BikePortland.org

Lyft to acquire Biketown operator Motivate for $250 million


Portland’s bike share system is now managed by Lyft while it uses bikes and technology owned by Uber.

On the same day Biketown launches a major service area expansion and host of other changes, Lyft is finalizing a $250 million deal to acquire Motivate, Inc. — the company that operates Portland’s bike share system.

The deal has potentially huge implications for the future of not only bike share in Portland, but the sharing of all types of last-mile solutions including bikes, electric-bikes, and “micro-mobility” vehicles like electric scooters.

It’s also sort of an awkward mess. Here’s why: The bright orange bikes Motivate uses in the Biketown system were designed and made by a company known as Social Bicycles, which was re-launched as Jump Bikes in January. Then in April, Jump was acquired by Uber, Lyft’s main rival. That means Portland’s bike share system is now managed by Lyft while it uses bikes and technology owned by Uber. What could possibly go wrong?

“Motivate is now dependent on Jump, a.k.a. Uber, to provide their service. If they don’t provide the service, they’re on the hook,” William Henderson, a Portland-based mobility software expert and CEO of Ride Report told us in an interview this morning. Henderson was referring to Portland’s bike share contract, which puts the onus for success squarely on the shoulders of the operator.

This might be a problem.

Biketown bikes have specific technology built into them that’s integral to the rest of the system. Even if Uber would sell Lyft/Motivate more bikes (highly unlikely), the new bikes would likely have very different technology and features which would make inter-operability a challenge.

Advertisement

How will Lyft/Motivate keep Biketown running strong if it can’t get any new bikes? Biketown General Manager Dorothy Mitchell told us via email this morning that despite a service area that has expanded from eight square miles in 2016 to about 12 square miles as of today, they are not adding new bikes to the fleet. Instead, they’ll rely on users and staff to rebalance the system. “We’re feeling good about the current fleet being able to meet the need in our service area,” Mitchell shared with us via email this morning.

These inherent contractual limitations only apply to bike share. The contract does not explicitly give Lyft/Motivate an exclusive license for scooters. Because of that, Henderson sees a lot more of them on the local horizon. As we reported last month, Portland is set to launch a pilot program of dockless electric scooters this summer. “Almost certainly what will happen in Portland is that there will be a huge rush of scooters sometime this summer,” Henderson says. “If you look at other cities where scooters have launched, it’s an overnight success. They will run circles around the bikes for utilization rates and trips-per-day.”

Henderson thinks that the popularity of e-scooters will lead to more people clamoring e-bikes. But with Lyft as the operator, it’s hard to say at this point where they’d come from with their rival Uber in control of the supply-chain.

If Motivate’s bikes and tech haven’t kept pace with the dockless wave, why would Lyft spend $250 million for them?

The answer is that what Motivate lacks in technology, they make up for in relationships. It’s very likely Lyft is more interested in using Motivate’s valuable existing contracts and contacts with cities than their clunky bikes and old-school kiosks. Where those contracts are exclusive, like in Portland, all the better to keep a growing list of pesky start-up competitors away.

Meanwhile, Lyft is almost certainly eyeing the bike and scooter-sharing market themselves. GreenBiz.com reported on Tuesday that, “To Uber and Lyft, adding different types of mobility options makes sense as a way to grow their customer base and also offer vehicles that don’t clog urban areas.”

Further evidence of Lyft’s push into this space came via a tweet from industry insider Michal Naka yesterday that showed how the company is hiring a team of “last mile engineers”. Beyond mere speculation, Lyft is reportedly on the verge of launching their own fleet of electric scooters in San Francisco.

Henderson posits Lyft is still 6-12 months away from launching a new bike or scooter product of their own. And even if they were ready today, they’d still have to figure out what to do with the 1,000 bikes and 100 docking stations we have on the streets today — all of which are getting older and more outdated with each passing day.

Stay tuned. This is going to get very interesting.

(The City of Portland/Biketown declined an opportunity to comment on this story.)

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

Never miss a story. Sign-up for the daily BP Headlines email.

BikePortland needs your support.

Switch to Desktop View with Comments