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Long-delayed Portland bike share rose from the dead. Here’s why that might make it better

Posted by on September 9th, 2015 at 8:19 am

Bike share demo-9-8

A 2011 bike share demo in Portland. The city has scrapped its 2012 plan and is rebooting with a unique set of new ideas.
(Photos: J.Maus/BikePortland unless noted)

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

There’s a case to be made against Portland’s new bike share plan. But that’s coming in a few hours.

First, let’s consider a more interesting argument: the possibility that because of its three-year series of mishaps, Portland could wind up with a much better system than it would have without them.

Call it the Fortunate Failure Theory of Portland bike share.

It begins, more or less, with this guy.

hoyt-mcbeth

(Photo: M.Andersen/BikePortland)

Steve Hoyt-McBeth is a Portland transportation staffer who has been, for the last four years, the project manager for Portland Bike Share. This year, it’s budgeted to take up about half his time.

Over the last few years he’s also become, I should disclose here, a personal friend of mine. Like most PBOT employees, he is a very good person.

If Hoyt-McBeth’s talents were different, Portland might already have a bike share system. He is not a salesman. And though it wasn’t exactly his job to sell a Portland Bike Share sponsorship over the last four years, it wasn’t exactly not his job either.

As many Portlanders know, he hasn’t found a sponsor. Nobody has.

Here’s what Hoyt-McBeth has spent the last four years doing instead of overseeing a bike share system: he’s become one of the country’s leading bike share wonks.

Here’s what Hoyt-McBeth has spent the last four years doing instead: becoming one of the country’s leading bike share wonks.

He sits on the founding board of the North American Bikeshare Association, which is pretty odd since Portland doesn’t have a bike share system. He follows the smattering of blogs about the industry. He’s on the phone regularly with operators around the country. He can rattle off the station counts and price structures of cities you didn’t know had a bike-sharing system yet.

Not pleased that your city paid this guy approximately half of an $86,000 salary for several years to acquire this expertise? Too bad, it already did.

The point is that because Hoyt-McBeth spent so much time learning this stuff, Portland had a chance to reboot its bike share plan under the direction of somebody who may know more about public bike sharing than any public employee ever has in the early stages of a bike share system concept.

This meant that when Hoyt-McBeth was joined, in 2013 and 2014, by a boss (Active Transportation Manager Margi Bradway) who happened to be an experienced contract negotiator and by a great-grandboss (Transportation Director Leah Treat) who happened to be a strong bike-sharing believer, Portland had a chance to do something unusual. Late last fall, that team went to the country’s largest bike sharing company, Motivate Inc., and laid out a very specific and unusual vision for the bike sharing system that Hoyt-McBeth thought would be right for Portland. Then the Portland team told Motivate, essentially, “Take it or leave it.”

Motivate took it.

Art Pearce and Margi Bradway of PBOT

Portland Active Transportation Manager Margi Bradway, right, with PBOT Planning Manager Art Pearce last fall.

Fully understanding Portland’s new bike share proposal means understanding the concept that Bradway, Hoyt-McBeth and Treat successfully pitched to Motivate CEO Jay Walder when he flew to Portland last fall, in his first several weeks on the job.

Some of these details were hammered out over the months that followed. But here’s how it’s all supposed to work.

It turns Portland’s single most unusual infrastructure asset – ubiquitous bike parking – into lower costs

on-street parking at SW 3rd-Pine-15.jpg

One of the central city’s 52 bike corrals, at SW 3rd and Pine.

Portland’s bike infrastructure has fallen behind other cities in various ways over the last few years. But it still does one thing better than any other North American city: bike parking.

On the sidewalks and curbs of the eight-square-mile area where Portland’s bike share system is supposed to begin operation, the city has already installed more than 3,000 public bike racks. Yes, that’s more than 6,000 bike parking spaces.

