Two things for Portlanders to consider while arguing about bike-share service areas


A 2012 map of possible bike-share station locations. Note that this isn’t the current plan, though the service area currently proposed is very similar to the one marked here in orange.

Bike sharing service areas are problematic in exactly the same way that public transit service areas are problematic.

With Portland preparing next week to finally approve a bike sharing system, this problem is back on the city’s mind. It should be. The most important problem in Portland right now is housing affordability, and this is inherently linked to geographically specific services like bike sharing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this and won’t pretend to have all the answers. But I feel like two big ideas are missing from a lot of Portlanders’ conversations about this. Here they are.

1) If we want a public good, we generally need to pay for it

Criticism of the small size & exclusivity of the typical bike share service area is valid.

This is the same problem faced by every public transit service. You can’t have frequent buses everywhere. Choices create losers.

We need to pay attention to who the losers are, how they’re losing & what the effect of their loss is. If service area losers are already poor, it’s especially awful for them to be paying money (or forfeiting money) for no benefit.

This choice of winners and losers is nonrandom. In the transit world (which includes the bike sharing world), it’s determined mostly by density of potential users.

This metric — density of potential users — doesn’t refer merely to density of residents or even to density of residents + jobs. Transit users must also be without a car at the moment of boarding, able to ride, feel comfortable riding (in every sense) and so forth.

The greater the operating subsidy (direct via cash or indirect via mandate) the more you can afford to serve areas that are low in user density.

One interesting side factor here: Operating subsidies often have beneficial long-term effects on transit viability, just as they do on any business.

2) We should think about the geography of transportation justice by looking at trips, not residents

When assessing the winners and losers of a transit service area, the question should not be “who lives here?” The question should be “who takes trips within this area, and/or will do so if this service exists?”

Obviously people who live, shop and work/learn all within a service area benefit much more than those who must leave it for one of those. If you work/learn + shop but don’t live in an area, you benefit less but still quite a bit. If you shop in a service area but don’t live or work/learn there, you get a fairly small benefit. And so forth.

If you never travel within a service area, you get no benefit from that service area other than any spillover effects on the economy, the government or the people who do use the service area in question.

Portland became a very desirable place to live over the last ten years, and as a result of this (among other factors) it’s struggling with a massive problem: our city is bad, and getting rapidly worse, at giving poor and middle-income people access to nice geographies.

Transit service areas, including bike-sharing service areas, are part of what makes certain geographies nice. That means they’re worth arguing about. As we have this argument (with our friends as well as within our heads) I just want us to be arguing in the smartest ways possible.

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