Portland Transportation Chief Explains Why Women Love Bike Sharing

On the eve of BikeTown, Leah Treat also talks about why bike helmets are very unlike bowling shoes.

Leah Treat sees advantages to bringing up the rear of the bike-share pack.

When Portland launches its bike-sharing program July 19, the top-rated city for bicycling won't be the first U.S. city to do so—or even one of the first 50. It'll be the 65th, behind tourist hot spots like Spartanburg, S.C., and Omaha, Neb. (And, of course, New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C.)

It took eight years and several failed attempts for Portland to get to this point. But backers of the new system, dubbed BikeTown by corporate sponsor Nike, aren't upset about the wheel-spinning.

"We've learned and been able to watch what other cities have done," says Treat, director of the Portland Bureau of Transportation. "Our system is going to be the largest smart-bike system when we launch. It's going to be awesome."

WW sat down with Treat this week to talk about her expectations for BikeTown. We also talked about the features of the new system—and why bike helmets are very unlike bowling shoes.

WW: How many riders are you expecting in the first month? The first year?

Leah Treat: We've already passed the 500 mark for founding members [with 600 members signed up for annual passes], so we'll have a minimum of 600 and likely a lot more as tourists are visiting. Tourists adopt bike share at a much higher rate. As people are visiting the city, they're going to be getting on bike share.

I'm picturing a lot of tourists tooling around without helmets. Will they have any?

They will either have to bring their own, or they can go to a local store and buy one. There's not a helmet law [for adults], so we're not providing helmets. We are looking at options to have helmet vending machines, but we still don't have good options available for that.

Helmet vending machines? That's a thing?

Seattle tried a helmet vending option. They're the only city I'm aware of, but I don't think it's gone very well, which is why other people haven't adopted it. There are issues with hygiene. There has to be a means in place to get those helmets sanitized and back into the system. [Side note: Boston has experimented with helmet vending machines, too.]

If bowling alleys can figure out how to disinfect shoes, why can't bike shares figure out how to sanitize helmets?

Their shoes don't leave their site! They have all the equipment right there in one location, and there's somebody there running the business. With 100 bike-share stations, it's not really the same.

How do you ensure that this program doesn't become just another amenity for privileged Portlanders?

The data in other cities doesn't bear that out. Women adopt bike share at rates greater than in the commuting population. It's picked up by tourists, who are visiting the city. The more infrastructure that's provided, the more numbers of people who use it. In the area where we are launching, there's more than 50 percent of the affordable housing located within 500 feet of a station. We have bike-share stations near affordable housing, near transit, near retail. We have a really low price point. For $2.50, which is the equivalent of a bus ticket, you can get a bike-share trip.

But for $2.50 on TriMet you can travel to your destination and get home as long as you do it in 2½ hours. You only have 30 minutes by bike. So why is that a good option for low-income riders?

I think it depends on where you're going and how fast you need to be there. Bike-share bikes are immediately accessible, and you don't have to wait for them to show up. You don't make stops along the way, and if you have a short quick trip to make bike share is a faster, same-price option.

Why are women who won't commute by bike willing to use the bike-share system?

There are a lot of theories. Women constantly say they want to be safe. They want to feel safe in order to ride bikes. Women have adopted bicycles in their own households at a much lower rate, so they don't own bikes. A bike-share bike presents them with the opportunity to try out biking. So they get on the bike, and [the bikes are] very heavy, they're very big, and they're easy to maneuver and they're safe. They start using the bike share bike as a trial and discover that they like it.

How do you respond to criticism that bike share doesn't allow disabled riders to participate?

We're going to be launching a pilot program [in spring 2017] for adaptive bikes. It's going to be separate from the bike share system. But we're going to try out a few different types of bikes and see what works.

You've said cities that adopted systems early didn't anticipate how popular they would be. So what's the biggest lesson from those cities?

It's important to have the stations relatively close together, because they're meant for shorter trips. So station density is incredibly important. It's very important to launch your system in an area where it's going to get picked up and adopted quickly, which is a dense area. That's why we targeted the central city. We have to make sure we keep the system balanced, so we're being incredibly watchful about how the bikes migrate.

So what does that mean? You'll have trucks out and about moving the bikes around?

We're going to try to avoid using trucks as often as possible because we're very aware of our carbon footprint. We are looking to have the bikes rebalanced with bike trailers.

So if you have too many bikes near Pioneer Courthouse Square and not enough at Portland State University, someone will move them by bike trailer?

One of the employees of Motivate [the operator] would do that.

How will you prevent bicyclists from locking their own bikes to your racks, something that's already been a problem?

We're never going to be able to prevent people from locking up to the racks, but as the bike-share bikes come into the system they're going to take up most of the space. We'll start with warnings, and if it does become a problem, we will end up with having to remove [personal] bikes from the system.

The great thing about our bike-share system, though, is that the bikes don't have to be on that dock. The bikes are the smart component. In other cities, where it's really a problem when people lock up their bikes to the bike share dock, it's because the docks are the smart part of it, so the bikes have to go into that dock to get its computer synced up and all that. All of our logistics and technology are on the bike, but we still don't want people locking their bikes to the bike-share dock.

Tell me something about bike share that people don't already know.

Nike has the right to wrap 400 of the bikes per year in their own branding. They're going to call them "unicorns." They're going to look different than the orange bikes. [Side note: There will be 100 "unicorns" designed to look like sneakers on launch day.]

Why are the bikes orange?

It's the Nike shoebox color, and the basket on the front is supposed to look like a Nike shoebox.

How much do bike-sharing apps like Spinlister worry you?

Not at all. This is a biking town. People are excited about biking, and any new transportation option that you can bring to the city is going to be well-used.

So what's the biggest risk?

I don't see any. I think it's such a good program, I don't see what the risk is.

Come on, there has to be some stumbling block you're worried about.

Nope. We've had so many intentional, intense conversations. We have a great operator. We have a great sponsor. We have great staff and community partners. I don't see any risk to what we're doing. I'm excited about expanding it and keeping it going.

In the end are you glad it took Portland this long to launch bike share?

Yes, in some weird way, there are a lot of benefits to being the 65th city to launch bike share in the country.

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