This is a huge contrast to a city like New York, where scarce bike parking is actually one of the biggest barriers to bike ownership. A major factor behind Citi Bike’s success there: the bikes arrived with their own parking spaces.

citibike

(Photo: Shinya Suzuki)

Portland’s ubiquitous bike staples are useless to a “smart-dock” system like Citi Bike, which allows its bikes to park only in the special slots of its docks. But when Social Bicycles and other “smart-bike” systems started emerging, Hoyt-McBeth realized that they could be a perfect fit for Portland’s plentiful bike parking.

The reason is obscure but fascinating: the achilles heel of a “smart-dock” system like Citi Bike is that its most popular docks regularly run out of parking spaces. To prevent this from happening, most bike sharing systems hire people to drive around in vans, constantly monitoring bike-share stations that are nearly full and moving bikes to stations that are nearly empty. This work, called “rebalancing,” adds up to between 30 and 60 percent of the entire cost of operating a smart-dock bike sharing system.

Social Bicycles’ smart-bike system has docks, just like the smart-dock systems do. The difference is that they look like this:

PHX_STATION

(Photo: Social Bicycles)

These “dumb” docks can run out of room, too. But in Portland, there’ll almost always be bike parking nearby to handle any spillover. The only change required is that Portland’s behind-the-scenes software will need to recognize a bike as being “at a dock” if it’s parked anywhere on the same block face.

If this is the case, Hoyt-McBeth and Motivate estimate that they can eliminate half of the system’s rebalancing needs.

Though other problems might get in the way — nobody’s quite sure yet — that could be a big cost savings. Which is a big part of the new bike share system’s next feature…

Its pricing is customized for the “interested but concerned”

cheapest possible

For its heaviest users, Portland’s bike share system won’t be cheap. Annual memberships will cost something between $120 and $180. That’s well above the current industry range of $75 to $150, though Portland’s would be broken into gentle monthly installments of somewhere between $10 and $14.95. (The annual memberships will also be fairly generous, offering an allowance of 90 free minutes every day.)

Portland’s system will be among the cheapest for one group of users: people who are using it for the very first time.

In other major U.S. systems, you can’t start using a bike sharing system without coughing up $7 or $8 for a “24-hour membership,” which usually comes with unlimited rides of 30 to 45 minutes or less.

This price structure was designed for tourists, but Hoyt-McBeth said there’s now wide consensus that it’s off-putting to new users.

“Everyone in the industry has kind of recognized that the existing pricing model is a bit opaque and hard to understand,” he said. “In talking to the marketing professionals, they talk about how they spend half of their time with the public just explaining pricing.”

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This year, Milwaukee’s bike share system scrapped its $7 daypass in favor of a $3 per ride fee.

Hoyt-McBeth’s goal is to maximize bike share’s attractiveness to the one group of people that bike sharing is supposed to be for in the first place: not tourists (who aren’t a meaningful source of car traffic) and not people interested in daily commuting (who probably own a bike already if they live in Portland). It’s the group of potential bikers that Portland has, since 2006, been calling the “interested but concerned.”

“We know where we need to go if we need to grow biking in the city, and that is that we need to get the interested but concerned to give it a try,” Hoyt-McBeth said Friday. In an email, he added: “Most US bike share systems are designed for two main user groups: tourists and daily commuters. But that’s not who Portland actually wants to reach with a bike sharing system — it wants to reach residents who aren’t yet commuting daily. The $2.50-a-ride and $14.95-a-month-with-contract pricing structure is designed to appeal to the IBC.”

It will get to steal the country’s best ideas for making bike share accessible

Untitled

Boston’s Hubway has done better than most bike-sharing systems at handing out discounted memberships.
(Photo: Better Bike Share Partnership)

In Washington D.C., only 3 percent of Capital Bikeshare’s annual members are black. In Salt Lake City, people who make less than $10,000 a year are 12 percent of the population but 0 percent of bike share members. For other low-income and marginalized racial groups, the numbers are little better for any system in the country.

Generally speaking, U.S. bike share systems are failing to serve the people they could be helping the most: people who can’t afford a car, a transit pass, or a bike of their own.

