Bicycle Share (or a lack thereof) in the Bike Capital of the U.S.


2013 seems to be shaping up as the Year of Bicycle Share across the U.S., with New York City getting its Citibike and Chicago’s Divvy launching just a few weeks later. Portland (and Seattle as well) would be joining the party this year, too, if it weren’t for delays in its launch. And this got me thinking - Portland is hailed as the bicycle capital of the United States, so you’d think that we’d have a bike share system long before a city like New York. While Portland has a history of progressive bicycle treatments (bike lanes, boxes, and signals, to name a few) there is definitely a stall in truly groundbreaking developments. A bike lane may be widened or finally there’s a stretch of separated bicycle lanes near downtown, but where is the Indianapolis-like wow-factor? Where is the buffered corridor that provides a safe connection downtown? Where is our bicycle share?

Citibike in New York City, accompanied by street improvements (image source here)

I recently brought this up to a group of friends and colleagues (over beers, of course), individuals experienced with urban studies, many of whom ride a bicycle regularly and are passionate about alternative transportation and walkable/livable cities. I was shocked to find that almost immediately the conversation turned to a backlash of conflict towards the idea of bicycle share, especially here in Portland. Their issue came down to a few main points - For starters, they already have bikes. They don’t need bicycle share. And who would it serve anyway? Would tourists actually use it at all? Would it just be wasting money when it could be put into bike lanes instead? And a major concern, would it reach to the areas of the city which are in most need of this kind of transportation, or would they even use it?

Coming from progressive cycle-friendly young people in Portland, I was shocked. But it’s important to remember that Portland is the home of the urban homesteader - it is incredibly progressive but in a (dare I say) Tea Party-like way it is also home to a lot of people who want to do things in an independent way via Maker-driven artisan businesses or raising chickens in their backyards (and the like). One of the most notable quotes about Portland that I recall from my early days here fresh in graduate school comes from a local historian and professor Carl Abbott: “Portland isn’t Seattle, nor do we want it to be”. What that quote really means could indicate the difference between a town and a world-class city. Is there something to being a Portlander that dislikes a more formal bicycle share? I’d like to go through each of these points in turn in an effort to think this through.

Bike share costs money that could be put elsewhere

The money argument we know to be false - Bicycle share is coordinated most often by a private company or at the very least has private sponsors that carry a lot of the cost. Not to mention that the cost of bicycle share systems is much less than something like a giant highway or the fact that for instance, NYC residents did not pay for Citibike at all. And do I even have to bring up the jobs created and the income generated that goes back to the city?

Bicycle share is for tourists

When the point was raised that all of the world-class tourist destinations of Europe have bicycle share, some in NYC shouted that they didn’t want the city to be like Paris - It’s New York; it’s meant to be filled with honking yellow cabs, grey sidewalks, and people yelling out of their windows. The nay-sayers claimed that people would either die left and right on the streets because of New York’s character, or tourists wouldn’t know how to ride a bike in the city. While NYC is of course a world-class city, the perception of it as always being like it is now, and having a unique niche in the world of metropolises (read: gritty?), was a prime concern for people when those “invasive” blue bicycles appeared on the street.

During the discussion with my friends, one of them brought up the bicycle share in Berlin and how it is dilapidated, unused, and totally unnecessary. One could say the same about cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen where so many people ride bicycles (about half in both cases, depending on the trip type and location), what is the need for a public bicycle service? Portland is of course not even close to these numbers, sitting at a pitiful 7% on a good day (though some neighborhoods do trend higher, again depending on trip type and so on). So while maybe mostly tourists use the bicycle shares in many European cities, I should think that Portland could use the leg up in any way possible, bicycle share being a component of the larger picture.

I already own a bike, I don’t need bike share

In line with the previous argument, the fact that you would rather have your own bike is apparently a point of dissent regarding bike share, regardless of the fact that others might not own a bike yet. However, I think this is one of the easier points to counter. Some people simply may not want to ride a bicycle every day and therefore may not want to spend the money on owning a bicycle (including upkeep and so on) as it may be more economically efficient to instead use the bicycle share system. Further, for people living downtown in apartments or just smaller living spaces, having a bicycle takes up space, or is constantly at risk of being stolen if stored outside. Bicycle share for some can free up the worry of loss, maintenance, initial cost, and storage, depending on the individual (much like the argument for car sharing).

