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New Biketown e-bikes will be nice, but at what price?

Posted by on July 21st, 2020 at 3:01 pm

Biketown pricing has always been a sensitive subject.
(Photo by J. Maus/BikePortland from vandalism incident in April 2017).

“Every trip now comes with a marginal cost. That’s a significant disincentive to using the system.”
— Iain Mackenzie

Amid the excitement around the City of Portland’s big bike share upgrade announced last week, one key detail deserves more scrutiny: The price to use the new electric Biketown bikes will be much higher.

City officials say it’ll be worth it, they’ll monitor usage impacts, and adjust pricing if necessary. Some existing users are disappointed and advocates say they weren’t consulted prior to the price increase and fear it could dampen enthusiasm and restrict access to the system.

Old versus new

Affordability and accessibility is a hallmark of the current bike share system. The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) offers a variety of plans, relatively low fees, and has been flexible and innovative in their pricing strategies since the system launched four years ago.

The current system has four basic pricing tiers: pay-as-you-go, month-to-month, Biketown For All, and an annual membership. Biketown 2.0 will no longer offer a monthly plan, so let’s look at the three remaining tiers.

Currently, users can become “Pay As You Go” members with a one-time, $5 sign-up fee. After that, rides cost $0.08 per minute. Come September, pay-as-you-goers will be billed $1 for every ride and then $0.20 for every minute. This is similar to how e-scooter billing works.

Biketown for All, the program for people with low incomes, is currently $3 a month and comes with 90 minutes of free ride time per month. That plan will go up to $5 month with zero free minutes and a cost of $0.05 per minute. PBOT says Lyft has agreed to give people 400 free minutes per month.

The popular annual membership is where most of the pain will be felt. The yearly plan is currently $99, comes with 90 minutes free, and costs $0.08 per minute after that. An infographic shared by PBOT last week said the annual pass would be $99, “Plus 10-cents per minute.” It didn’t mention there’d be no more free rides.

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Portland bike advocate RJ Sheperd created a tool to compare new Biketown prices to the current system as well as TriMet, New York City’s Citibike system (which offers both regular (analog) and e-bikes) scooters, and cars. His model assumes two rides per day. I ran the tool based on 30 minutes of riding a day and 225 trips per year. The result? The new Biketown system would cost $774 per year, eight times the current system. That being said, that’s still cheaper than an annual TriMet pass ($1,125), on par with Citybike’s e-bikes, and much less than an equivalent amount of use on e-scooters ($2,407) or a private automobile ($8,558).

(*Please note caveats with this cost comparison data including: E-bike trips will be much shorter given the higher average speed, TriMet offers a range of annual passes that are cheaper than their standard fare (like youth fare, low-income, senior discounts, and no on), and car ownership costs of course vary widely.)

(Chart: RJ Sheperd/BikeTown Fare Prices)

Daily Costs:
Analog BikeTown: $0.44
E-BikeTown: $3.44 (8 times the cost of Analog BikeTown)
TriMet: $5.00
Analog CitiBike: $0.80
Electric CitiBike: $3.75
Spin (E-Scooter): $10.70
Vehicle Ownership (w/o Parking Fees): $38.04
Yearly Costs:
Analog BikeTown: $99.00
E-BikeTown: $774.00 (8 times the cost of Analog BikeTown)
TriMet: $1,125.00
Analog CitiBike: $179.00
Electric CitiBike: $844.00
Spin E-Scooters: $2,407.50
Vehicle Ownership (w/o Parking Fees): $8,558.00

Price up, priced out

Portlander Joe Hand has been a Biketown member since 2018. Or I should say, had been a member.

“Details like rates had to be negotiated to get the best deal for Portlanders. We get a larger service area and e-bikes, at no cost to taxpayers.”
— Dylan Rivera, PBOT

Hand figures he paid a total of $190 for three years of an annual membership (after discounts were taken for parking credits) because most of his trips would be under 90 minutes. “I loved bike share because of the flexibility it offered,” he shared recently. “I’d often walk to get coffee or lunch with my co-worker (we both work at home) and then could grab a bike, stop at the grocery store, and bike home.” The price increase made him rethink his membership. “I haven’t been using it lately but generally like the idea of supporting bike share, so I kept it. However, with the pricing change, I asked for and received a refund.”

