5 Surprises From Portland's Next-Generation Bike Share

©. April Streeter

The truth is, people in Portland pretty much thought bike share would never come to town.

But then local behemoth Nike stepped in as a sponsor, and Biketown, as Portland's bike share is called, really got rolling.

And when the bright orange Biketown bikes were ready-set-go last month, even bike-jaded Portlanders decided to go for a ride. Or two.

Here are five surprising stats from a bike share that was a long time in coming but has already made a big splash.


1. After just a month, bike sharing tourists and residents logged 59,000 separate trips and nearly 136,000 miles of rides.
This is interesting, because Portland already has a high degree of bike commuters and cyclists, who presumably all have their own bicycles. Yet more than 2,000 Portlanders signed on to be yearly Biketown members for $12 per month.


2. Though Nike's sponsorship is key, it is not loudly proclaimed on the bikes themselves. Big company sponsorship has become something of a commonplace in the bike share business: not only to fund start-up but also to keep bike share afloat. According to the Oregonian, Portland used a $2 million federal grant to buy the bikes, but Nike's $10 million, 5-year sponsorship allowed for additional bikes and an expanded service area. However, Nike's advertising on the bikes is subtle - in the sea of orange bikes, 10% of Biketown bikes are painted in the colors of classic Nike sneakers – the Nike Air Max 95, Nike Air Trainer 1 and Nike Air Safar. Some swooshes are apparent. But there aren't blatant advertisement placements, though the name of the system 'Biketown' is a nod to Nike's Niketown stores.


3. Tourists and non-commuters are using Biketown. Contrary to some bike sharing programs I've tried out (Barcelona's Bicing, Divvy Bikes in Chicago and New York's Citi Bike), Biketown's mobile app has made it really easy to get signed up for a single trip ($2.50) or an all-day ride ($12.00). That, and the plethora of stands with the bright orange Biketown bikes have made them a magnet for tourists and catnip even to people who don't normally bike. Makoto Sato of Nagoya, Japan tried Biketown with me on a hot Portland day. A dedicated road cyclist who logged over 500 miles of biking on her two week visit to Oregon, Sato thought the Biketown bikes looked like Mamachari bikes – in other words, heavy and slow. Her words post-ride: "It was a lot more fun that I thought it would be."


4. Biketown's initial popularity is boosting Portland's slightly weary bike rep. In a boomtown with a housing shortage and suddenly Seattle-like traffic jams, Portlanders famous friendliness is getting a little frayed. Two years ago when Minneapolis took Portland's former crown as most-bike-friendly city in the U.S. (according to Bicycling Magazine), it hurt. Now bike trips are also booming. Writing at the popular Bike Portland blog, Jessica Roberts said that's in part due to science: Biketown has the necessary elements – Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely – to make people want to try out a new behavior, in this case, bike sharing.


5. Technology has made for a better ride. Perhaps this is no surprise to some, but many bike sharing programs seem to start up half-baked. Either the software is buggy and full of errors, or the bikes are clunky and missing something vital – like a basket – or the experience itself is marred by lack of rebalancing or lack of enough stations around town. Biketown's software worked no glitches. And the bikes - SoBi bikes – while heavy, are also pretty easy to ride with their 8 gears, internal hubs, and step-through frames. The solar-powered display on the back of the bike really makes check in and check out seamless.

Best of all, Biketown bikes have built-in locking capabilities. This is huge. Many little stops for coffee, errands, or a short stop anywhere that catches the eye is a huge plus over previous generations of bike share. And to its credit, Biketown allows you to park your bike anywhere within the system area for a $2 charge. Locking outside the system area is a $20 charge.

One criticism of Biketown is the lack of stations in the northeastern part of the inner city. Our trial ride took us to the four quadrants, and the lack of stations along the Alberta district and in most of the northeast and outer parts of the southeast was glaringly apparent.

When Portland's summer weather passes and the slow-drip of an Oregon winter returns, it will be interesting to see if enthusiasm for bike share can be maintained. For now, we're seeing orange and its a very pleasant thing to behold.