsoring something that doesn’t yet exist. Today’s announcement will take some of the oomph out of a sponsorship deal. Launching without a lead sponsor would further reduce the oomph.

No company might decide Portland’s system is worth their while.

City staff’s response: they’ve already tried for years to find a sponsor for a prospective system. Didn’t work.

“It’s a lot easier to sell something people can see on the ground as opposed to selling pixie dust,” Hoyt-McBeth said.

Motivate, he says, has sophisticated connections and dedicated sales staff. And maybe most importantly, the private operator stands to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next three years if it doesn’t find a sponsor. The city thinks this will force the company to prioritize the task.

Though some U.S. cities have signed sponsors before they launch, others have landed them after, or in the immediate lead-up.

“Almost every city with a bike share system of our size has secured a title sponsor or a family of large sponsors in the first year,” Hoyt-McBeth wrote Wednesday.

4) Portland might not have enough good bike infrastructure downtown

Conditions on Lovejoy-2

NW Lovejoy and 13th in 2011. (The bike symbol
has since been removed.)
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

SoBi’s bikes are nice compared to other bike-share bikes, but no bike that big would be comfortable for a beginner to ride in a door-zone lane like the one on upper Southwest Broadway.

From DC to Minneapolis to Seattle to Pittsburgh, cities launching bike share have accompanied their systems with buffered or protected bike lanes near the core of their service area, to make it not just possible but comfortable to ride a bike. Portland’s central city has terrific transit and walking, but probably the sparsest downtown bike infrastructure of any comparable American bike city. (It’s working on this on multiple fronts, but it’s not there yet.)

As BikePortland reader Maccoinnich observed this morning, the bike infrastructure in the Pearl and inner Northwest — probably the densest residential area included in this system and home to the most low-income residents — is even worse.

There are many who argue, not unreasonably, that with such great walking and transit already, downtown shouldn’t be the first neighborhood to get great bike infrastructure too. But the truth is that to work as a business, Portland bike share will need to be focused downtown. The rest of the city just isn’t dense enough yet.

Maybe you think Portland bike share should make decisions based on the public good rather than business viability. In that case you’d better get behind a public subsidy for it. The plan the city announced today perfectly illustrates the limits of what a system can do with almost zero local tax dollars.

β€” Learn more about today’s big announcement here. And stay tuned for the final part of today’s series, when we’ll look into how PBOT is handling bike share competition from a private company in their own backyard.

Harvest Century is September 23rd
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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. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you β€” Jonathan

28 Comments
  • Indy September 9, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    What about demand?

    We are a city of vastly better infrastructure in terms of supplying bikes to tourists, residents, and our homeless. Is there dmand for this in a city that has near constant rain/gloom 5-7 months a year?

    And yeah, I was excited about this, because I want to occasionally ride a bike back after bussing into work, but I can’t leave it near my house in SW?

    And no offense, but these bikes are heavy and ugly. Even casually, I don’t want to lug a 45 pound bike up Couch or Ankeny.

    All this seems iffy without serious restructuring in our infrastructure.

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
      Michael Andersen (News Editor) September 9, 2015 at 12:59 pm

      I could be wrong, but despite Scenario 4 above I don’t think demand (or, put another way, price) is likely to be a system-killing problem in Portland.

      Yep, it’s gloomy and damp here, but that doesn’t stop us from already being several times more likely to bike than people in San Antonio where it’s hot and humid. Heat is much worse to bike in than rain. San Antonio B-Cycle, meanwhile, is four years old and offers 50 stations. It’s doing fine.

      As Citi Bike showed, high demand is more likely to upset one of these systems than low demand.

      That’s not to say demand is unlimited or that prices shouldn’t be as low as we can get them.

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      • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
        Michael Andersen (News Editor) September 10, 2015 at 7:43 am

        Hmm, OK, looks like San Antonio was a bad example. πŸ™‚ https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/san-antonio-bike-share-close-sponsor-money

        In any case, my point is that bike share systems have found enough customers in many cities with less hospitable streets and less biking culture.