Given his riding habits, Hand figures it might be smarter to just buy a new bike. “I’ve been thinking about getting an e-bike, so this may be the push I needed. Buying a new e-bike instead of bike share is a no brainer at that price.”

Biketown member Josh Hetrick has similar feelings. “This new cost structure really craters the usefulness of the entire system for short-ish trips,” he shared on the Bike Loud PDX email list. A self-described choice rider, Hetrick added that, “Previously it was filling a unique role where transit didn’t fit the trip well and the bike ride could easily be cheaper, but now the costs are much more comparable and its role is murkier… I’d like to be excited about the e-bikes and the service area expansion, but this is a big downside.”

Iain Mackenzie, an architect who pens the Next Portland blog and is also a member of the PBOT Bicycle Advisory Committee, is excited about the introduction of e-bikes. “But I’m very disappointed that it comes at the expense of traditional bikes and includes a large fare increase,” he shared with me recently.

“With the new fare structure, an annual member who uses the 90 minutes they previously had included in their membership will pay $9 — almost twice the price of a TriMet day pass,” Mackenzie said. “While most people probably use Biketown less than that, every trip now comes with a marginal cost. That’s a significant disincentive to using the system, and those costs will quickly add up for regular users.”

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Mackenzie is also miffed that the Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC) wasn’t asked for feedback on the new prices. “It is hard to imagine TriMet or the Portland Streetcar proposing such a large fare increase without any public consultation happening, but that is what happened. At no point in this process was the Bicycle Advisory Committee consulted, or even informed. This is a big change to a part of Portland’s transportation system and it shouldn’t be done so lightly.”

PBOT confirmed that the last time Biketown was on the BAC agenda was in 2018.

Why the increase?

PBOT says costs of e-bike operations are higher, not to mention a larger service fleet to maintain.

When bike share was first pitched and passed, elected officials made an unfortunate promise: They would create this amazing new public transit system with zero public subsidy. Bike politics being what they were at the time, broad, mainstream support for shared rental bikes was so flimsy that adding funding form public coffers was thought to be an invitation for controversy.

So Portland launched a 1,000 bike system without any down payment of their own. Even the bikes themselves were purchased with a $2 million federal grant awarded by Metro in 2011. Then founding sponsor Nike stepped up with $10 million in sponsorship to get the system running. This time around the City of Portland won’t own the bikes.

This lack of skin in the game from PBOT gave contract partner Lyft (which owns Biketown operator Motivate) leverage in negotiations. When asked for her view on Biketown’s new pricing structure, Tarani Duncan, a consultant and former product engineer at Uber and Lyft, said, “The biggest issue with bike share schemas is the lack of public subsidy that would enable operators to bring prices down.”

When asked to respond to price increase concerns, PBOT spokesperson Dylan Rivera said, “The cost of operating an e-bike system is higher, but we think it will be worth it.” He said feedback from the bike committee in 2018 and City Council last April made it clear they not only needed an e-bike fleet, but that it had to reach more Portlanders (which makes it even more expensive to operate). “We heard loud and clear from Council that service to east Portland, creating a good experience for people new to biking, and providing a high-quality e-bike experience were all high priorities,” Rivera said as justification for the higher prices.
 
“Details like rates had to be negotiated to get the best deal for Portlanders. We get a larger service area and e-bikes,” Rivera said. “At no cost to taxpayers.”
 
Rivera thinks once people throw a leg over the new e-bike, they’ll forget about the higher price. “These bikes will help more people reach more places, faster and easier,” he said. “People who are new to biking will find themselves biking farther than they ever thought they would, and we think they’ll be inspired to explore biking further, by buying their own bike and growing their relationship with Biketown.”

