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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.


(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

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billyjosoren9wattsPhil RichmanJohn Liu Recent comment authors
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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.

Martin Atkins
Martin Atkins

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.)


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.


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?