A Fair Share

Maybe Portland cyclists should be happy the city dawdled on bad bike-share schemes.

San Francisco—A 30-something man in an American-made hoodie emerges from the Montgomery Street BART station. As his bleary eyes adjust to the bright sunlight, he looks across the street to see a rack of bicycles. Oh, cool, bike share! He eagerly unfolds his wallet to get out his credit card and pulls out the backpack straps on his American-made Tom Bihn bag…

If you like bikes, you want to like bike share. Even if you've usually got your own ride handy, there's something charming about knowing you can hop on a loaner if you need to run a quick errand downtown, or show the visitors the city by cycle. And yet, as much as we might like bikes, we can't really ignore two decades of failure.

In 1994, Portland the community took up a collection and bought the country's first bike-share fleet—all 90 bright yellow bikes disappeared within months. Portland hasn't had bike share since, making it one of the few cities that doesn't. But the city did birth Alta, the company (now under a different name) that runs New York's much-mocked Citi Bike program as well as bike shares in Chicago, Toronto—and San Francisco.

The man pays $10 and gets a code to unlock his bike. At 40 pounds, it's a beast—it's more like pedaling a moped than riding a normal bike. On the first really steep hill, the man has to get off and walk up. He's then able to cruise two miles down to his hotel. There, he pulls out his phone to find the nearest place to return the bike and check into his hotel on the Embarcadero...

New York's Citi Bike managed to piss off pretty much everyone—valuable real estate went to huge docking stations for clunky rides that put tourists on busy and unfamiliar roads. The New York Post called the bike-share program "dastardly," and The Wall Street Journal said it "begrimed" the streets.

If you're a cyclist, the natural inclination is to dismiss such criticisms as irrational resentment by meat-headed auto addicts. And then you try the bike share for yourself.

The man is staying in the middle of a tourist area, not far from Fisherman's Wharf. And yet, the nearest Bay Area Bike Share station is a mile away. He has just ridden two miles in order to ride one more and then walk a mile back to his planned destination. After a brief disagreement with a motorist, caused in part by unfamiliarity with the area streets, the man frees himself of the beast.

He has determined that this form of bike share is pretty fucking stupid. Surely there's a better way.

Spinlister thinks it has a better way. The site currently operates a rental-matching service not unlike Airbnb, but for bikes. But, come fall, Portland will be the first city in the country to get the company's new bike-share program.

"Portland is going to be a leader again," says Spinlister marketing boss Andrew Batey. "It's been called the most revolutionary idea to hit bike share in the last two decades."

It makes a lot of sense. Spinlister's bike share is more like Car2Go than city-funded programs—you use an app to find a bike locked to a blue city rack nearby and use Bluetooth to unlock it. Each bike in the fleet will have an 8-speed internal gear hub and an onboard computer that tracks location.

"Part of the problem with other bike shares is the bike—it's not a very good bike," Batey says. "We built our bikes for bike enthusiasts. It's something even a bike lover will love to ride."

It's also free for the city. Portland Mayor Charlie Hales has been asked—reasonably, I think—how the city can allocate $2 million in local funds for 750 bikes at 75 stations in 2016. Well, Spinlister's system will depend on a network of micro-entrepreneurs who own the bikes privately and pay for the cost through rentals. Spinlister figures the owner-renters could make $3,000 to $6,000 a year from each bike they own.

Best of all? Like Car2Go, you'll be able to return the bike anywhere within the appointed zone.

I sure hope it works. I want to like bike share, but it's hard when the current systems are just so dumb.

That man in San Francisco—the one who tried to use Bay Area Bike Share instead of Uber because he wanted desperately to believe?

Dear reader, that man was me. 

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