This will be an uphill fight in Portland, too. But thanks to its three-year delay, Portland will be able to draw on two other systems, Philadelphia and Boston, that have had quite a bit of success making bike share useful and attractive to people in low-income and minority groups.

One month after its April 22 launch, Philadelphia’s Indego was selling 5 to 10 memberships a day through an all-cash system.

Like Philadelphia, Hoyt-McBeth said, Portland aims to offer a system that lets people buy a bike-share membership without a credit or debit card. (12 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t have one.) Philly’s Indego system partners with PayNearMe, a company that lets people generate a barcode, bring it to a 7-Eleven or Family Dollar via telephone or paper, and pay in cash there.

By one month after its April 22 launch, Hoyt-McBeth said, Indego was selling 5 to 10 memberships a day through this all-cash system.

“It’s not the most elegant thing,” he said. But “people are buying these memberships and they’re using them. … Like in the first two weeks, the utilization of those memberships in terms of ride per membership was higher than their traditional member.”

Another model is Boston, where the city’s Hubway bike share has partnered with many groups to hand out 778 subsidized $5 memberships last year to low-income residents. Of people who bought cheap memberships, 49 percent renewed — almost as good as the 57 percent renewal rate for other annual members.

Motivate says it can’t afford to go that cheap in Portland. It’ll offer up to 500 subsidized annual memberships for $35 each. Hoyt-McBeth is pursuing grant funding to bring that price down and to pay for targeted marketing to people in cultural minority groups.

An innovative, untested plan

So, do you buy it?

If it doesn’t work, you won’t be as sorry as Hoyt-McBeth will be. He joked that he sometimes refers to himself as “Mr. Overhead” when it comes to bike share budgeting.

But Hoyt-McBeth and Bradway both seem confident that they’ve found a winning formula. And they make a powerful case that they’re right.

“I think a lot of your readers are frustrated that we don’t have bike share yet,” Hoyt-McBeth said Friday. “We share the eagerness to get bike share on the ground. … I think what we’ve gained from this is a better system that’s more equitable and something that Portland can really be proud of.”

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Ben Funkhouser
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Ben Funkhouser

Great article – I’m hopeful about the direction this is going!

jenkins
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jenkins

I always wondered how the re-balancing worked. Thanks.

JJJJ
Guest

There are two different things at play here. The docking system, and the pricing. I think the docking system has many pros and cons. But the pricing? Hell no. That graph is incredibly misleading.

Take CaBi. It’s $8 entry fee (for a casual user) but you get unlimited 30 minute rides for 24 hours. Dock and take, dock and take. Ten short rides in one day = 80 cents a ride.

Meanwhile, in Portland, it’s $2.50 per ride.

And for annual members in those other systems, riders can bike as long as they want, as many times as they want, for free, if they dock every 45 minutes.

A hard limit of 90 minutes a day is ridiculous. Arent you trying to encourage bike use…?

Finally, why not compare with global leaders?

Paris charges only 29 euros ($32) a year for 30 minute rides, 39 euros for 45 minute rides.

A 24 hour pass is 1.70 and a week is 8.

Thats called taking cycling seriously as transportation, and not looking at is as a tourist amenity or slush fund.
http://en.velib.paris.fr/Subscriptions-and-fees

Gary B
Guest
Gary B

All good points, but I don’t know what was misleading about the graph. It is exactly what it says it is: the cheapest possible (single) ride you could take. That comparison is relevant because of the target population as explained in the next few paragraphs. Other comparisons are also useful.

davemess
Guest
davemess

point being that most of the more expensive fees aren’t for “single” rides, even though they are the cheapest. It’s like comparing a single slice of pizza to an all you can eat buffet and then saying that clearly the single slice is cheaper. Sure it is if you only want the one piece, but many people will want more than that.

