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.


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

  1. Dave Hogan
    September 11, 2015 at 12:26 am Link

    My concern is the price. At $2.50 for a half hour ride is this even worth sponsoring?

    During the summer it might be able to get some use, but at the same cost as a 2.5 hour bus ticket that seems expensive. The limited service area makes it even more restricted for usability.

    For riders who are comfortable riding around downtown Portland it might be nice, but in bad weather, or for people unfamiliar with the area or who don’t ride bikes much how appealing can this be?

    I was recently in NYC where they already have a bike share setup, and as tempting as it was to try it for the sake of trying it I wasn’t willing to risk my safety in an area I wasn’t that familiar with, especially as an occasional rider now, and even more so not when there was a decent chance of rain in the city. After I checked the prices I was sure I wasn’t going to bother using it.

    If I’m going to ride a bike in Portland I’m going to want to dress for it and be prepared with proper lighting and a helmet, not just spontaneously grab a bike to go for a 20 minute ride on a wet and dark December evening through downtown.

    I love the idea of bike share, but for now I would have preferred the money was used to improve the infrastructure we have available for bikes instead of an automated bike share program.

    • Michael Andersen
      September 11, 2015 at 9:28 am Link

      All fair points. I had the same reaction to the $2.50 price when I heard it. Here’s the thing about that, though: if transit is a good fit for a given trip, you should be taking transit already and bike share probably couldn’t poach those trips even if it did make sense to, which it doesn’t.

      Bike share is for trips that existing public transit isn’t already a good fit for, like downtown to central eastside, or Williams to Rose Quarter in late evening, or upper NW 23rd to Riverfront Park, or the Killingsworth Yellow Line stop to PCC when you’re late to class.

      On your NYC expereince: yep, sounds like it wasn’t right for you that time. But there’s no question that Citi Bike is being very heavily used, so I don’t think it’s a very strong argument against the usefulness of bike share in general.

      • Alex Reed
        September 11, 2015 at 9:56 am Link

        I wonder if we would lose much by extending the timeframe to 45 minutes per $2.50? I could see novice bike riders having time anxiety – “Can I get from PSU to NW 23rd & Davis in 30 minutes on a bike? I don’t know and don’t want to risk it…” just from ignorance.

        Perhaps the app could help mitigate this by providing a 30-minute typical-slow-biker-time polygon map for each location. I know, a data dork can dream :-)

    • EngineerScotty
      September 11, 2015 at 10:41 pm Link

      I mention this in the new Open Thread, but check out Yonah Freemark’s article on the new bikeshare system being run by the LA Metro:

  2. Adam Herstein
    September 11, 2015 at 9:51 am Link

    Bike share downtown needs to launch at the same time as the network of protected bike lanes that’s currently in the planning phase (including Better Naito). Bike share will attract a lot of new riders and most won’t want to ride on busy downtown streets.

  3. Justin Morton
    September 13, 2015 at 11:49 am Link

    The type of person who will use bike share is probably not going to be terribly concerned about paying $5 an hour to ride a bike around Portland. It’s going to be tourists and folks just looking to enjoy time on a bicycle. I can’t imagine serious commuters are going to be using bikeshare. If you want to bike every day, you’ll just buy a bike.

    • Chris Smith
      September 13, 2015 at 12:07 pm Link

      I think one category of users are folks who get to downtown by transit or car, and want to use a bike for short trips within the central city.

      Yet another are transit commuters who need a “last mile” connection when their employment/education location is more than a convenient walk from where the bus/train lets them off.

      • EngineerScotty
        September 13, 2015 at 2:54 pm Link

        Many employers, like Nike, operate shuttles to connect their facilities to public transit; bike share might be another way to facilitate it’s use.

  4. Justin Morton
    September 13, 2015 at 1:38 pm Link

    I agree with your first category. It will be an easy way to get from the Pearl to the West End.

    But I would be surprised if it is apart of many people’s regular commute. The areas bike share is located are already well served by public transit and are very walkable. And $2.50 a day, every day adds up pretty quick. But who knows. I’m just glad we’ll get to find out.