Bicycle share also provides something else crucial for people who don’t own a bike - the ability to try out riding a bicycle in a city, especially if they’ve never done it before. Maybe they don’t want to go through the commitment of buying a bike only to find that they don’t actually feel comfortable riding one. It is possible that through bikeshare they will eventually go on to buy their own bicycle once they’ve decided that yes, this is something that they will do enough to warrant the purchase.

And of course, even people who own bicycles can take advantage of bicycle share. One of the great stories to come out of the NYC bike share was the professional who works downtown and rides to work, but didn’t like taking his bicycle out of his office just for a lunch meeting. It is much easier for him to just hop on a Citibike for those short trips on the fly, and then ride his regular bicycle at the end of the day to get home.

Bicycle share only serves the wealthy

Whenever people bring up the argument that bikes aren’t good for underserved populations, I’m stunned. Bicycles were the dominant mode of transportation for the masses in many countries up until recently and even here in the United States (until the advent of automobiles, of course). In many places where cars are simply not practical, bicycles still reign supreme, not to mention the European examples where bicycles are used more often by the entire population as the great equalizer - exactly what we should all be shooting for in the U.S. The fact of the matter is bikes are much less expensive than cars ever will be. If we can make it more accessible, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods, we can give everyone the choice to have a more affordable method of transportation.

With regards to bicycle share, I think this is just a matter of baby steps, especially here in the U.S. where it’s not commonplace yet. When starting bicycle share in a city, it has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is going to be the place with the most visibility and potential for use. This means placing stations near transit stops, the business district, and popular tourist destinations like museums and major parks (typically downtown). Only after its initial stages can it then spread to places that express a desire for access. Chicago’s bike share for example currently has 75 stations, but a whopping 400 are officially planned (that’s 750 bikes now, and 4,000 in the future!). It takes time, and hopefully it will be done with a sense of equality to spread to the neighborhoods that could really use access to alternative transportation.

Portland isn’t the place for bike share

To consider a city static and without change is total folly. We know what livability looks like. We know that providing choices to people is the key to increasing the number of people using alternative transportation and we know that’s what makes healthier people as well as cities more generally. Bicycle share can also be a significant indicator of the current state of a city - whereas for bicycle share to work, the facilities need to be in place for people to use it. I think it’s notable that NYC has recently gone through major changes in its public space and protected bicycle lanes followed by the ability to actually experience these changes in accessibility and safety (not to mention livability).

The question then is this: why is Portland so behind on bicycle share, especially when we’re the home of the company that has made bicycle share in all these other cities? Interestingly enough Portland did have a (admittedly weird) bottom-up bicycle share years ago. Certain bikes were painted yellow and spread throughout the city with the expectation that those bikes could be used by anyone and dropped off anywhere (no stations required). As I’m sure you’ve already guessed it was apparently a complete failure. The bikes were frequently stolen or vandalized, and the “system” eventually died out.

In a beautiful case study, I think this exemplifies Portland in many ways - rather than wanting a top-down government-created project Portlanders are more willing to buy their own bike or take the lane even when lanes are provided. The can-do grassroots and artisan attitude is admirable - no mistaking that. But when it comes to something like a bicycle share system, much like car sharing, it’s best to deliver it with a good degree of technology and coordination - something which can only be achieved through a predominantly top-down approach. But more importantly, when it comes to accessibility, choice in transportation, and livability, I believe that bicycle share systems are a crucial part of this equation, regardless of whether you yourself will use it or not. And maybe Portland hasn’t had a bicycle share before this because of peoples’ attitudes, or the existing infrastructure, but my hopes are that when it does come, it will bring with it an increase in ridership, but also a sense of pride, even if we don’t want to be like Seattle.

Or if you don't believe me, you can always listen to this guy: