Yesterday the Portland City Council voted 4-1 to approve a public bike share program like those gaining popularity in cities like Paris, London, Denver and Washington, D.C.
The approved proposal would seek to leverage $2 million in federal money to obtain another $2 million in private funding, so whether or not this program actually materializes could be contingent on finding the support of a corporate sponsor. (In London, Barclay's bank coughed up the cash to pay for that city's bike share, in return for having their corporate logo and color scheme on the tank-like two-wheelers. As a marketing scheme, it was somewhat futile, as most Londoners refer to as Boris bikes, after the city's mayor, Boris Johnson.)
Commissioner Amanda Fritz was the sole no vote yesterday; she reportedly said the money would be better spent on other transportation projects and, more controversially, that poor behavior by downtown cyclists informed her decision.
This is not the first time in recent years that the Portland Bureau of Transportation, under the direction of one-time-Commissioner-and-now-Mayor Sam Adams, has attempted to launch a bike share program. Nor is it the first time bike share has actually been implemented in this city. Born-and-bred Portlanders may remember, (perhaps dimly, at this point) the ill-fated, oft-nicked "yellow bikes" of the mid-90s.
I've been lucky enough to see a couple of different city bike share programs in the past couple of years. Denver's red B-Cycle bikes sure were pretty, but I didn't see a single person using them on a visit last year (nor did I feel particularly compelled to hop on one).
London was different. Boris bikes were a regular—if occasionally aggravating, given the tendency of their riders to weave wildly—part of the city's traffic flow. (One regular cyclist there has called the bike share program an effort to use "crap cyclists to slow down the traffic stream." It works, he told the Guardian, "but it's a bit suicidal – like throwing people over the top in some conflict.")
The Boris bikes are, as I'd been warned, slow, heavy and difficult to maneuver. But their crappiness is their great advantage. They are too much of a hassle to steal, but convenient enough to use in a pinch. (Denver's bikes are also reportedly heavy as bricks.)
The real emerging issue of cycle-share schemes is who uses them. After spending the better part of the past year in London, I didn't use the bike-share program until just before I moved back to Portland in the spring, and only after having sold the Frankensteinian hybrid single-speed conversion I'd shipped over to use as a commuter/touring bike/rolling endorsement of the color green.
The same, I suspect, will be true of many Portlanders who already own bikes. They won't need the things. But tourists might. And businesspeople running late for an appointment. And good numbers people with a slight buzz after an illicitly boozy picnic in the park.
That aside, bike-share programs are spreading around the world, and it can't just be because they're useless.
I wrote this article last year for the Santa Fe Reporter, comparing bike share programs in Washington, Montreal, Denver, Paris and—who knew?—Tehran. (Santa Fe's bike share program is, as far as I know, going nowhere.)
My former WW colleague James Pitkin reports after a recent trip that Bangkok, too, now has a bike-share program (see photo). However, having spent some time in that city, too, I would think twice before braving traffic on any two-wheeled mechanism that does not have an engine of at least 150cc's.
It's true that every city is different, and that makes it hard to guess, based on other cities' experiences, what would and wouldn't work in Portland.
Vandalism apparently continues to plague the system in Paris. London hasn't had that problem so much. Is that because Paris' system is better-managed, or because Parisians like to break stuff? Hard to say.
The Washington City Paper gave the capital's bike-share program, the first of its kind in the U.S., a pretty thorough going-over earlier this year. Ridership, the City Paper says, has "skyrocketed"; the Washington Times says the system has been "crippled by its own success."
The city's program evidently got a boost after a daily deals promotion and, strangely enough, after the death of Osama bin Laden.
A spinoff of the Portland-based Alta Planning + Design firm, led by Mia Birk, a onetime adviser to U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), is managing D.C.'s program. Examining a proposed New York City bike share, The New York Times reported in June that Alta a supplier for Alta, a bidder on the Bloomberg-endorsed project, had "run into financial problems in Montreal" (see update below).
"Government officials there eventually provided $108 million in financing to that provider, Public Bike System Company, in part to cover losses incurred by Bixi, the city’s bike-share program. …Expect to hear more about this in the months ahead, and don't be surprised if, after all that, you feel something like deja vu.
In March, the city narrowed its field from six bidders to two: Alta and B-Cycle, which is affiliated with the manufacturer Trek, and has done programs in Chicago and Denver. …
Roger Plamondon, the board chairman of Public Bike System, said his company had the financial resources to come to New York, despite its issues in Montreal. In 2009, Bixi’s first year, the program lost $5.5 million; last year, it lost $7 million, Mr. Plamondon said.
The City of Montreal lent $37 million to Public Bike System to be repaid over 12 years and guaranteed a $71 million private loan to help finance the expansion of its programs.