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      • rachel b September 10, 2015 at 1:54 pm

        Just as an aside: we’re not so gloomy and damp anymore and it looks more and more like heat will be the thing. I say in total despair. Crossing fingers for rain…

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        • paikiala September 11, 2015 at 1:17 pm

          Putting sharrows on every lane downtown and enforcing the business 20 mph speed limit would go a long way to eliminating the perceived lack of infrastructure. It’s actually there, just hidden under cars.

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    • gutterbunnybikes September 9, 2015 at 4:16 pm

      I ride a vintage 3 speed that tops 50 lbs with a vintage dynohub on the front wheel. Couch and Ankeny aren’t that bad, nor is Lincoln or Clinton. Mt. Tabor is a work out, as is the hill in SE just north of Johnson Creek, though luckily I usually can plan around going up that one. I think the only hill I don’t really try riding (always walk up) is just east of 33rd up the Alameda ridge (I think Klickitat – but might be wrong). Besides there ain’t no shame in walking.

      These are comfort/utility bikes designed for short trips. Though it might be kind of fun to race them (humm pedalpalooza ride?), it wasn’t what they were designed to do. And bicycle weight really isn’t that much of a factor unless you’re racing professionally.

      Besides heavier bikes last longer, take more abuse, and ride more comfortably than whimpy little race bikes which is also a factor in the bike share bicycle designs.

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  • Lindsey Wallace September 9, 2015 at 12:37 pm

    As a Minneapolitan, I can say that your #4 point is probably not a major problem. We have absolutely terrible bike infrastructure downtown right now. Sure, we have a protected bikeways plan, but with current construction downtown we have literally no good north-south bike routes through the heart of the city. Even after current construction problems are resolved, we only have door-zone lanes (and one poorly implemented protected bikeway) through downtown at present. Things will be different once 40 miles of protected bikeways are built by 2020, but Nice Ride has been going strong since 2010 without them.

    Additionally, our Nice Ride bikes are probably heavier and harder to ride than the SoBi bikes you guys will have.

    Good luck!

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  • ethan September 9, 2015 at 12:43 pm

    It sure would be nice if there was some good bike infrastructure downtown. If 3rd is any indication, we’ll just get more door-zone bike lanes in between parked cars and moving cars.

    A perfect place for people who are new to riding…

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  • soren September 9, 2015 at 12:52 pm

    >β€œAlmost every city with a bike share system of our size has secured a title sponsor or a family of large sponsors in the first year,” Hoyt-McBeth wrote Wednesday.

    I think it’s clear that the uniquely toxic media coverage of cycling in PDX made bikeshare too controversial for corporate sponsors. Moreover, the advocacy strategy of being nice to critics (e.g. focusing on “bike fun” and “bike ambassador” programs) did little to change the tone of the debate.

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  • maccoinnich September 9, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    Michael – is there any word about when Central City Multimodal Project is going to get started (or when the public engagement is going to start?)

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
      Michael Andersen (News Editor) September 9, 2015 at 3:15 pm

      I’ve heard it said that that project’s manager, Rick Browning, was assigned to be the project manager on NW/SW 3rd under a separate contract as a way to get his toes in the water before he started on the bigger project. Same, presumably, with the fact that I saw his name on one of the recent documents for the new SW Bond.

      In any case: no, not that I’ve heard.

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      • maccoinnich September 9, 2015 at 3:27 pm

        Thanks. The longer I wait to hear anything the bigger my hopes for it grow (perhaps to unrealistic levels, given the budget).

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      • ethan September 9, 2015 at 4:23 pm

        Do you have the new documents for SW Bond? I’m not too hopeful, given that West 3rd will be no better than painted lines in between parked and moving cars.

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  • BS September 9, 2015 at 5:37 pm

    #2 is spot on. Many of the same decision makers that made mistake after mistake during the Alta tenure are still there. They have no supply chain stability, still unproven software and less money and resources than they claim to have.

