Biketown for All program scales back to stem costs after exponential growth

NW Couch Street in downtown Portland. March 16th, 2021. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

When Biketown for All launched in 2016, it was hailed as a way to bring the benefits of bike share to Portlanders who otherwise couldn’t afford it. Now the City of Portland says the program that offered free membership and free rides to qualifying participants, has become a victim of its own success.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation announced today they’re making changes to “ensure the long-term financial sustainability of the program.” The City says they will change enrollment eligibility immediately and launch a new pricing structure on June 11th. Biketown is operated by Lyft and sponsored by Nike.

Currently Biketown for All offers participants a free monthly membership and unlimited 60 minute (or less) rides. The new system will give people a ride credit of $10 per month. PBOT spokesperson Dylan Rivera told BikePortland that, “The ride credit is enough to cover the average Biketown for All rider’s use, given the ridership patterns we’ve seen over the years.” Rivera added that if users park at a Biketown station or anywhere in area east of 72nd [the Super Hub Zone] they would avoid fees and might never pay anything.

Starting June 11th, rides will be 5 cents per minute after the credit is used up.

Eligibility criteria will change, effectively immediately. PBOT says in order to focus on Portlanders with the lowest incomes, they will no longer offer Biketown for All to all college student aid recipients. Only Pell Grant recipients will be eligible. And being a member of the TriMet Honored Citizen program isn’t enough to qualify, you must also receive TriMet’s low-income and/or unemployment assistance.

These changes don’t impact current Biketown for All members but will go into effect once their membership renews.

Under the new rules, PBOT estimates that the average Biketown for All user would pay $5.40 a year in out of station parking convenience fees, based on the average for Biketown for All riders.

One BikePortland reader shared with that us that this news is a “Huge kick in the teeth” because Biketown for All has been a “lifesaving addition” to their transit regimen. “Losing that basically unlimited access is going to make life a lot harder for a lot of folks, especially in a town that refuses to provide 24 hour bus service,” the program participant said.

In a press release today that buried the news below-the-fold, PBOT said the changes are needed because of exponential growth in the program. According to PBOT there were 169 Biketown for All members in 2020 and today there are 4,270. In 2023, Biketown for All riders took 376,000 trips (up 82% from 2022), a number that represents 59% of all Biketown trips taken that year.

These changes come about one year after PBOT raised rental prices to cope with costs of maintaining their all-electric fleet of 2,000 bikes.

For more on the changes, see BiketownPDX.com.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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Will
Will
13 days ago

I really think we should be using PCEF funds to expand BikeTown city-wide and greatly lower the cost. Bike share in Stockholm is $25 a year.

blumdrew
13 days ago

This is a huge bummer, BikeTown is great but it’s sort of annoyingly expensive. Makes me wish the city had a municipally owned and operated bike share without fancier e-bikes. Sure, an e-bike is nice to have for a bike share but just a three speed cruiser would be fine for most of the sort of trips I think about using a bike share for. It would certainly be less money to maintain a system more focused on easy to maintain regular bikes.

Maybe that extra money saved could go towards expanding BikeTown for all, rather than curtailing it

John V
John V
13 days ago

Too bad.

I’m skeptical of their math (although I didn’t see the data). $10 barely covers one ride, I don’t know how that can cover the average user’s monthly use. I’m wondering if they (cynically) used the true average (mean), which is probably lopsided by a lot of people who use it once or twice a month as a convenience (and probably even less in winter), which means the people who actually rely on it for regular use are just getting a huge price hike.

Chris I
Chris I
12 days ago
Reply to  John V

I’m sure that’s exactly what they did. The real headline here is that Biketown for All users are mostly not using the bikes. Not a good look.

PS
PS
12 days ago
Reply to  Chris I

Read the bottom of the article, Biketown for All was 60% of all trips last year. The real headline is that people without a subsidy aren’t using Biketown, no wonder they had to make this adjustment, 40% of users can’t cover for the other 60%.

