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As system hits ‘sweet spot’, City celebrates 2nd birthday for Biketown

Posted by on July 19th, 2018 at 12:53 pm

Biketown has become a fixture in Portland in two short years.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus)

Can you believe it’s already been two years since those bright orange bikes hit the streets of Portland?

Biketown launched on July 19th, 2016 and today the City of Portland and Motivate, the system’s operator, are hosting a party to celebrate.

Since the launch, the system has tallied over 700,000 rides and there are over 101,000 active users. In a presentation to the City’s Bicycle Advisory Committee on July 9th, bike share program manager Steve Hoyt-McBeth with the Portland Bureau of Transportation said Biketown is on an upward trajectory. “There’s been a lot of growth in 2018,” he said. “We’ve really hit a sweet spot.”

Hoyt-McBeth endured years of delays as PBOT launched bike share long after they expected to. In February 2007 we proclaimed “The race is on!” among big cities who wanted to be the first to get a major system on the streets. Portland ended up 64th. Acknowledging that late entry to the market, Hoyt-McBeth told the committee that, “We felt like it was incumbent upon us to learn from other cities and try to be innovative with what we did.”

“I think going with a smart bike model turned out to be a really good move on our part.”
— Steve Hoyt-McBeth, PBOT

Indeed, Portland was one of the first big cities to use “smart bikes” which have all the technology for reserving and locking on-board and don’t require cumbersome kiosks. Though not the same as dockless, the current type of bike share bike that’s sweeping the country, they’re close enough to have allowed Biketown to remain competitive. “I think going with a smart bike model, which has now been rebranded as dockless,” McBeth said at the meeting, “Turned out to be a really good move on our part. It’s allowed us to be flexible.”

One way PBOT has taken advantage of Biketown’s flexibility is by leveraging their existing investment in bike parking to increase parking access for the bikes. Biketown members can park in any PBOT bike rack for free and there are several parts of the service area — dubbed “free hub zones” — where anyone can park in an existing bike corral or other City-owned rack at no extra charge. That, along with simpler and more streamlined payment options, has led to an uptick in usage.

Then the free-Biketown-in-May promotion changed everything.

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(Chart: PBOT)

“The people we need to bring to Biketown is harder in Portland than it is in DC or Chicago or those other cities, because they just haven’t been at it [promoting biking in general] as long.”

PBOT and Motivate made the entire system free during National Bike Month this year and saw usage rates skyrocket. It was a savvy — and strategic — marketing move. McBeth said finding new, local users of the system (non-tourists) is harder in Portland than in other big cities. Why? Because more people already bike here than anywhere else. They needed to do something bold to shake new users out of the tree.

“Bike share tends to leverage latent demand for biking,” McBeth explained to the Bicycle Advisory Committee earlier this month. “But we’ve spent 15-20 years really going after that low-hanging fruit of the ‘enthused and confident’ riders, so the people we need to bring to Biketown is harder in Portland than it is in DC or Chicago or those other cities because they just haven’t been at it [promoting biking in general] as long.”

The free promotion worked. Biketown broke its one-day trip record nine times in May.

When compared to 2017, so far this year (from January to June) trips on the system are up 34 percent. Even if you take out May’s numbers, rides are up 22 percent. “We’re really stoked to see that growth,” McBeth said.

And everyone else should be too since nearly one-third of all Biketown trips are thought to replace local driving trips.

If Portland did this well with traditional bike share, it’s exciting to think what we might do with a truly dockless system — especially one with thousands of more bikes, most of which are electric-assisted. While Biketown has had just over 700,000 rides in two years, Seattle’s 10,000 bike strong dockless system tallied 430,000 rides in just six months (between launch in June through December 2017).

PBOT knows a similar type of dockless system is in the future for Portland. A four-person team of bike share staffers traveled to Seattle last December to take a closer look. They rode and tested 116 bikes. They observed how they were parked, whether they were properly maintained, how easy they were to unlock and ride, and so on. Their findings were mixed. Just 44 percent of the bikes had no mechanical issues. 30 percent of them had either multiple issues or were unrideable. When it came to whether or not the bikes cluttered up sidewalks PBOT’s team found that 87 percent of the bikes were parked correctly. That being said, 10 percent were completely blocking sidewalks. That might not sound like a lot, but remember that’s 10 percent of 10,000 bikes.

Slides from a PBOT report on their study trip to Seattle.

In the end, PBOT staff liked the ease-of-use, lower-price, and greater accessibility of Seattle’s dockless bikes. They gave a thumbs-down to the poor ride quality of many of the bikes, the “messy” right-of-way issues, and occasional software glitches.

As PBOT presses forward on new types of shared active transportation systems, they can bank on the success of their first foray into bike sharing. The future is going to be much different and they’ll need to draw from that well of community goodwill to make sure the road remains smooth.

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

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19 Comments
  • Avatar
    GlowBoy July 19, 2018 at 2:11 pm

    So is the thinking that BikeTown might go fully dockless with their existing bikes? And competing with the likes of Ofo, LimeBike, etc., or in lieu of them?

