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Portland’s Bike-Share System Will Be an Interesting One to Watch

Portland's system will use "smart bikes," like this one, which don't have to be docked at fixed station locations. Photo via NYC Bike Blog

Next week, leaders in Portland will decide whether to move forward with a long-awaited bike-share system. Assuming it proceeds, Portland's bike-share is going to be an unusual one.

Michael Andersen of BikePortland has everything you need to know in a series of posts on the proposed system (check them all out here). He reports that it would launch next summer with 600 bikes and 60 stations in the central city. It would be one of the biggest systems to incorporate “smart bike” technology -- self-locking bikes equipped with GPS that don't have to be returned to a fixed station location.

Getting bike-share off the ground has been slow going in Portland, with one source of delay being the city's hesitance to subsidize it, combined with difficulties finding a sponsor. Here's how the agreement Portland reached with Motivate, the company that will operate the system, addresses those issues, Andersen reports:

The city says that if a corporate sponsor is not found, the system will probably lose money. But New York-based Motivate has agreed to eat any losses itself for the first three years -- a shift in responsibility intended to light a fire under Motivate to recruit a sponsor.

Here’s the catch: the city’s bike share grant, which originated with the federal government, requires it to operate a system for at least five years. If no sponsor is found or the expenses are higher than expected, Motivate’s commitment will expire in 2019 and Portland will be left with a better system than it can afford to operate. If that happens, it’d have to scale the system down.

On the other hand, the system might turn out to operate profitably within a year or two, as Phoenix says its system will. If that happens, Motivate would pocket 60 percent of the proceeds for the first three years but the city would be in a strong position to get a slice of the profits starting in 2019.

Occasional users and tourists would pay $2.50 to ride for up to 30 minutes, Andersen writes, and frequent users will be able to sign up for 12-month subscriptions priced at $10 to $15 a month that allow for up to 90 minutes of free biking per day.

Another interesting aspect of the Portland program: Motivate would run the system but not supply the bikes. Instead, the smart bike equipment would come from Social Bicycles, which provides bikes to systems in Phoenix, Tampa, Santa Monica, and other cities. Andersen says the current smart bike plan would cost 44 percent less per bike than the prior plan from Motivate, in which bikes would have to be returned to fixed docks. This savings enabled the city to proceed with bike-share without a sponsor.

Elsewhere on the Network: Transportation for America recommends health warning labels for unwalkable neighborhoods, and at Urban Milwaukee, a Wisconsin state legislator makes the case for moving beyond a highway-centric approach to transportation planning.

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