Justin Tutor thought the coast was clear. After decades of false starts in Portland's bike-share plans, the co-owner of Crank Bicycles decided to invest $3,500 in a fleet of public cruisers to serve tourists staying near his Buckman shop. The fleet was popular, and Crank used the profits to move around the corner to a larger, new storefront.
Tutor's timing could hardly have been worse. Soon after the move, the city installed a Biketown station at the northwest corner of Southeast 28th Avenue and Ankeny Street, about 75 feet from Crank's front door. Twelve hours after Biketown went in, Crank sent out its last rentals.
"It's pretty hard to compete with one of the biggest marketing forces in the world behind Coca-Cola and El Chapo," Tudor says.
Since Biketown launched last July, local bike-rental shops have been feeling an intense burning sensation, as tourists have opted to go orange and save money by choosing Biketown over a traditional rental. We spoke to representatives from local bike-rental operations to learn how those racks of clunky, orange bikes scattered about inner Portland have affected their bottom lines. Their stories are varying shades of grim.
Veloce Bicycles on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard counted on a fleet of cruisers for 30 percent of its annual revenue. By December 2016, that revenue was basically gone. Owner Brent Engstrom says the two nearby Biketown stations were the final nail in his shop's coffin. He moved his business to Beaverton in January.
Like most shop owners we spoke with, Engstrom says he has a vested interest in building Portland's cycling and that Biketown ultimately undercuts that.
"You have someone who's not familiar with the city, you stick them on a bike that's very heavy and you don't give them a helmet, and say, 'Here ya go!' That sounds pretty dangerous to me," he says. "You can rent a bike from an oppressive corporation to ride around and see the homeless people!' Some of that money could've gone toward the infrastructure you'd ride these bikes on."
Of the three businesses focused almost exclusively on rentals and tours we spoke with, Pedal Bike Tours was hit the hardest, saying it's lost half its revenue since July. Owner Todd Roll has since invested about $20,000 in diversifying his fleet with electric, single-speed and children's bikes, as well as building up the guided-tour side of his business. The profit margin is lower than Roll had with entry-level cruisers, but he is certain Pedal would have gone out of business if it was strictly a rental business.
Everybody's Bike Rentals, once a quirky shop renting rebuilt road bikes out of the basement of a house on Northeast Going Street with goats in the backyard, made the leap to a dedicated storefront in 2013. Owner Dan Sloan reported a 30 percent loss in revenue because of Biketown, and has echoed the sentiments that diversification into tours is now the only way his business can survive.
"People come to us because they want to experience Portland the way a local experiences it," Sloan says. "But it's hard to sell tourists on the idea of using a road bike to ride around and check out all the beer and coffee and food when those -pound bikes are sitting right in front of their Airbnb."
Counterpoint: Biketown Isn't Just For Tourists.
Evan Ross, owner of Cycle Portland in Old Town, is conflicted about Biketown. He's adamantly in favor of bike-share programs, but it wasn't until he saw "a noticeable regression in cycling safety due to population growth" in the past two years that he felt Portland ever needed such a thing. Ross has lost 40 percent of his rental business, forcing him to focus on tours and servicing bike commuters who work nearby.
There are challenges far more pressing than Biketown, he says.
"I started the business in late 2007 and put my entire life savings into the company, then I watched the economy collapse right in front of me," Ross says. "But my ability to adapt and look at alternative forms of transportation when we had $4 [per-gallon] gas allowed me to be successful. One of my favorite quotes is, 'Innovate or die.'"