Michael
Michael
12 days ago
Reply to  PS

It’s because it’s stupid expensive and misallocated! In the central city, where Biketown is plentiful and Trimet is frequent, Biketown is realistically only going to save you a handful of minutes on most trips over simply walking and/or taking the bus or streetcar, but the trip is going to cost you $1 + $0.30/minute per ride. In contrast, outside of the central city the transit options aren’t as great, but the Biketown racks are often empty and difficult to reach. Single-use rides would probably make a lot more sense further out to fill in the gaps of the Trimet system, but that’s not how the system is set up. Maybe it makes more sense if you’re a frequent rider to get the $99/year membership to get the free unlocks, but you’re still spending $0.15/minute on each ride. Half price, sure, but it adds up quick, and in any case, usually the people going out and buying bulk memberships for things are the ones that have bought a few single uses or servings, liked the product, and wanted to commit for the better value.

I had the opportunity in February to use Biketown on a regular basis. I was displaced from my home in the January storm and living out of a hotel in the South Waterfront and didn’t have my regular commuter bike with me. I still had to commute to work though, so I looked into what the best ways to do that were. Turns out that I could spend an extra couple dollars on the Biketown one way to save a few minutes on my bus/streetcar ride or eschew the bus altogether and spend about $10 to get the Biketown. It simply didn’t make any sense to me.

John V
John V
12 days ago
Reply to  Chris I

I don’t think that shows they’re mostly not using the bikes. I’m sure it’s a kind of long tail curve, where there are a lot of users (myself included) who make use of Biketown on occasion, for exceptional cases (like when I drop my bike off at the shop). That doesn’t invalidate that there is (I’m proposing) a core of users who actually rely on it and use it a lot.

With how expensive it is at regular price, I don’t know why anybody uses it (other than on special occasions). I really wish the whole thing was just made cheaper and abundant with something like PCEF money. Seems like a perfect fit.

kbrosnan
kbrosnan
12 days ago
Reply to  John V

You are assuming that Biketown for All riders would be charged at the full rate when they are under the subsidy. If they are charged the 5 cents a minute rate that would provide ten rides a month assuming the average ride is 20 min. In total they would get 200 minutes of riding a month. It is huge downgrade either way.

John V
John V
12 days ago
Reply to  kbrosnan

Ahh, you’re right, I misunderstood that detail. So that’s a lot better than one ride, might even be useful. Not as bad as I thought, but yeah still a downgrade.

bjorn
bjorn
12 days ago
Reply to  John V

My guess is they are trying to trick us with statistics here and “average” really means “median”. If 51% of users would spend 10 dollars a month but 49% would spend 100 dollars a month this guy would be able to spin it as the average user won’t see a price increase at all…

John V
John V
12 days ago
Reply to  bjorn

It could be that.

I was thinking a lot of people probably signed up so they have the option easily, or keep signed up if it’s free even if they don’t use it, and their monthly usage averages out to like a dollar (like in my case), which would be misleading with either type of average I guess.

dw
dw
13 days ago

Others have mentioned how expensive it is, which I 100% agree with. The last time I used it I was in a situation where I taking my own bike was not an option, or at least wouldn’t be super practical.

The options I was left with were bus, Biketown, or ride share. The bus only costs 2.80 but for that trip takes 35 minutes and includes a transfer. Bike and ride share were both 15 minites. I took the biketown which I figured would be cheaper, but it ended up being $8. It was a rainy day so I got a bit wet too. I cynically looked to see how much an Uber would’ve cost – just about $10 including tip.

I’m a bike weirdo so I’ll probably always take the biketown but I don’t think most folks would trade the comfort and convenience of the Uber for a $2 savings, and it shows if you spend any time in the nightlife zones around town. They are absolutely lousy with Ubers – usually parked in the bike lanes. Do we really expect people to choose the more eco-friendly and socially responsible option if it costs the same or more than rideshare?

Matt Villers
Matt Villers
13 days ago

This is deeply disappointing. Explosive growth of a program like this should result in *more* funding, not less. We know that displacing car trips saves the city money and improves the experience of everyone using our roads, and we know that this program does that effectively and that it’s beneficial to its users.

Cutting funding here indirectly incentivizes more rideshare use and ultimately acts as a step backwards from the city’s stated goals. It feels shortsighted at best.

Watts
Watts
11 days ago
Reply to  Matt Villers

How do we know Biketown is displacing car trips in an “effective” manner?

Matt S.
Matt S.
11 days ago
Reply to  Matt Villers

The explosion of use is from people who can’t afford to pay full price, not an explosion of people paying full price.

Finally someone realized blank checks don’t exit unless you call upon the tax payers…

Pirate
13 days ago

This is absolutely infuriating. BIKETOWN For All was the rare public/private partnership that actually, genuinely helped folks, and to see it take this hit is painful.

Being able to have unlimited rides up to 60 minutes has been HUGE for me, especially for filling the many gaps in TriMet service.

This is Nike and Lyft nickel-and-diming Portland’s poorest riders and we should not fucking stand for it.

wonderboy
wonderboy
13 days ago

I am very upset about this. I have been sharing this program with anyone who will listen, and have seen a lot of people begin a less car-dependent relationship with our city with biketown for all. Putting these changes into effect just as the weather turns dependably nice and tourism spikes is also another jab. More bikeshare! More people experiencing the city by bike! Less Ubers with their hazards on blocking bike lines! The police don’t need another million dollars to suppress the public! Get it together, Portland! We can do better.

David Stein
12 days ago

The comment section is a curious place sometimes.

First, Biketown For All has been successful in recruiting a large number of people. This is great news and the result of prolonged efforts by community organizations to enroll people into a program designed to shift how people move through the city.

Second, as a result of the above success the program is likely now a significant line item in the budget for Biketown. There are only so many ways to cover this be it through higher rates for other Biketown users or injections of outside funds. When Lyft moved to ebikes and overhauled the fare structure it was met with some pointed criticism as it made using the system markedly less competitive from a purely financial standpoint. This is still true and represents a foundational issue particularly if only 41% are paying that full rate.

PBOT’s budget is in no condition to support a program like Biketown as there better uses for their funds in the form of improved infrastructure which they are uniquely positioned to provide. That then leaves PCEF, which is imperfect for reasons listed above, and outside sponsorships which are challenging to maintain in the long run and we have yet to see what happens during a large economic downturn.

Finally, what seems to be escaping everyone is the ordinance passed to establish Biketown in September 2015 expressly stated that “PBOT may reduce service levels or modify business terms in order to engage a contractor to ensure that no City funds are directed to system operations.” While PCEF can certainly get around that in funding Biketown For All it still comes up short by keeping the system less competitive for those who pay full fare. While people not enrolled in Biketown For All can generally afford it, they also make rational decisions and cost is certainly a visible driver of that process. This should be a universal long term concern because if the overwhelming majority of people using it are subsidized then people will start to see it in a different light that will erode the popularity, usefulness, and economic sustainability of the system.

John V
John V
12 days ago
Reply to  David Stein

The comments are only curious if you suffer under the assumption that it makes sense for something like Biketown to be “competitive” and self funding. If on the other hand, you want to increase mode share and decrease car dependence, the comments make perfect sense.

That then leaves PCEF, which is imperfect for reasons listed above,

I didn’t see any reasons listed above, did you forget to write them down?

keeping the system less competitive for those who pay full fare

Again, why should anybody care? The goal isn’t competition, that’s not an end in itself worth pursuing, people have lost the plot. The goal is getting people riding bikes instead of driving and helping poorer people with mobility.

people not enrolled in Biketown For All can generally afford it

Yes, but they don’t because it’s so outrageously overpriced, it costs nearly as much as an Uber and many multiples the price of a bus ticket.

This whole idea is doomed by trying to make it a business. It shouldn’t be a business, that doesn’t help anybody.

David Stein
11 days ago
Reply to  John V

The comments are only curious if you suffer under the assumption that it makes sense for something like Biketown to be “competitive” and self funding.

This is conflating my words and tying together two distinct lines of thought. The notion of competition should be thought of in terms of incentives. If you want people do do something they need to see some sort of benefit. Often that is easiest to assess in financial terms and as stated many times on this page the current rates charged for Biketown do not make it appealing in many situations where we should want it to be for the greater good, the change to Biketown for All will similarly force people into decisions that reduce accessibility and mobility or represent a significant financial hit.