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
      Michael Andersen (News Editor) September 10, 2015 at 7:48 am

      Unproven software, though? According to the city, working software has been swapped into the whole Citi Bike system now. (And in any case, I think the back-end software for Portland’s system would be Social Bicycles’.)

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      • BS September 10, 2015 at 12:23 pm

        Yep…they’re having continued issues with the switch back to 8D, still no proper software for tracking repairs and other bike/station issues and have never operated with Social Bikes.

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  • Mark September 9, 2015 at 5:58 pm

    The Denver B cycle program in is successful. Denver is a different animal in that, in my opinion, Denver doesn’t care much for contrary opinions. When they want to do something-it’s done. If you don’t like it-tough. Some might say otherwise..but that’s my take.

    Portland seems so worried about whatifs, they forget to just lead. B cycle is a heck of a lot cheaper than streets, curbs, drainage…etc. Car people never once cry, yet Lars Larson freaks out about a B cycle program.

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    • paikiala September 11, 2015 at 1:19 pm

      That mind-set is usually top down, and can change with administrations, ala NYC.

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  • Dwaine Dibbly September 9, 2015 at 6:33 pm

    Inefficient shaft drive? Should have gone with a belt: more efficient, simple like a chain but clean. Are these 3-speeds, or what? I’d hate to ride one up SW Jefferson.

    Bikes not limited to kiosks is interesting. If I see one parked somewhere I can just do whatever I have to do on the electronics, then ride off? They’d be easier to find if they were in an identified station/kiosk.

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
      Michael Andersen (News Editor) September 10, 2015 at 7:45 am

      These bikes come in three speeds or eight. The only city I know of that’s used eight speeds for its bike share fleet is Seattle, but I could be wrong.

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      • Dwaine Dibbly September 10, 2015 at 6:13 pm

        Thanks for clarifying. I suspect that we’ll see 3-speeds here, too.

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    • davemess September 10, 2015 at 10:57 am

      WOW I didn’t even notice the shaft drive. Thanks for pointing that out. Weird.

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  • Bill Stites September 9, 2015 at 6:45 pm

    Anyone else notice the shaft drive? No chains!

    And I want to say that Steve Hoyt-McBeth is awesome – I worked with him on neighborhood bike stuff when he was with SouthEast UpLift. He was always organized, effective, and a pleasure to be around.

    Oh, and thanks to a couple of folks who gave shout-outs for Truck Trikes. Yo!
    My sense is that individually-equipped bikes are the future, and rebalancing needs will decrease over time. But we’re here to help in the meantime. πŸ˜‰

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    • gutterbunnybikes September 9, 2015 at 8:06 pm

      I have no need for bike share, and will likely never use it – but I will take one out just to check out the shaft drive. I’ve always been curious.

      Though the idea is over 100 years old, the way IGH’s have developed the last couple decades I think the two could pair quite nicely. I would guess they’ll be using a 7 or 8 gear IGH with it.

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  • Charles McCarthy September 9, 2015 at 7:59 pm

    This spring, I spent a couple of weeks in Seoul, S. Korea. They have a system very much like the proposed TriMet+C-Tran card, called T-Money, that is used on the buses, subway, and indeed it works throughout most of the country. It is a stored value card that can be recharged at any subway station, and any convenience store; at the convenience store it can also be used to buy small items such as Kleenex, aspirin, a bottle of water, etc.
    An obvious use of such a card would be with a bike share system. Revenue sharing for a trip using multiple providers is something that has been successfully worked out by railroads, truckers, and airlines for a long time, and now apparently by TriMet and C-Tran. I don’t see any problem at all (except not-invented-here syndrome) in extending the coming Tri-Met+ C-tran RFID card to bike share with the total fee dependent on trip length and discount status; taxis might well come in to the system, too. Sure would be simple and convenient for the users.

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  • Justin September 9, 2015 at 9:14 pm

    I think Portland bike share should make decisions based on the public good rather than business viability. I support a public subsidy for it.

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    • soren September 10, 2015 at 11:44 am

      Or at least make some effort to balance the two goals. And I’m with you on the public subsidy.

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