March 26th, 2014 | by AARON MESH News | Posted In: Transportation, City Hall, Business

Portland's Alta Bike Share Faces Mounting Criticism for "Disengaged" Handling of NYC's Program

UPDATE: Novick says he wants to talk to New York officials

citibike5_shinyasuzukiSHARE AND SHARE A BIKE: New York City’s streets now feature nearly 6,000 rental bicycles managed by Portland company Alta Bike Share. - Credit: Shinya Suzuki

Last summer, the future looked balmy for Portland company Alta Bicycle Share.

The launch of its New York City system, Citi Bikes, was met with national acclaim—even the naysayers were coming off as benighted cranks. It had contracts to run bike-share programs in nine cities.

And in its hometown, the Portland Bureau of Transportation was planning to ask for city loans to kickstart the service until private sponsorships were secured.

The honeymoon is over.

"The operators of New York's new bike-sharing program are taking the city for a ride," The New York Daily News declared Sunday. (It's worth noting that The Daily News is by far the more bike-friendly of the Big Apple tabloids.)

The Daily News found that Alta, which has asked for more money to expand Citi Bikes, wasn't fulfilling the maintenance and re-stocking obligations in its contract—sometimes leaving bike-rental stations unstocked for three days.

The number of broken docks repaired within 48 hours fell from a lackluster 64% in August to just 50% in January and to 56% in February, even though Alta's six-year contract demands a 99% repair rate, according to monthly reports filed by company with the city's Department of Transportation.

Alta's contract demands 98% of vandalized bikes and docking stations be cleaned within four days. But in January, only 37% of graffiti-marked bikes were cleaned in that time frame, and in February just 8% of the vandalized docking stations were brought up to snuff in a timely fashion, the documents show.

The New York Times weighed in today with a breakdown of how Citi Bikes broke down.

The Alta team, based in Portland, Ore., has at times been frustratingly disengaged, supporters of the program say. Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a rider advocacy group that helped bring bike sharing to New York City, said the company appeared “content just to sort of let the New York system founder.”

And Alta’s local subsidiary, NYC Bicycle Share, has consistently fallen behind on its repairs and maintenance, running afoul of its contract with the city, and struggled to redistribute bikes to empty stations.

Yet in many ways, the decision to begin the program last year has proved prescient. The bikes have become ingrained in the city’s transportation network, quickly putting to rest the notions that the system might be too dangerous, or struggle to attract local riders.

Here in Portland, transportation officials have been distancing themselves from their plan, reported by WW last August, of using city money to finance as much as $4.6 million of the start-up costs for Alta's Portland Bike Share.

Officials at Alta haven't yet responded to WW's request for comment. NYC Bicycle Share has issued a statement.  

UPDATE, 2:30 pm: City Commissioner Steve Novick, who oversees the Portland Bureau of Transportation, says Alta Bicycle Share has told city officials that snafus in New York City are unlikely to take place in Portland's proposed system.

"I’m also interested in hearing what NYC has to say," Novick tells WW in an email. "By coincidence, Polly Trottenberg, the new head of NYCDOT, is an old acquaintance of mine, and I just heard back from her that she’s happy to schedule a call and talk about lessons learned. So we’re trying to set that up."

UPDATE, 6:15 pm: Mia Birk, the Portland bike planner who is principal at Alta Bicycle Share, tells WW her company has "involved on a daily basis on practically every aspect of the Citi Bike business" in New York City.

"Citi Bike's challenges have in some cases arisen because of its tremendous success," Birk tells WW.

"With over 100,000 annual members—more than 4 times the members of the next biggest bike share system (Chicago’s Divvy), it has been at times challenging to keep up with the system’s usage and demand," she continues. "NYC Bicycle Share and Alta Bicycle Share are working closely with the New York City Department of Transportation to address these issues and improve service."

 
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