A half-hour city council hearing Wednesday on Portland’s proposed bike sharing system raised some questions but, seemingly, few serious concerns.
With a formal vote lined up next week, Commissioners Steve Novick and Nick Fish, along with Mayor Charlie Hales, all spoke warmly about the proposal.
Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman didn’t seem to be raising major objections, though both asked pointed questions: Fritz about safety and Saltzman about money. Saltzman in particular seemed upbeat about the plan. Neither offered a closing comment Wednesday, leaving themselves plenty of room to back away from the deal if they decide to.
“It’s nice sometimes not to be first, and this time we’re going to be 65th.”
— City bike share project manager Steve Hoyt-McBeth
The hearing was significantly less contentious than previous council discussions about bike share, all of which have occurred in the glare of repeated editorials from The Oregonian urging the city not to create such a system. (The latest of those was published Monday.)
This time around, the council seemed less stressed about the concept.
“It’s nice sometimes not to be first, and this time we’re going to be 65th,” city bike share project manager Steve Hoyt-McBeth told the council.
Commissioner Fish, in particular, seemed to be strongly influenced by the success that bike sharing has had in other cities like San Francisco, New York and Chicago. He said he’d seen it in action on family trips around the country.
“Bike share is blowing up in those cities and everybody seems to be on a bike,” Fish said.
Like the other commissioners, Fish also praised the low-risk nature of the deal the city has set up. The city’s contractor, Motivate, will assume all downside risk for the first three years. The city says that even if the system flops and no private sponsors are found, it can scale back the system’s performance standards for the fourth and fifth years that would be required under the terms of a federal grant. That’d prevent any public operating subsidy of the system.
“There’s risk in everything we do,” Fish said. “It seems like this time there’s a modest risk.”
“There’s risk in everything we do. It seems like this time there’s a modest risk.”
— Commissioner Nick Fish on financing bike sharing systems
Novick, laying out the virtues of a bike share system, sounded similar notes. He said that though he hadn’t supported a public subsidy for a convention-center hotel, sending a $2 million federal grant to bike sharing seemed like a “reasonable investment” for a system that would both serve many locals and provide a service that tourists have come to expect.
Hales called the proposed 600-bike system a “Goldilocks” proposal: not to big, not too small, not too fast and not too slow.
“I hear from people saying ‘We’re way behind in Portland and that’s terrible!'” Hales said. “We’re behind, or ahead, or somewhere, because we started it.”
He said that other cities that have been embracing biking amenities are doing so because they’ve seen Portland’s success.
“That has set off a virtuous competition among cities to be green, livable,” he said. “What a problem to have, for cities to be competing with each other to do the right thing. … To those who are wringing their hands saying ‘we’re not a leader’: yes we are, and others are running in our same direction.”
Commissioner Saltzman asked if the city would be opening itself up to lawsuits. City Active Transportation Manager Margi Bradway said the city’s contract with Motivate protects it from liability. This seemed to satisfy Saltzman on that issue.
“It’s a nice thing to have; it’s not an essential thing to have,” Saltzman said.
Commissioner Fritz raised two main areas of concern: whether bike-share users would be able to get helmets, and what the city’s plan was for keeping people from riding the bikes on downtown sidewalks, which is illegal.
“Downtown is a dangerous place to ride a bike safely,” Fritz said. She said she’d recently met an East Portland resident who told her he’d been biking in a downtown MAX lane, caught his wheel in one of the grooves and badly injured himself.
“Downtown is a dangerous place to ride a bike safely.”
— Commissioner Amanda Fritz on obstacles to good bike sharing
Hoyt-McBeth said the city’s proposed contract with Motivate includes a plan to test helmet vending machines, but that choices are limited because no reliable option seems to be on the market yet. In any case, he said, the system will promote helmet use through its membership channels, offer discounts for helmet purchases, give free helmets to low-income members and pursue partnerships with bike rental shops.
As for downtown sidewalk riding, Hoyt-McBeth said the city will find some way to add messages on the bikes or their docks that tell people not to ride on downtown sidewalks.
Meanwhile on Twitter, various people suggested another way to reduce sidewalk biking.
— Nicholas Caleb (@ncaleb) September 16, 2015
A handful of other Portlanders came to testify in support of bike sharing, including a developer who said that commercial real estate tenants rarely ask about auto parking availability these days and are much likelier to ask about bike parking.
Bicycle Transportation Alliance Executive Director Rob Sadowsky spoke in favor, saying his organization would be happy to partner with the city to educate people on safe bike use.
BikeLoudPDX co-chair Ted Buehler said the system seemed small but that he looked forward to inviting visiting friends to use it.
“600 bikes isn’t really a lot to go around,” Buehler said. “Still, it’s a terrific start.”
The most skeptical testifier was Joe Walsh, an advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. He echoed Fritz’s concerns about people biking on downtown sidewalks.
“Right now the police aren’t enforcing that,” Walsh said. “It’s the wild west.”
But even Walsh didn’t have a problem with the general idea of bike sharing.
“The program itself sounds really interesting,” he said. “They did it in New York. That’s kind of a good endorsement, because it is a very complex city.”
Michael Andersen was news editor of BikePortland.org from 2013 to 2016 and still pops up occasionally.