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Friday Opinion: Biketown hasn’t taken over Portland like I’d hoped. And that’s OK

Posted by on March 29th, 2019 at 11:19 am

(Photo: PBOT 2018 Biketown Annual Report)

So far, Biketown hasn’t turned out to be the ubiquitous presence or dominant travel mode I hoped it would be. Instead it’s a (mostly) reliable, well-run, affordable and accessible transportation option for people who need it most.

That’s what I came away thinking after I read the 2018 Biketown Annual Report (PDF) recently adopted by Portland City Council.

When Biketown launched in July 2016, I was eager to finally have a bike share system. Even though Portland was late to the party, I assumed the orange bikes would a vast impact on how we get around. Inspired by the systems I’d used and seen flourish in Washington D.C. and New York City, I envisioned orange bikes everywhere. And with bikes everywhere we’d have bike riders everywhere and we’d have bike infrastructure everywhere and my dreams of a cycling city would finally be realized.

But that’s not how things have gone.

Almost three years in, and I find myself not even thinking about Biketown much. Instead of thousands of bikes blanketing neighborhoods throughout the city, the fleet size hasn’t budged since it launched. Biketown hasn’t led to a vast increase in cycling mode share. I’ve let my own membership lapse.

Biketown hasn’t turned out as I expected. And that’s OK.

Now that the novelty of having the system up-and-running has worn off, and given its limited service area, budget, and fleet size, I’ve come to accept the fact that Biketown’s impact will be limited. What I didn’t realize is that there are many other positive ways a bike share system can impact a city. It’s not just about mode share and the number of bikes on the street.

Biketown adds value to our city by servicing small (yet important) niches of unmet mobility needs, and providing bicycle transportation to people who otherwise wouldn’t or couldn’t access it.


Bikes for people with disabilities, for people on low-incomes, and for students. (Source: 2018 Biketown Annual Report)

In their annual report under the heading of “What’s next?” PBOT writes that the system is, “… finding new ways to fill in gaps in the transportation needs of Portlanders,” and that bike share, “provides flexibility for day-to-day activities.” That hardly sounds like a program bent on citywide domination.

What if Biketown is Portland’s secret weapon in doing what PBOT and advocates have been trying (unsuccessfully) to do for years? That is, to diversify the current demographic of Portland bicycle riders?

What if Biketown is Portland’s secret weapon in doing what PBOT and advocates have been trying (unsuccessfully) to do for years? That is, to diversify the current demographic of Portland bicycle riders? PBOT doesn’t shy away from this. In the title to the executive summary of their annual report, PBOT wrote Biketown is, “Broadening and diversifying the city’s bicycle culture.” They’ve done this by revamping their fare structure, keeping the brand fresh and interesting through special edition bike “wraps”, and making bikes available to communities with constrained budgets and options.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation and their operator Motivate have continued to refine programs like Biketown for All and Adaptive Biketown — both of which fill important cycling niches in our city.

According to the annual report, Biketown for All members (whose low-income qualifies them for discounted memberships) are 7 percent of all active annual members but take 20 percent of all member trips. The Adaptive Biketown program seems to have found its stride with 189 rentals for 110 people last year — that’s a 220 percent increase from the first pilot period.

This isn’t to say Biketown is falling behind on other key metrics. Beyond the niches, the numbers are still positive: annual memberships in 2018 were up 87 percent over 2017 and ridership grew 28 percent year-over-year. And we can expect expansions in the coming year. Speaking of which, electric-assist Biketown bikes will be game-changers and they’ll hit the streets soon (a survey showed more than one-third of members would use Biketown more if the bikes had e-assist).

Biketown has proven to be effective at making bicycles more accessible to more people and squeezing maximum transportation value out of a limited budget. That bodes well for its future; a future I still hope includes citywide domination.

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

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26 thoughts on “Friday Opinion: Biketown hasn’t taken over Portland like I’d hoped. And that’s OK”

  1. Avatar Matthew in PDX says:

    Having been a user of CitiBike in NYC during its first few years of operation, then moving to Portland, I would suggest that there are significant differences between the two cities, that make bike sharing more successful:

    In NYC, there is rarely, if ever, a safe place to park your bike while you are at work. While NYC mandates bike accessibility for new office buildings and apartments, most of the building stock is grandfathered into older rules. For me, I would never have ridden my bike to work in NYC to chain it up on the street – it just wouldn’t be there when I came back. In Portland, both buildings I’ve worked in have had ample off street parking for bikes.

    In NYC coops and condos, it is often difficult to manage a bike. In two buildings I lived it, bike parking was only available if you bribed the super or were a regulated tenant, which meant I had to store my bike in my apartment. In the condo we lived in in Brooklyn, the board installed bike hooks along the driveway (semi-secure), by bike was stolen from one of these (in spite of being locked up with a Kryptonite lock). In contrast, in Portland, I live in a house with a garage.

    The subway in NYC is very good, but crowded, and it meant I could ride the subway to work, not worry about showering etc., and cycle home to Brooklyn on CitiBike, but I wouldn’t take my bike on the subway as it is too crowded, and you need to get up and down steps. In Portland, I can put my bike on the front of a Trimet bus, or hook it up in a Max train.