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

In Esch sur Alzette (Luxembourg), bike share is… free. Get a card from the city, then use it whenever you want, for how long you want. I never paid a cent. The bikes were like tanks, however.

Alan 1.0
Guest
Alan 1.0

I don’t understand how the flexible parking prevents the need to rebalance. I get that there’s more parking in the high demand destination but that just means more bikes pile up there. The system still needs to move those bikes back to popular departure locations, but now there’s more of them than with smart docks. Does that mean more trips with the rebalance truck, or bigger trucks, or…?

It would be cool to see the rebalancing done by human power, but at only maybe 4 to 6 bikes per load, it’s probably not cost effective for labor.

TonyJ
Guest
TonyJ

It won’t completely remove the need at all, but it puts a bit of slack in the system. In DC or NYC if you get to the station and you can’t park your bike, you’re pretty badly inconvenienced. You might well never take that chance again (like trying to park a car2go downtown PDX after the meters expire).

If you get to a station and there aren’t any bikes… that isn’t great either, but I think having something you cant get rid of is worse than not being able to get something you want, in this case.

Alan 1.0
Guest
Alan 1.0

Thanks, Tony, that makes some sense for usability. I’m still sceptical of “…Hoyt-McBeth and Motivate estimate that they can eliminate half of the system’s rebalancing needs.” As far as I can see, the system rebalancing needs remain nearly the same.

+1 to Truck Trikes 🙂

TonyJ
Guest
TonyJ

I learned recently that the Boston system (and I assume others) have a contractual guarantee to the city that no station would be empty or full for more than an hour. They get fines if they are. I suspect a similar contractual agreement will be in place to ensure no stations stay empty, but it will reduce the need for emergency rebalance at full stations.

Al Dimond
Guest

So say there’s a heavy imbalance of usage, into downtown in the morning and out of downtown in the afternoon. A heavily used system has to rebalance continuously during rush hour to maintain bike availability on the outskirts in the morning and downtown in the afternoon, and to maintain rack availability downtown in the morning and on the outskirts in the afternoon. If users can park more freely rebalancing only has to cover bike availability. I think that’s where the savings come in — the system doesn’t have to rebalance frantically during the morning rush just to maintain rack availability at the most popular stations.

Spiffy
Guest
Spiffy

very true… as with car2go if I can’t find one near me no big deal I’ll travel another way… but when it won’t communicate when I’m done and I can’t park it then it’s suddenly costing me 46 cents a minute plus my time and I’m furious…

chris
Guest
chris

I as well. This system could cut my Car2Go usage in half, as I tend to use that service frequently when I walk somewhere instead of biking, but want to get home faster.

davemess
Guest
davemess

Car2go already cut my usage in full…….

9watts
Guest
9watts

Great series of articles. I’m learning lots. Thank you.

One question I’ve had from the beginning and I don’t feel has yet been answered is who bikeshare is for? Reading about how poor people and minorities don’t use it is typically treated as a solvable problem, one where we just need to get the details right: pricing, station location, etc., but to me bikeshare has always seemed like a tourist/business lunch kind of thing. Bikes (I mean to own) are not expensive. What am I missing?

Spiffy
Guest
Spiffy

bike share is for people that want transportation options…

if you take your bike to work then you have to take it home at some point… what if the weather turns and you don’t want to bike home? too bad, you’re stuck with your bike…

it’s one reason I don’t like biking to work… my life is fluid and my transportation choice usually depends not only on where I’m currently at and where I’m eventually going but also on where I go along the way…

do I want to have to be responsible for storing a bike with lights and helmet when I’ll be meeting up with 2 other people mid-day that don’t have a bike?

I like all my options to have a “spur of the moment” option on them for the various changing landscape…

one common example is that I take the bus to work (because I’m not in a hurry), then a car2go home so I can get there quicker to drive my own vehicle to visit a friend in Vancouver that evening… if I drove to work I’d have to deal with morning commute traffic, and possibly have to turn down a ride home from the gf… I’d rather not bus home because that cuts into my social time when having to drive to Vancouver… and if I cancel my evening plans then I can still bus home and then bike to dinner…

9watts
Guest
9watts

“my life is fluid and my transportation choice usually depends not only on where I’m currently at and where I’m eventually going but also on where I go along the way…”

Thanks, Spiffy. That helps.
My transportation life is completely different and that probably explains why I’m having such trouble grasping the logic here.

Joseph E
Guest

Santa Monica is using the same system, but will have an even cheaper per trip option, at $2.00 for 20 minutes. Several cities in Los Angeles county are using Social Bicycles (but not the city of Los Angeles, which is going with a smart-doc system like CitiBike or Capital Bikeshare) http://www.santamonicanext.org/2014/11/santa-monica-poised-to-have-first-bike-share-system-in-l-a-county/

MNBikeLuv
Guest
MNBikeLuv

Another thing to remember is tourists and intra-town usage.

Again, referencing Nice Ride MN, there a lot of tourists that grab a bike share to get to different points within a town. It sounds goofy, but its a great way to get around. On a recent trip to Chicago, my wife and I did just this. Versus walking/taxis, we snagged some bikes and pedaled to points in downtown.

Also, a lot bike share usage is “I have a car in parking garage but I need to get here to there” usage during the day, like lunch hour.

James
Guest
James

I’m curious to see how this bikeshare copes with Portland’s rampant bike theft, since these bikes will be sitting outside 24/7 and won’t be parked in secure, specialized docking stations.

Tom Hardy
Guest
Tom Hardy

I wonder if PPB or a private security firm will take care of the bike thiefs. Maybe hire them to do maintenance.

MNBikeLuv
Guest
MNBikeLuv

These bikes are little different than Nice Ride MN’s bike’s, so take this with a grain of salt, but the bikes don’t have a bunch of components you could resell very quickly or easily or make a good profit off of. The frame screams “bike share” and the hubs, pedals, wheels, tires, etc. are pretty pedestrian. Bike theft is almost a “strip it and sell it” game where you sell all parts, both to maximize profit, but also to make it hard to track where the bike ends up.

J_R
Guest
J_R

Really, “rose from the dead?” How did I miss the announcement of bike share starting in Portland?

AndyC of Linnton
Guest
AndyC of Linnton

It was 9 years ago.

q`Tzal
Guest
q`Tzal

Actually this seems like it could be a good marketing slogan.
“City of Portland Bike Share: we Rose from the dead.”
Or
“You ignore us, then you laugh at us, then you fight us but then we Rose from the Dead.”

Maybe use the official Portland Rose in place if the word “rose”.
Trying to avoid zombie imagery would be a good idea.

TonyJ
Guest
TonyJ

Even if there is less rebalancing, I hope they use Bill Stites’ Truck Trikes to do the work!

Tomas LaPalella
Guest
Tomas LaPalella

Not holding my breath, because like many other alt-transportation services, I’m sure it will be of little use or just plain unavailable in East Portland.

Vinny
Guest
Vinny

Michael Andersen: Milwaukie is a city in Oregon and doesn’t have bike share. Milwaukee has the Bublr bike share.

Allan
Guest
Allan

Will you be able to park outside the yellow zone for a higher fee? If not, why not?

Charles Ross
Guest
Charles Ross

I don’t know if it has been mentioned above or considered by decision makers but why not ‘pay’ users to move bikes from overpopulated stations to underpopulated stations. So . . . bikes moving downhill from Hillsdale station to downtown stations would have regular charges. Bikes moving uphill from downtown to Hillsdale station would have first two hours free.

Buzz
Guest
Buzz

Interesting that bike share will be facilitating cash purchases at the same time TriMet is proposing to eliminate them…

Steven Howland
Guest
Steven Howland

The elimination of cash payments on Trimet is a very similar process that is going to be used with the bikeshare. Trimet riders will be able to load a card with trips at a designated location (7-eleven’s and Plaid Pantry’s for instance) by paying in cash. Similarly, cash payments are being proposed as being able to be purchased at those types of establishments (agreements still have to be made) and you get the pin code necessary to unlock the bike.

