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‘No immediate plans’ for Biketown re-opening as smoke-filled air lingers

“This service outage is a good opportunity for leadership at Lyft to better articulate how their bike share systems plan to operate in emergency situations,”
— Tarani Duncan, bike share industry veteran

A man riding on the Broadway Bridge on September 10th.
(Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

It’s another sign of our upside-down world that a public transit system launched with the promise of cleaner air is currently offline because of dirty air.

All dressed up, nowhere to go.

Hazardous air due to wildfire smoke prompted the Portland Bureau of Transportation to shut down the Biketown bike share system around noon last Friday. The agency said they plan to keep it closed, “until it is safe for people to return to outdoor activities.” The announcement hit different not just because of the catastrophic fires that influenced PBOT’s decision, but because it came less than three days after a brand new system powered by electric bikes was launched.

As far as I can tell, this is the first time a bike share system has been taken offline due to poor air quality.

So far PBOT hasn’t gone into detail about their decision. Asked to elaborate on their announcement, PBOT Communications Director John Brady offered, “Given the hazardous levels of smoke in the air and the closure of other city facilities to protect public health, suspending Biketown until air quality improves was the prudent thing to do.”

Reaction to the move was swift and mostly negative (at least from people on Twitter):


But industry expert and former Jump and Motivate Inc. staffer Tarani Duncan told us the unprecedented air quality crisis we’re going through makes the move understandable. “It’s a very difficult choice to close down a system thousands of Portlanders rely upon for essential trips, but it’s a necessary one,” Duncan said, “Biking is active transportation, and with the air quality in Portland reaching hazardous levels, closing down the system is a matter of public safety.”

The shutdown protects Biketown workers too.

Duncan also points out that PBOT might have the health of Biketown workers in mind, not just riders. Calling it a “complicated logistics operation,” Duncan said the system can’t function properly without a sizable team to distribute and maintain the fleet of bikes. “Biketown personnel should not be required to work in hazardous conditions,” she says.

One of the reasons some people responded negatively to the announcement was that it came without any warning, clarification or reference to previously stated policies or guidelines.

Duncan qualified her support of PBOT’s decision by saying Lyft (who owns and operates the bikes) should do a better job during future disasters (which given onset of climate change will surely be more frequent) and that it’s time to create an emergency operations plan. “This service outage is a good opportunity for leadership at Lyft to better articulate how their bike share systems plan to operate in emergency situations,” she said. “It is important for operators to provide riders with a clear understanding of what level of service they can expect in specific emergency scenarios, so riders can understand the limits of their reliance upon these services before disaster strikes.”

Asked when we can expect Biketown to return, PBOT’s Brady said they won’t peg the decision to a specific Air Quality Index rating, but that they’re watching the forecast closely. “With air quality still well in the hazardous range and with little change in sight,” Brady said, “we have no immediate plans to resume operations.”

According to the latest analysis, this hazardous air might linger in Portland until at least Thursday and PBOT and other government agencies say the best thing to do until then is to stay inside if possible.

Hang in there.

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