The self funding part was decided on by City Council as I noted and is a fundamental error that will prevent any meaningful fix to even be considered because public funding through the city isn’t an option. This has come up in many conversations with people at PBOT and elected leaders as something to be fixed.

I didn’t see any reasons listed above, did you forget to write them down?

I rewrote this comment a few times and a last minute rearrangement helped this make no sense. As we have seen with PCEF it’s very much at the whim of elected leaders. Funding can come and go and it’s still restricted from being able to provide a lift to operations in general which is really what is needed to make the system more of a public good and less of a business trying to at least break even.

Again, why should anybody care?

When there is a limited constituency that is going to put a ceiling on support. If the only people willing to use Biketown are those that are barely paying into it that becomes a damning indictment of a program that isn’t working. The people who value it are unable to meaningfully pay for it to operate and the people who can pay for it are becoming less willing to do so as a proportion of system usage.

There needs to be a grander vision for this program than serving equity goals. It starts with finding sustainable funding that will allow the bike density to recover from bikeless geographical expansions while also changing the fee structure to make it easier for people to choose Biketown.

John
John
11 days ago
Reply to  David Stein

Well, your first paragraph makes me think I completely misunderstood your meaning. Sorry about that.

If the only people willing to use Biketown are those that are barely paying into it that becomes a damning indictment of a program that isn’t working.

Still, this part seems too harsh. Or maybe are you saying it’s a damning indication of a program that isn’t working? I agree. But because of above – it’s too expensive.

If it only serves equity goals, that would be reason enough to count it a success in my view. But I agree, if it can do more, then all the better! And it should. It could be a way to flood the city with car alternatives that you can just use without thinking, and maybe more people would.

Watts
Watts
11 days ago
Reply to  John V

“It shouldn’t be a business, that doesn’t help anybody.”

Let’s ask voters if they want to pay for the system. If they do, problem solved.

Nolan
Nolan
12 days ago

For low-income disabled folks, these cuts are a disaster.

Many like myself can not ride traditional bicycles or walk without pain. Ebiking makes a huge difference in independence.

Trips in Trimet Lift must be requested the previous day. Imagine never being able to make or change transport plans the day of.

The new system will now cost 10% of my entire monthly income

Watts
Watts
11 days ago
Reply to  Nolan

Hi Nolan,

Just curious… Why not ride your own bike? Is it purely a question of acquisition cost? Of storage? Theft? Having your own bike would free you from TriMet, but insulate you from BikeTown cost increases.

Will the last bike commuter turn off their lights
Will the last bike commuter turn off their lights
11 days ago
Reply to  Watts

This may come as a surprise to you but there are people with disabilities that might struggle to afford a reliable e-bike.

Watts
Watts
10 days ago

Not a surprise at all, which is why I listed it as the first possibility. If that’s the problem, there might be better solutions than Biketown. But your answer isn’t all that helpful.

Jeff Rockshoxworthy
Jeff Rockshoxworthy
9 days ago

It’s easy to imagine persons that would be significantly affected by these changes, but all too often these are hypotheticals presented by activists.

The thing is…. you don’t have access to ridership data, while PBOT does. They ran the numbers and concluded:

Under the new rules, PBOT estimates that the average Biketown for All user would pay $5.40 a year in out of station parking convenience fees, based on the average for Biketown for All riders.

Until I hear hard evidence to contrary I’m inclined to believe the public agency that has access to ride data for every user and every trip taken on the system…. rather than emotional appeals based on how someone could be impacted.

Daniel
Daniel
12 days ago

Biketown is disingenuously using the wrong statistic here. As others have pointed out, $10 would only cover one ride from east Portland to downtown and back. The “average” is clearly including many people that are signed up and not using the program. Providing a “median” would result in something more representative of someone using the program regularly, like for commuting.

bjorn
bjorn
12 days ago
Reply to  Daniel

I think they are using the median here and that long tail is why it is showing very little use. What would actually be useful here is to discard all the 1-2 ride users and focus on the impact on the average person who is really using the system, and may even be dependent on it.