    Overall, owning a bicycle, and using it to commute, one way, both ways, or part way, is much easier in Portland, and Portlanders would seem to prefer their own bikes (especially me, a rental bike is going to be heavier and slower than my road bike).

  2. Avatar dweendaddy says:

    One of the best measurements of a bikeshare system is “rides per bike per day.” This helps track how much the system is being used. I could not find it in the report, but it did say 400,000 trips, and here wikipedia says there are 1,000 bikes, so 400 rides per bike per year, or about 1.1 rides per bike per day.

  3. Avatar Chris Anderson says:

    When (if?) the fleet upgrades to ebikes, I expect BIKETOWN to really arrive. They will be a fun novelty for most riders, and lead to more ebike sales and increased mode share, as people realize ebikes are new different transportation option they’ve never experienced before.

  4. Avatar mran1984 says:

    Uh, they are mopeds. Rebranding is funny. Bikeshare is bike rental. You are not “sharing” anything. Sharing does not involve a for profit business. Spin it anyway you want, but you will just get dizzy and forget the actual meaning of a word.

  5. dweendaddy: As for the Rides / Day / Bike…NACTO should be coming out with its bike share annual usage snapshots soon…I assume Biketown submitted data again so the “official” answer should be there. (Its such a now common metric, I am surprised that it was not in the City’s annual bike share report, as you mentioned not finding it.)

  6. Avatar Glenn the 2nd says:

    Well, it might not have taken over Portland, but it sure does seem to have taken over the 2 or 3 MAX stops closest to their campus in Beaverton!

  7. Avatar Tony says:

    The bikes are useful for tourists during the summer. They don’t get yearly memberships so stats on memberships are not accurate.

  8. Avatar Johnny Bye Carter says:

    I signed up for it a while after it launched. I only tried to use it once, but the bike was so clunky and hard to pedal that my wife did not feel safe on it so it was immediately docked back where we got it. This last holiday I donated most of my credits to the Pay It Forward program. I doubt I’ll ever use it since it doesn’t go all the way to my house. My credits will eventually expire or I’ll abandon the whole system and they’ll be absorbed as free profit.

    Maybe once dockless bikes arrive in the entire city then I’ll use a bike-share. Until then none of them have been convenient (not even the free one I saw in Kansas).

  9. Avatar Annica Mccarthy says:

    I would never ride such a clunky bike, especially an ugly orange one sponsored by Nike. Just a personal preference mind you, but I also own a variety of quality bicycles and go for preformance and distances beyond the usual range of tbese anvils on wheels.

  10. Avatar David LaPorte says:

    Yes, they’re heavy, but for me, having an annual membership has been totally worth it. Sometimes I am out and about via foot, bus or Car2Go, but my plans change on the next leg of my trip. Or I don’t want to wait on the bus, or I can’t walk fast enough to meet someone on time, etc. When friends or family are in town, it’s also great to unlock a bike for a group ride if you don’t have enough bikes! I also fly a lot and it’s more convenient to take a BikeTown to a MAX station than to to take my own bike on the MAX and leave it parked at the airport during my trip.

  11. Avatar Phil Richman says:

    Reason #17 I love Biketown: connecting my HOP card makes checking bikes out exponentially easier. Tip #13: Stop pedaling between shifting gears, it’ll make your ride much smoother. 1386 miles and counting…

  12. Avatar Dave says:

    Biketown has so far only existed in a cheap-gas environment. Let gas get back up to near or above $5/gallon as it did in 2008 and it very well might take over Portland.

  13. Avatar Todd Boulanger says:

    Perhaps Portland has the same problem that Amsterdam had historically with third generation bike share system (like 2000 DepoFiets that closed quickly, not a rail based one like 2006 OVfiets that continues to this day and is free with a rail card) … too many locals already have their own bikes and they can park them securely?!

    1. Avatar Phil Richman says:

      Todd, my biggest complaint about BikeTown has been the snark and cynicism of locals who identify with their bikes too strongly. It is not too dissimilar from the way many motorists identify with their cars and therefore would never use public transportation, because it erases their identity and status. I too have my own bike(s), but they are all just like Biketown to me, a combination of metal, plastics and rubber that provide mobility and enjoyment, nothing more and certainly not a source of my identity. Keeping the wear and tear and maintenance costs on my own bikes lower by using Biketown regularly is worth the cost of annual membership and when I hear of friends having their bikes stolen somewhere w/in the Biketown zone it makes me wonder if they wouldn’t have been better off using Biketown instead.

      1. Avatar Todd Boulanger says:

        Phil – good to know your PoV vs. the larger P-Town bike population.

        So to you “bikes” are just a tool (“Group A: appliances”)….vs an identity (“Group B: bike as me”)…or myself…somewhere in between (“Group C: bikes as clothes”…I have so many bikes when I am in Vancouver/ Portland its like picking a hat or a pair of shoes for the day).

