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Opinion: Portland should make Biketown free in response to high gas prices


Spikes in usage during previous free Biketown promotions. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

It’s rare when one way to cope with a tragic international crisis just so happens to have myriad positive impacts and aligns with many of our adopted goals. That’s the situation we found ourselves in with the high gas prices due to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Gas prices in the Portland area are hitting a new, all-time record high every day. Today AAA listed the average price per gallon of $4.699.

Current prices via AAA.

As gas prices surge, Portland leaders should do everything in their power to make it easier and cheaper to ride bikes. And this isn’t just the crazy bike guy talking.

At a meeting of the Portland Bureau of Transportation Bicycle Advisory Committee last night, City Bicycle Coordinator Roger Geller said, “I really want you to understand that city very much wants bicycling to grow and very much wants driving to decrease. The city’s goal is to eliminate the negative effects over-reliance on driving has on cities, individuals and the globe at large.”

One of the easiest ways we can help people save money on gas is by unleashing the Biketown bike share system by making it free (as former BAC member Catie Gould dreamt last night). We’ve invested millions in our bike infrastructure and we have one of the best bike share systems in the country. Now is the time to help that investment reach its full potential.

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“The city’s goal is to eliminate the negative effects over-reliance on driving has on cities, individuals and the globe at large.”
— Roger Geller, PBOT

The City of Portland and their partners at Biketown (which is operated by Lyft), have done this twice before and both times the public responded by using the system much more. In May 2018 PBOT made Biketown free for the entire month of May to coincide with National Bike Month and they repeated the promotion in 2019 (albeit for just 11 days).

The move might also be attractive for the system’s title sponsor, Nike. They’ve already made headlines for pausing sales in Russia and donating to Ukrainian relief efforts. Sticking it to Putin by giving away gas-free transportation would be a nice corporate PR win.

Now that Biketown is available in an a greater swath of the city, making it free makes even more sense from a transportation equity perspective. It would also likely entice many people to try the system for the first time, some of which are likely to convert to regular users even after a free promotion ended.

Reduced costs of Biketown are just one of a myriad things the City of Portland could do to respond to this moment.

This war, which is powered by a dictator who gets much of his financing and political leverage by selling oil, is yet another illustration of why we need a more resilient transportation system where more people get around without gas-guzzling cars and trucks. If we stand any chance of reaching the goals Geller mentioned last night, we must bring bicycling out of the shadows and make it easier for more affordable for Portlanders to pedal against Putin.

(Note: If you are a Portland student receiving Federal Student Aid, or are an Oregon Trail Card user or otherwise meet the eligibility requirements, you can already get a free Biketown membership through PBOT’s Biketown for All program. It comes with a system membership and free, unlimited 60-minute trips.)