A “relationship” with Biketown might sound a bit odd, but in some ways Rivera’s probably right. Quality e-bikes like the ones Biketown will launch in September are remarkable. As a regular e-biker myself, I can attest at how they dramatically alter what you think about biking and will forever change your perception of what it means to ride in the city. E-bikes boost the utility of cycling, instill a sense of confidence usually reserved for expert riders, and tilt the balance of power on our streets away from car drivers. Those are extremely valuable benefits that just might make the higher-priced pill easier to swallow.

— PBOT will present the new bike share contract at City Council Wednesday (7/22) morning. Several advocates have signed up to testify. You can watch the livestream here.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Su Wonda
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Su Wonda

I’ve had an annual membership since day one, but I am too considering cancelling my membership after the announcement of the new price structure. The analog system gave me 90 minutes a day to commute to and from the Max (about 40 min RT) plus all those extra minutes to run to the store, meet for drinks and provide all sorts of flexibility as I traverse the city. The new system has a monthly fee whether I use it or not and a meter constantly turning over in my head as I head to my destination with each use.

I’d be more likely to keep my annual membership if they added another tier with a daily or monthly allotment of minutes. Get rid of the out of hub return credits, don’t allow annual members to lock up out of hub for free. Heck, I’d pay double the current annual membership as a matter of fact. I love bikeshare, I’ll shout it from the highest point in Portland (within the service are of course), but this may be where we part ways. 🙁

I’d rather like to spend the remaining 90 minutes enjoying the ride through our fair city than manipulating a handlebar mounted abacus. I know I could probably do the math in my head and save money but I’d rather pay the price and only scream once.

Cars are stressful enough, don’t make me beat the clock too.

Steve Hash
Guest
Steve Hash

I am nervous as hell looking ahead to sharing infrastructure with inexperienced cyclists, which I am admittedly stereotyping since they are renting, on eBikes. Any idea if they are speed-controlled?

Faux Porteur
Guest
Faux Porteur

Wow. I can’t believe they made it that easy for me to cancel my yearly/founding member subscription. Usually changes to subscriptions for services I pay for usually fall into the “lobster in an increasingly warm pot” realm, but this was just plain dumb.

While Bike Share is a rad concept, being owned by massive, automobile centric companies, these kind of service rots are par-for-the-course. I’ve got to assume it’s part of their business plan “jeez, we really tried to make bike share work, but it didn’t so: carrrrrrSsssssssss!!!!!!”

nony
Guest
nony

I am guessing Ian does not own or ride an ebike?

New pricing seems fair to me. ebikes are somewhere between bus and a car. More convenient than a bus, faster than a car (and a bike) in traffic. You can cruze at 20mph pretty much during rush hour, all day long, any time of the year.

So yes, pricing seems fair considering the tectonic advantages an ebike offers in town for personal transportation.

Having owned an ebike now for 7 years, I’m still blown away how quickly I can get around town.

I am also willing to guess these ebikes will encourage people to “purchase” their own ebike when they figure out its not that much more in ownership of an ebike compared to accrued annual bike share, or tri-met passes.

Andrew Squirrel
Guest
Andrew Squirrel

Any more info on the basket size decrease? The original has so much more volume from the profile view.

Steve
Guest
Steve

It’s important to note that trips on the e-bikes will be much quicker vs the analogue alternative when calculating cost. Just got an e-mtb and love it. I hope that other people get to enjoy the climbs too. E-bikes really can be quite a bit of fun.

MaddHatter
Guest
MaddHatter

That cost comparison seems like apples-to-oranges. They don’t compare the most obvious alternative — ownership rather than rental. Trimet is subsidized, so rarely does anyone pay full price. E-scooters have a different service area. And vehicle ownership is such a drastically different use case that it doesn’t even apply. Maybe something like ZipCar would begin to approximate a similar use model.

SERider
Guest
SERider

Any explanation for why southern SE is still left out of the new service area? Seems like accessing neighborhoods via Springwater (and Reed College/Woodstock) would have been an obvious move.

Bicycling Al
Guest
Bicycling Al

I am surprised to see a switch from a shaft to a chain drive. I would have thought that a belt drive would have been preferred.

Dirk Mcgee
Guest
Dirk Mcgee

I’m bummed about the cost increase… But, perhaps some of the cost will be offset by the face that it will take fewer minutes to get to a destination. These e-bikes are almost definitely faster than those heavy, low-gear pedal bikes were.

TerryI
Guest
TerryI

The cost model comparisons need to take travel time differences into consideration. A model that assumes 30 minutes of analog usage daily should be compared against an ebike model of 20 minutes daily (anecdotal) because ebikes average a faster speed, especially if there are hills. Now the numbers may still show a net increase in prices, but it may not be as drastic.

I also think that it is a big mistake to eliminate free minutes, but for a different reason. Free minutes will allow people to try out ebikes and discover an increase in range. Instead of considering an analog rental for a 1-3 mile ride, users would consider an ebike rental for a 1-5 mile ride, even if there are hills. My opinion is that riders would be more likely to test out the capabilities if free minutes were included in all plans except Pay-as-you-go.

robert
Guest
robert

“instill a sense of confidence usually reserved for expert riders”

Misplaced confidence causes crashes. Expert riders have a lot of experience and training to ride confidently at 20 mph; how fast to take a turn, when to break, when you can ride through a pothole or gravel and when to swerve, how to ride a straight line, how to safely pass, when to take a traffic lane, etc.

John Schmidt
Guest
John Schmidt

Could have predicted this since unfortunately they picked the wrong bike. Shaft drive is inefficient. We’ve known this for 120 years. Obviously a deal breaker for most. (who wants to ride a terrible energy sapping bike ?? ). So now they have to jump to an Ebike. Also the docking is a mess. Why couldn’t they just follow the success of London, Chicago, etc. Ebike means even more complication and cost !

Jules
Guest
Jules

Yearly cost of Vehicle Ownership (w/o Parking Fees): $8,558.00

What? This seems like a gross exaggeration, and not reflective of many drivers’ realities (especially low income drivers). I’ve spent less than this to insure, maintain, and fuel my vehicle (driven several times a week) over the last five years.

I’m very much in favor of the bike share program, but I think we need to be honest about why people make the choices they do.

9watts
Subscriber

Nice comparative graphic, but the most obvious comparison is missing: the bike I already have, the one that costs, basically, nothing. 😉

James S
Guest
James S

Lyft would rather you be in a car and pay $25.

They also just massively hiked prices in NYC

carrythebanner
Guest

There’s a lot to like about the new features that this will bring. But this will basically be a different system, at least for the way I usually use it.

One example: When taking transit and a transfer was necessary, I often used bikeshare as a faster-than-walking alternative to the second leg. (Especially if the second leg was not a very long ride but too far to easily walk, or if the service on the second leg was infrequent and incurred a long layover. I’m looking at you, Streetcar …) The new cost structure introduces a marginal cost for every trip, so now it’s a decision between time on transit vs. cost on bikeshare. When membership included a daily allotment of ride minutes, previously it was a no-brainer to grab a bike. Now, I’ll probably either wait out the transfer and stay on transit, or skip transit entirely and ride my own bike if possible. (It’s possible I’ll take consider taking bikeshare for the entire trip now, though bike availability doesn’t always cooperate with that.)

Tony
Guest
Tony

Why riders who use a bike share bike every day and complain about the rental increase not just buy a bike and use it instead of paying per minute or per year? To me, the bike share program is most beneficial for Portland visitors.

Watermelon1
Guest
Watermelon1

The better bike share partnership and city after city have shown us that equitable bike share requires intentional funding and cannot be left primarily to market forces. While station density was a strong argument under the previous bike share system, it is less of a concern now with ebikes. Thus, there is no reason why this system shouldnt reach the eastern city limits.

It is not OK for Council to say “no neighborhood left behind” and then leave the funding behind. In an era of spending almost $800k a day on police bureau (the lionshare of which is general fund), perhaps we could share 3 days worth of PPB’s general fund allocation to ensure a city provided mobility service is truly equitable.

This also highlights the disparities East Portlanders/Comm of Color face: lack of paved streets, lack of streetlighting/sidewalks, greater traffic crashes & displacement risk, all tied to a lack of political representation.