  14. Avatar Josh Channell says:

    Biketown needs to evolve and fast. Biketown has only 1,000 bikes citywide, a very limited (and seriously equity-challenged) service area, and a lot of bikes with nonresponsive keypads and skipping gears. I’ve used bike share systems in cities all over and Portland’s could be a lot better.

    I ride Biketown bikes several times and week and I applaud some recent moves towards more dockless flexibility and the addition of a low-income program. But it still has a long way to go to make a meaningful impact here.

    Three suggestions (trying to be constructive here):
    1) Double the number of bikes in 2019, and then double them again in 2020. 4,000 bikes is not in any way too many for a city of this size. Chicago just announced a 10,500 bike expansion of their system, which already has 6,000 bikes.
    2) Immediately expand the system limits to include ALL of Portland, especially East Portland. It’s shameful that our current system redlines the areas where most of our communities of color and low income residents live.
    3) Figure out and fix the keypads and gears so we can be sure that we won’t have problems unlocking bikes or riding them (perhaps consider a new model that weighs less). Prototypes are great for show and tell, but implementation has been really slow.

    Without these changes, I fear that Biketown will quickly be eclipsed by a private dockless system and/or a fleet of scooters – and that would be a loss to Rip City (and for me – as I said, I’m a frequent rider). Sorry for the tough love, but it’s time for some big changes instead of more incremental ones.

    1. Avatar SERider says:

      Amen. The service area is a joke for a city that likes to claim to be all about “equity”.

  15. Avatar paul g. says:

    Might be a good exercise to review the threads when Biketown was being debated. There were some who cautioned that Portland wasn’t really NY or DC or Chicago or Paris, and projecting from their experiences to Portland was fraught. My memory is that dissenting viewpoints were pretty summarily dismissed.

    I guess the question is why were your assumptions (and other bike advocate) predictions so off base, and what can we learn from that experience.

    1. I don’t agree with the direction you’re going with this comment Paul g.

      I though Biketown would be a much greater force in Portland because I assumed we would expand the fleet size. I still believe that if we had 5,000 or 10,000 bikes we would see a very similar result as NYC, DC, or Paris.

      1. Avatar Maddy says:

        I agree with Paul that Biketown was not personalized to Portland. DC has a better public transportation system, and a more centralized employment zone. Simply adding 5,000 more 60lb bikes won’t make Biketown a relevant transportation choice for Portland. Modified 80s road bikes and lighter hybrids rule this city for a reason.

        Adding e-assist could be a game changer, though, and make the bikes so much more useful than the electric scooters.

      2. Jonathan – I think it would be great if Biketown had 10k bikes then it would outride / outserve TRIMET in most areas of the Central City…[and require shifting some grant funds from Trimet too]. But I am not sure there is even enough curb zone space for a CitiBike sized network of 700 stations for Portland. But those numbers of bikes are Chicago and NYC level of bike share service for a population of millions.

        Perhaps a better ratio for Portland might be ours, Honolulu has ~130 stations with ~1300 bikes generating >1m trips per year (~2.9 trips per bike per day) for a daily service area population of ~380k….a close match in service area population to Portland’s inner city and the existing Biketown network size. But Biketown just gotta grow the utilization up to at least 2 rides / bike / day…even with the liquid sunshine.

    2. Avatar 9watts says:

      I think paul g. has a point. Some of us *were* skeptical, and not all for the same reasons. This article (now itself one year old) still seems to cling to the promise, the hype of bikeshare. Can someone please summarize who rents these bikes?

      Tourists __%
      Locals __%
      Avg distance covered__mi
      # of times the avg. bike is rented/day __

  16. Avatar Tony says:

    If the number of BikeTown bikes is too small, how come whenever I pass a BikeTown station I see them full of bikes? It doesn’t look like people who want them can’t find them.
    I would still like to see more stations spread over the city to make them more accessible.

    Also, make the bikes electric so that they are easier to use and it make more people want to use them. I know the expense of maintaining these bikes might skyrocket which might hinder their number.

  17. Avatar Allan Rudwick says:

    BIKETOWN helped me get from MAX to my house when the bus was > 15 minutes out at 10pm last night. It was a bit tricky but I found riding fun even with a roller bag in one hand. Keep it up PBOT and Nike!

  18. Avatar Ben G says:

    Biketown doesn’t quite make it up to my neighborhood (closest station is 1mi, I ride by it everyday), which is fine. But I’d rather ride my bike to work and back, and so Biketown doesn’t really complete any trips for me. So I’ve never used it.

    Maybe Portland got into bike share at the wrong moment; when the momentum in cycling was low in cycling and before the e-bikes got more cheap and available. I’d much rather Portland upgrade the Biketown fleet to JUMP e-bikes than allow the sea of scooters to come back.

  19. Avatar Pepe Lucho says:

    And that’s what all the people with common sense were saying would happen but the bike sharing fanatics never listen. No, it’s not ok. It’s wasted money, time, resources and most importantly, street parking space. For the majority of the population in portland biking is not an option so lets stop making it harder on them in order to appease the tiny 7% who are healthy enough and privileged enough to live in a neighborhood where it’s feasible to commute by bicycle.

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