    As I’ve written here before, I spent a weekend in Seattle earlier this year, spending much of the time riding sharebikes all over the city. In general I thought the system was awesome, the right of way issues were minor, and the only major problem was the quality/maintenance of the bikes.

    And it’s a HUGE problem. LimeBike was by far the best of the three in terms of the repair level of the bikes (not to mention them being nicer bikes in the first place), followed by Spin, with Ofo a distant third. But even the Limes weren’t without problems. Many of the bikes I rode from the three vendors had pedal problems, braking issues, crooked handlebars, were stuck in one gear or had seat/seatpost problems. A number of these not only affect the function of the bikes but were safety threats (and not just due to crashes – having a seat post that won’t hold the saddle level, jamming the nose up into your perineum can be injurious too).

    I don’t see functioning sharebikes as clutter. I DO see broken bikes as clutter, and it’s a real problem. Dockless won’t be ready for primetime until the vendors do a better job of handling this. Portland’s permitting process for these vendors needs to include an incentive to for them to manage subfunctioning bikes, either by removing them or fixing them within 24 hours of the problem being reported. That might lead certain three-letter vendors to opt out of Portland, which might be fine in the long run.

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      Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) July 19, 2018 at 2:39 pm

      Biketown is limited in what they can do. They can’t just buy new orange bikes — in part because they don’t have money to buy them (they’re much more expensive than a typical dockless bike BTW) and there’s the real problem of their supplier (JumpBikes) now being owned by Uber which is a competitor of Lyft, which is the new owner of Motivate, which is Biketown’s operator. It’s a confusing web of corporate consolidation that is creating widespread confusion about what comes next. I bet Lyft will come out with a dockless bike of their own and/or PBOT will work something out with Jump/Uber for their e-bikes in the meantime. There will probably be a period of testing different bikes from different vendors to see what works best… But the x-factor is that Nike might not want to have competition for Biketown so I’m not sure how that will influence what happens.

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        9watts July 19, 2018 at 4:06 pm

        Seems shaky, not to mention icky, to be reliant on all these multinational corporations to simply bike across town.

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          Mike Quigley July 20, 2018 at 7:53 am

          Which is a pretty good indicator that this whole bikeshare idea will simply self destruct at some point.

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            Al Dimond July 20, 2018 at 10:56 am

            Profitable businesses self-perpetuate and grow, of course. The question is whether a profitable business is what’s left after the companies burn through their investment money. That’s still an open question. Though many cities have offered operational subsidies to bikeshare systems it’s harder to imagine that with international companies that haven’t exactly worked closely with cities (whether on issues the cities consider substantive or merely to give city officials the opportunity to take credit for stuff).

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          billyjo July 23, 2018 at 8:38 am

          Look at carshare. A few years ago it was great! There were lots of cars all over, Zipcar even had an office that I could go into. That office is gone, a good half of the cars are gone. What’s left…. we rented a car that had expired tags and that was a hassle to get traded out, we’ve had a car that didn’t have a rear view mirror because someone broke it…. big shiny Mercedes replaced the tiny cars….
          We’ll be buying a car this fall.

          With corporate owners the bottom line is all that matters. If the bikes in a certain neighborhood get broken, then that neighborhood no longer gets bikes. If the bikes far out don’t get rented, that neighborhood no longer gets bikes. In just a few years these bikes will be in the pearl and inner eastside and nowhere else.

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      Al Dimond July 19, 2018 at 2:51 pm

      Of course “functioning sharebikes” left in the wrong place can be clutter, too. I’ve seen one poorly-placed share bike really mess up the function of a popular, busy bike intersection (near Stone/34th, one of the places where riders from the Burke-Gilman Trail join up with riders going to and from the Fremont Bridge, which has also become a really popular spot for runners since the Brooks headquarters moved across the street, and is constrained by a street, a building, and a couple traffic-signal poles). The fact that the bike was functioning didn’t matter — the bike sitting there without a rider was certainly disruptive, and having someone actually trying to check out and mount the bike in that spot, in the middle of rush hour, would have been much worse! I actually move a lot of share-bikes off the trail because I don’t want people to see them left there and think that’s an appropriate standard, and whether they’re functioning or not doesn’t make much difference to me — I’m dragging around a bike with a locked rear wheel either way.

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        GlowBoy July 20, 2018 at 1:49 pm

        Yes, of course. That seems to be the prevailing viewpoint, even when they’re not blocking a ROW. That’s why I made the point that *I* don’t necessarily consider them to be clutter just because they represent bright color splashed on a usually blander visual landscape.

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      Phil Richman July 20, 2018 at 12:12 pm

      For Annual Members BikeTown IS “fully dockless” and ends up being essentially free when factoring in credits for station returns or credit stations. I love reducing the wear and tear on my own bikes, always having a bike available nearby, never having to worry about a lock, theft or a helmet (my choice) + they are a heck of a lot of fun to ride. 913 trips, 1133 miles and counting.

