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I Spent a Year Using Biketown to Commute. Here’s What I Learned.

After a full year, my enthusiasm remains. But it is also tempered by the realities and demands of a long year: Biketown has problems.

For my final year living in Portland, I did not drive a car. I also didn't ride my bike, though I own one. I took the bus and MAX only five times—judging from the missing slips in my book of day passes, at least.

For a year, my life was at the mercy of Biketown.

In case you're orange-spectrum colorblind, Biketown is bikey Portland's improbably controversial municipal bike share. Since the city installed 1,000 clunky, Nike-orange bikes on racks throughout the central city, the program has been vandalized on account of its corporate-sponsored branding, mocked for the cycles' heaviness and silly baskets, and feared by bike shops that rely on rentals to stay afloat.

But when I first tried Biketown for a week last year, I was ecstatic. It was easier than riding your own bike—no need to worry about how to get it home if you go to a bar, and no need to repair it if the gears go wonky. The $12 monthly fee made the bikes far cheaper and faster than mass transit. And as every cyclist knows, they're faster than cars in the central city at afternoon rush hour.

After a full year, my enthusiasm remains. But it is also tempered by the realities and demands of a long year: Biketown has problems. Some are easily fixable, and some might require vast expenditures to remedy. Here's my experience.

The Problem: The docking requirement makes $12 a month a pleasant fiction, and keeps the range limited.

The rules of the Biketown contract are simple: $12 nets you 90 minutes of access to any of 1,000 bikes spread across the central city. But with the exception of two "super hub" zones—the central eastside west of 12th Avenue and the PSU blocks—if you don't park your Biketown bike at one of the racks, you're gonna be charged $2.

This is easy enough to abide by most of the time, and especially on your regular commute. But sometimes there's no rack within six blocks of where you're going and you're in a hurry. Sometimes you don't know where the rack is and your phone is dead. Sometimes you're just a little lazy.

Either way, the $2 charge rapidly becomes punitive. I averaged $25 a month, and that's after redeeming a whole mess of the $1 credits Biketown offers when you rack bikes that have been left orphaned by others. Otherwise, I would have been charged around $40 a month.

The solution: Talk to Seattle.

Last July, Seattle tried a pilot program of dockless bikes. Nearly 10,000 of them were strewn all over the city, available to anyone with a membership. In January, the city started compiling data to determine whether dockless bike share only led to havoc and bike theft. But in a telling sign, dockless bike share has been left operational after the six-month trial period. Ridership per bike, at 2.2 per day, is now higher in Seattle than anywhere else except highly dense New York.

The Problem: Extremely egregious fees, without warning, for innocent mistakes.

If you lock your bike outside the oddly shaped, zigzagging borders of the Biketown zone—extending out to 33rd Avenue on Northeast Alberta Street, but shrinking back tepidly to 15th on Northeast Broadway—you get charged $20 immediately, with no warning. You may, however, receive a text, described as a "courtesy," that you have already been charged $20.

You technically have the ability to press "hold" on the bike so your ride remains active while you run into a grocery store—although when I once tried to do this after locking the bike, the "hold" button stuck and didn't register.

Sorry, bub. Twenty dollars. "Courtesy text."

On two other occasions, the bike did not lock properly. This was probably my fault, but as with locking the bike outside the zone, the bike gave no warning this had happened. I merely received a charge to my account. In one of two cases, I received an email notice of a $47 charge, and was able to reverse it after a long and frustrating phone conversation in which the technician on the line asked me to bike back to my home rack. Because who knows when a Biketown tech would get there?

The solution: Is it so hard to warn a rider in advance if a lock is insecurely fastened?

Or that you're going to charge riders $20 if they leave the bike there? A simple blip and a message would suffice.

The Problem: The gears won't shift up when the temperature is below freezing.

When it's below freezing, you've got to find a bike that's been locked in sixth or seventh gear. If you grab one in third, you'll have to pedal very fast to get anywhere or expend extraordinary effort to shift up each gear.

The solution: I dunno, fix it?

The Problem:  One-way bikers cripple the system.

To each and every Biketown member who uses the rack at 22nd Avenue and East Burnside, I apologize—I often took a car ride home from work in the evening, offered by a friendly co-worker.

So over the course of every two weeks or so, I slowly emptied the rack on Burnside and filled the rack at Northwest 21st and Raleigh. I did this over and over, until the rack on Burnside was simply…empty. This was a consistent experience. In this particular neighborhood, other racks were nearby. In others, this could ruin a day.

The solution:  Automated trend monitoring might help.

In my experience, the Burnside rack wasn't refilled until it was utterly empty, but the trend downward—caused by me—was thuddingly consistent.

Overall, my experience was largely positive—and it was heartening to see the orange bikes multiply as a mode for daily commuting, not merely a novelty for tourists. But a few of the problems—in particular, the no-warning fees larger than the entire monthly charge for ridership—were flagrant enough that I wouldn't renew for another year until they're fixed. Maybe it's user error, but parking on the wrong side of the street probably shouldn't cost more than dinner.

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