As we saw with scooters, mobility options that offer alternatives to driving are just as necessary east of I-205. This criticism isnt directed at city staff who went through heroic efforts given rapid changes in industry. Rather, it is the acknowledgement that the council that said “no general fund money to bike share” looked completely different than today’s council.

And while Chloe will continue to have my support to the extent she is the most progressive candidate, the irony isnt lost on me that one of the ways she beat her predecessor was through championing equitable and accessible bike share.

Transportation is about economic mobility; the neighborhoods east of I-205 that stand the most to benefit should also be included. Its time to revisit Council’s past assumptions.

Peter W
Guest
Peter W

What happens to the old bikes? (The ones the city spend $2M on).

Ruthie
Guest
Ruthie

Motivate LLC (Biketown) is also rescinding the previously reported recognition of their workers union as well as laying off 75% of the union members.

Phil Richman
Subscriber

I just turned off my auto-renewal, which makes me sad. I had ridden 1875 miles on the old system, which I liked, but I understand the need for change and I sincerely hope this new system is useful to locals and that it covers the entire city, including East and SW more broadly in the near future.

Slabtownie
Guest
Slabtownie

As a counterpoint to all the naysaying comments, I am an infrequent Biketown rider currently and I plan to use the system a LOT more when the e-bikes roll out. The price bump isn’t much of a factor for me, the quality and ride experience are worth it.

Michael O'Connor
Guest
Michael O'Connor

Just received an email from biketown stating my account credits will not transfer over. 144$ in credit and 3 weeks to use them.
In partnership with Lyft and founding title sponsor Nike, we’re thrilled to announce a major update and expansion of BIKETOWN. Starting this September, we’ll be revamping the app, rolling out a fleet of ebikes, and bringing bikeshare to more Portlanders than ever. Before we get to the deets: BIKETOWN bonus credits* won’t transfer to the new system, so be sure to use them if you have them by September 8.

AndyK
Guest
AndyK

Hey RJ, now do cars!

😉

Erik
Guest
Erik

Still no Sellwood or Woodstock? What gives?

oryxandcrake
Guest
oryxandcrake

Still won’t be able to use it. Need access in the Mt.Scott/Arleta area, but boundary ends at Foster, same as the bus. Too hard to carry groceries from the 14 bus (10 does not run weekends) half a mile to home with bad shoulders. Was hoping a bike would be available to cover that gap between bus stop and home but no, of course not.

Willie
Guest
Willie

I am also disappointed in the change. I was truly excited about ebikes being added to the service, but I always assumed they would be an option, not the only choice. The old bikes were heavy, slow, and inefficient, and I liked them for it. I just wanted something that would get me around the city safely and economically and the old bikes did just that. After getting laid off, the bikes were no longer something I commuted with, but instead would use to work out with my 90 minutes of free time. This service once let me get around the city faster, cheaper, and with more granularity in destination than the MAX. Now not so much. I wouldn’t be happy, but I would be happier if I could pay double the annual fee to have the free time returned, or just have some sort of price premium for the electric bikes and return the non-electric bikes and have the old deal as an option. Even just halving the price per minute on the annual fee would do a lot. But right now, we are nearing the price of just buying an ebike if you plan on using this service for and hour each work day, especially if you use the service for more than a year. I really hope the conditions of the service are reconsidered.

dub
Guest
dub

I’m a tad upset about the new price structure and whatnot because it drastically changes the shorter trips. Here’s an example: I would sometimes ride 15 minutes to the gym, and a lot of times would pick up a bike that was loose. Those trips I might break even or spend 8-16 cents on a trip, and the way back was uphill so it might be 44 cents or something like that. Last year over many trips in a 3 month span I might have paid about $10 total because of all the returns.

That same trip now? It’s looking like $4 each way or $8 roundtrip. Or if I pony up for the annual, it’s still a $1.50 roundtrip but if I take let’s say 100 roundtrips then you have to add $1 per RT. It adds up when you’re pinching every penny.

It’s went from useful to novelty. And I get it I guess, I’m not really the ideal demographic. They want to appeal more to tourists and they are likely going to make quite a bit of money on this. But I guess I’m miffed that there’s no real cheap alternative for me anymore.