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        9watts July 20, 2018 at 12:21 pm

        Your example, to me, the clever ways you are able to take advantage of the pricing, all the while owning your own fleet of bikes, is evidence that this is a crazy way to spend money, provide subsidies. I’m sure there are others for whom the math works out differently, who don’t already have their own fleet of bikes they could rely on instead, but in our eagerness to make this system fun, sexy, free, smart, to impress our funders or City Council or the public have we lost sight of the goal? What was the goal? What is the life of these bikes?

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          GlowBoy July 20, 2018 at 1:59 pm

          It’s a pretty paltry subsidy compared to pretty much every other mode of transportation out there, except walking.

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          Phil Richman July 21, 2018 at 9:21 am

          There is nothing clever about understanding the simple pricing. The only subsidies were from the Feds and a Mega-Corporation. I think the goal is to get more people out of their cars. Just like in NYC, Chicago, DC and many other places it is working. It is long past time to hate on bikesharing.

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            9watts July 21, 2018 at 9:37 am

            “The only subsidies were from the Feds and a Mega-Corporation.”

            Not to mention years of staff time at PBOT trying to make this happen.

            “I think the goal is to get more people out of their cars”

            A laudable goal, but how about some data on how we are doing? So far, the testimonials I’ve read here have tended to resemble yours: bikey folk for whom this service provides a modicum of extra convenience, a means of shifting the wear and maintenance of their own bike onto a far-away corporation which is certainly fun and clever, but in my reading a far cry from the lofty ‘get people out of cars’ objective. I’m open to the possibility that this is a fantastic way to pursue this goal, to learn that I’m all wet, have no idea what I’m talking about, but, so far I don’t think anyone has made a persuasive (demographic, modal) case for this.

            “It is long past time to hate on bikesharing.”

            Is that the best way to deal with criticism (founded or unfounded)? I don’t think hating on is particularly apt here. We’ve given a multinational corporation with an abysmal human and labor rights reputation an exclusive and cheap advertising platform in pursuit of a particular flavor of alternative transportation that by most accounts has met certain targets and failed on others. Surely you are not suggesting that this program is above scrutiny, critique, that we should not ask pointed questions?

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              soren July 22, 2018 at 9:15 pm

              “workers at a Nike contract factory in Hansae, Vietnam, suffered wage theft and verbal abuse, and labored for hours in temperatures well over the legal limit of 90 degrees, to the point that they would collapse at their sewing machines. Nike is also accused of cutting jobs at the Hansae factory and pulling production from a factory in Honduras with a strong union presence, resulting in hundreds of workers losing vital jobs. The company has also allegedly denied the independent monitoring group Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) access to inspect its contract factories.”

              https://qz.com/1042298/nike-is-facing-a-new-wave-of-anti-sweatshop-protests/

              Is this really how we want to “brand” our publicly-owned bike share system?

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          • Avatar
            9watts July 21, 2018 at 9:54 am
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    Martin Atkins July 20, 2018 at 12:56 pm

    I think continuing to lean in to Biketown using existing publically-maintained bike infrastructure could be an interesting compromise between docks and dockless:

    Rather than having biketown-specific docks, replace them all (gradually) with public bike racks of the same capacity that are open to everyone. At the same time, permit biketown bikes to lock up anywhere that it would be legal to lock a privately-owned bike, while still retaining the requirement that they be locked up.

    This would increase general bike rack capacity and increase flexibility for biketown users, while hopefully minimizing the impacts of bikes being parked carelessly or dumped.

    Gradually phasing out the specialized orange bike racks would also make it easier to have a mixed fleet of biketown bikes if they need to move away from the ones manufactured by Uber for competitive reasons. (since the current hubs are designed to exactly fit the locking mechanism on the current-generation Biketown bikes.)

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      John Liu July 21, 2018 at 8:07 am

      You are already allowed to lock a Biketown bike to any public bike rack. There is no extra fee for doing so, if you’re an annual member. They do not have to be locked to the orange Biketown stations (docks). Biketown gives you a $1 credit for bringing a bike from a public rack to a Biketown station.

      Biketown is already a effectively a dockless system.

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    DJSK July 20, 2018 at 3:36 pm

    If anyone from PBOT is reading these comments: Can we PLEASE REMOVE THE FORCED ARBITRATION CLAUSE from the Biketown user agreement, and keep it out of any future contracts with dockless bike and e-scooter providers?? In Seattle, one of the three dockless bike firms (Spin) doesn’t require arbitration. The “progressive” City of Portland should not be denying users the right to use the courts to sue companies for injury caused by to negligence, faulty construction, failure to maintain the equipment, etc.

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    billyjo July 23, 2018 at 8:45 am

    700,000 rides and 100,000 users?

    So in 7 years the average user has taken 7 rides? About 1 every other month? Or more likely, monthly in the summer months…..

    Each bike averages right around 1 trip a day?

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