    • Michael Andersen
      September 13, 2015 at 3:15 pm Link

      Right, but if it fits into your commute in the way Chris mentioned (if you’re a PCC student, for example), the $13-a-month option is pretty affordable.

      • Justin Morton
        September 13, 2015 at 7:45 pm Link

        Forgot about the monthly pass. So yeah, money probably wouldn’t be an obstacle. I’m still not sure what transit route would be easier with bike share than public transit, but there are probably some.

        • Joseph E
          September 14, 2015 at 12:31 am Link

          Almost all routes in the downtown core are as fast or faster by bike, especially when you factor in waiting time. Even Max only averages 10 mph thru downtown. Most people can bike downhill and hit all the lights on green, averaging 12 mph. That’s also an easy average speed in areas without stoplights (eg across the bridges, along the waterfront). Uphill and across the grid 8 or 9 mph is more common, but that’s still just as fast or faster than transit once you consider the few minutes of waiting time. And if you want to make any diagonal trips across town, which would require a transfer on transit, riding a bike is faster for trips many miles in length.

          • Justin Morton
            September 14, 2015 at 8:10 am Link

            I hope you’re right. I want bike share to be a smashing success. I just tend to think that people who commute via public transit are just going to stick with that. And people who commute via bike or some combination of bike/transit are going to buy a bike and probably won’t use bike-share. But again, I hope I’m wrong.

  5. Ron Swaren
    September 13, 2015 at 3:21 pm Link

    Not sure about the social justice aspect of bike sharing, but my opinion in how SJ affects the entire transit scheme is that it is an idea which has run its time limit. Prior to IT tecnology a transit ride was kind of a black hole—-for some people anyway. There are just so many things people can do while they are on a transit ride that it should no longer be factored in as an economic loss. I would rather see TriMet tighten up its profit loss structure than entertain new notions related to “equity.”

    Bike share is for trips that existing public transit isn’t already a good fit for, like downtown to central eastside, or Williams to Rose Quarter in late evening, or upper NW 23rd to Riverfront Park, or the Killingsworth Yellow Line stop to PCC when you’re late to class.

    Or you could drive to the east side, park and ride your own bike to downtown. I have had to do that a few times, to avoid possibly not feeding enough in the meter and getting a ticket. Those two modes cut my time close enough thank you, without wasting another hour on transit.

    • Anandakos
      September 13, 2015 at 6:48 pm Link

      OK, you don’t like riding transit; we get it. So don’t. Never set foot on a Tri-Met vehicle again and you’ll be good; nobody is forcing you to ride them. Easy-peasy.

      • Ron Swaren
        September 13, 2015 at 9:58 pm Link

        No one is forcing you to involve yourself in Oregon politics, either, since you choose to live across the river. Your suggestions may be entertained, but you are in fact a constituent of a different state. I would suggest you contact your Congressional Representative regarding your concerns. ;)

        • Aaron Hall
          September 13, 2015 at 11:06 pm Link

          So Ron, by that logic, since you’re obviouly choosing to live near the Springwater Corridor on the south side of Sellwood, you’re not even in the Bike Share service area. You should have NO SAY in its implementation at all. You shouldn’t even have an opinion about it, right? Maybe you should be contacting YOUR representative. Is that Earl or Kurt? I’m sure either one would be thrilled to hear from you.

          • Ron Swaren
            September 14, 2015 at 4:40 pm Link

            I doubt that the Earl actually gets around to his employment in DC by bike, so maybe his opinions should be discounted, too?

  6. David Amiton
    September 14, 2015 at 10:00 am Link

    I can’t wait for a bike share system to launch with a per-minute fee system instead of the proposed per-trip fee or the more common escalating time fees. The biggest challenge that bike share faces in every U.S. market (except for New York) is driving demand, and a per-minute fee system would provide the lowest barrier to entry of any pricing model. The success of Car2Go has proved the efficacy of a per-minute fee system for car share…bike share, you’re next!

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