Beth H
12 days ago

Considering that you need a smartphone with apps to even use Biketown bikes, that’s another layer of difficulty.
I know I’m not the only person in town who cannot afford a smartphone or the monthly phone plan (thanks to Congress shutting down the Affordable Connectivity Program this spring). Perhaps I’m in the minority, but it’s frustrating that Portland’s bikeshare program requires you to own a smartphone.
In other cities, like Miami and El Paso, one can simply use a debit card and sign up directly at the kiosk. (In Miami, I was even able to pay with cash.)
There are so many barriers thrown up all the time at low-income people who need access to services.
I believe these will continue to be in place until nonprofits no longer have to go hat-in-hand to People With Money, and society no longer sees the poor, elderly and infirm as a nuisance.

John V
John V
12 days ago
Reply to  Beth H

This has the downside that you can only pick up bikes left at a specific bikeshare rack, right? Or do they have card readers on every bike? I’m trying to think of schemes that could work without a smartphone. Each bike must have a way to talk to the internet, obviously, so it has some smarts. They could put a camera and QR code reader and give users a unique card to scan. Probably wouldn’t cost too much more.

Or forget all that nonsense and make it free just like they should for bus and Max.

But you’re absolutely right about this, and it’s a real bummer Nike got in there first and made it a “business”. I mean, I’m glad they proved people wanted it (as if we needed that, but meh). I hate that our government is so afraid to do things, but until it does, we’re stuck with this half measure stuff.

anonymous
anonymous
12 days ago
Reply to  Beth H

Beth, if you are an active member in BIKETOWN for All and don’t have a smartphone or if you have limited access to a data plan you can request a key card to unlock BIKETOWN bikes. Just fill out this google form to request a key card.

Steven
Steven
12 days ago

The fiscal death spiral comes for bikeshare. There’s no way to sustain a program like this without outside funding. And that’s the point! Achieving the transportation equity that PBOT likes to brag about should be a public good, not a line item on a balance sheet. I’m one of those “lowest income” people PBOT is referencing, with no place to store a bike at home. I have been relying on Biketown For All for basic transportation for the past several years, and this change will seriously limit my personal mobility.

JM
JM
9 days ago

My partner used to use Biketown to go on rides with me, but since they raised the fee it doesn’t make sense. It often costs the same as rideshare and makes using the bikes more of a novelty than a transportation mode.

If they reduced the price for regular users, I would definitely consider it. When bus service gets spotty in the evening, it helps to have an alternative. But I don’t event consider Biketown anymore because of the cost.

Jeff Rockshoxworthy
Jeff Rockshoxworthy
9 days ago
Reply to  JM

Agreed, I find a standard Lyft ride cheaper, and I don’t have to worry as much about safety (I’m often without a helmet if i choose to take Biketown home), sobriety or other hassles, like only parking in hubs.

Jeff Rockshoxworthy
Jeff Rockshoxworthy
9 days ago

In 2023, Biketown for All riders took 376,000 trips (up 82% from 2022), a number that represents 59% of all Biketown trips taken that year.

So nearly 60% of Biketown users don’t pay. Like MAX / bus fare and most of our taxes, it feels like working people are the only suckers paying for anything. Is it any shock that Portland’s population is declining?

AndyK
AndyK
9 days ago

Thank you for all the inciteful comments.
How did the Biketown for All memberships skyrocket 82% in one year and how are they taking 59% of all trips? This is wild and I would have guessed more like 10% based on the requirements. I would also like to see how many trips were taken from zipcodes outside the central city.

As has been stated hundreds if not thousands of times on this site, bikeshare (like transit) should be treated as a public good and not have budget issues. It’s a bummer that people cannot or will not use it because of the cost.

I really miss the OG BIKETOWN. Yeah sometimes the buttons got stuck or you accidently locked the bike with the U-lock instead of storing it, but it was a smooth, cheap ride, and super safe: these bikes regularly traveled 5-10mph haha.