Sam Churchill
Guest

Bike owners might rent (and maintain) their own bikes at public rental hubs with this concept:

https://i5bridgecam.wordpress.com/biking/

– This bike sharing concept is an improvement over Spinlister.com (which lists owner rental bikes thru an app) because bikes can be located near high-traffic transit locations, rather than the owner’s residence.

– Unlike bike sharing programs like the one planned for Portland, it eliminates high overhead, membership fees and high daily rental rates.

Bikes could rent for less than city-run bike sharing because they are owner maintained.

Bike renters might earn $100-$400 per month. The non-profit might generate $300-$500/month per hub (at $50/mo per bike space), covering basic operational expenses.

I do like Portland’s bike share plan, however. The Sobi system seems like a good way to go!

davemess
Guest
davemess

Except the map for this system really doesn’t touch any low income neighborhoods (Most of the N/NE ones have gentrified). I don’t understand where they will find people to give subsidized passes to.

Hasn’t TRIMET recently switched to a lower all day pass? And bike share seems to think that’s a bad idea? Just seems like there should be something in between $2.50 for one trip and $15 for a month.

maccoinnich
Guest

30% of the newly built housing in the River District (broadly the Pearl plus parts of a few other neighborhoods) is subsidized low income housing. There are more units of affordable housing in the Pearl than there are at New Columbia. Also, Northwest has some very large Home Forward buildings. Downtown and Old Town Chinatown have a huge number of low income residents, some of whom live in subsidized housing and some in market rate SROs.

Nick Falbo
Guest
Nick Falbo

“There are more units of affordable housing in the Pearl than there are at New Columbia.”

I’ve heard that there are many subsidized units in the Pearl – this is the first time I was able to put it in perspective. good stat.

davemess
Guest
davemess

Is there a source for that statement?

maccoinnich
Guest

New Columbia has 852 units (http://www.homeforward.org/development/property-developments/new-columbia). Just counting the Ramona, the Sitka, Lovejoy Station, Station Place and Pearl Court you get to 904 units (http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2014/11/portland_promised_a_river_dist.html).

davemess
Guest
davemess

I think the pricing graph is pretty misleading and comparing apples to oranges. Yes those might be the lowest prices, but for $6 you can ride Nice Ride all day, compared to less than a 30 minute trip in Portland.

https://www.niceridemn.org/pricing/

Also note the annual membership for Nice Ride is much cheaper than the proposed one here ($65). And those members can keep bikes for longer (up to an hour).

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

Ha! I thought Nice Ride was a bike share system in southern France!

davemess
Guest
davemess

If this is supposed to be the “for” or “positive” page for bike share, I’m quite worried to see the “against” page.

Lester Burnham
Guest
Lester Burnham

“Not pleased that your city paid this guy approximately half of an $86,000 salary for several years to acquire this expertise? Too bad, it already did.”

This is especially disconcerting. Meanwhile can’t even get a couple speed bumps on my street.

Allan
Guest
Allan

It seems like you could lock bikes facing both ways in the ‘dock’ shown there, so 2 per dock point.

Patrick
Guest

As a Portlander that spent several years recently in Minneapolis I have to say that I always cringe whenever I see a new proposal for Portland bikesharing. I loved the way Nice Ride was rolled out in Minneapolis and think that PDX should copy that system.

Robert Burchett
Guest
Robert Burchett

I support bike share in principle, and trust the wrinkles can be ironed out over time. About the parking: many of the available spots downtown are occupied by the same commuter bikes every day. And, what happens when a private bike is parked on a bike share rack?

todd
Guest
todd

I admit with a tinge of shame that my favorite thing about SoBi is that the bikes themselves are almost attractive. Classical. Maybe they’ll ride like dogs but they’re not industro-fugly like so many other bikeshare bikes.