Think Out Loud

Lack of funding, theft and vandalism doom Salem’s bike share nonprofit

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Sept. 6, 2022 8:45 p.m. Updated: Sept. 7, 2022 9:32 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Sept. 7

Ride Salem bike share nonprofit has closed due to theft, vandalism and lack of investment.

Ride Salem bike share nonprofit has closed due to theft, vandalism and lack of investment.

Courtesy Ride Salem


When the Salem bike share program launched in 2019, it was a labor of love. Most bike share programs, like ones in Portland, Seattle and San Francisco are run through municipal transportation departments. But Ride Salem started small and scrappy, with enough funding from various sponsorships to put a few dozen bikes in motion. Co-founder Evan Osborne says the nonprofit had a few down months during the early pandemic but recovered and relaunched. But now, with all of its bikes out of commission due to vandalism and theft and with no significant municipal help, the Ride Salem board recently voted last week to disband. Osborne joins us to share what he learned through starting the Ride Salem bike share program and his hopes for the future of similar micro-mobility programs as part of public transit systems.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Salem’s Bike Share program, Ride Salem appears to be dead. The nonprofit launched three years ago, the program hit some bumps early on in the pandemic, then recovered and relaunched. But now with all of its bikes out of commission due to vandalism or theft and with no significant city help, the Ride Salem board voted last week to disband. Co-founder, Evan Osborne joins us to talk about the end of Ride Salem and the promise of other micro-mobility programs. Evan Osborne, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Evan Osborne: Thanks Dave, appreciate it. Great to be here.

Miller: It’s great to have you on. What were your biggest hopes when you decided to bring a bike share program to Salem? What did you want to do?

Osborne: The ultimate goal was to provide an innovative program that helped improve the quality of life within Salem. That was the whole mission of the nonprofit when we first began to bring innovative ideas to Salem and Bike Share was that first idea. So, also improving the health of the community, which is a direct contributor to the quality of life as well. So that was our main focus.

Miller: You were a nonprofit, getting this up and running in a medium sized city. What did it take to actually get it off the ground?

Osborne: Very much the local businesses, passionate community members that were advocates for the idea, we were going around knocking on doors, letting folks know of what our endeavors were and what our vision was saying, how Salem would be a great place to have an improved bike-ability within Salem with the river fronts, new bridge that was installed, connecting over 20 miles of trails. It was a great opportunity to roll out some bikes for folks to be able to enjoy that new park system that was not walkable anymore because the mileage was so, so vast. And so our bike program would open those doors to the new park facilities and features of the city.

Miller: So what was your business model?

Osborne: Originally, we were a for-profit. It was based on a kind of a travel idea. My wife and I had hobbies of traveling and wanted to go beyond just talk about traveling but actually do something with our travels, to bring those ideas that we gathered from our international travels. So we started out with the for profit idea, but during the research of, you know, bike shares and other big programs, they definitely aren’t moneymakers. It’s very much an investment within the community. And that pushed me towards building a nonprofit business model where we were able to receive donations and sponsorships and also be in alignment with grants as a 501C3 nonprofit. And that really kickstarted us at the beginning.  We were in alignment for $70,000 grant. We were a finalist and out of the two, we lost out at the last second. But during that time we raised funds from local businesses and such because we were a nonprofit, so that’s why we aligned with that nonprofit business structure.

Miller: How much support did you get from the city of Salem?

Osborne: Dollar amount? Zero. They were very gracious in cutting a lot of the red tape by not charging us for right of way permits, which saved us money. So soft dollars they contributed, but no hard dollar cash. They did voluntary all the Urban Development Department to grant us $5,000. That was back in I want to say 2020, 2019, give or take. It was in the form of a grant is what we found out afterwards and a lot of paper pushing and such. We ended up not aligning with the deadline that we were supposed to with the budget deadline and we were not able to acquire that $5,000 grant that the city council had blessed.

Miller: How did the operations of Ride Salem compare to systems in other cities? I mean I’m thinking about Portland’s for example or Seattle or New York City. There are bike share programs that seem to be thriving in  larger cities. Do they have different models?

Osborne: They do. So a primarily high percentage of them are municipality-owned and operated. So they are funded by taxpayer dollars, which allows them to have a foot up in grant applications as well as, you know, seeking out flagship sponsors. So when you have that, you know, solid taxpayer funding already, it makes the business less risky and so sponsors are a little bit more interested in funding such a, you know, established type of business…

[Voices overlap]

Miller:  …and so you’re more likely to get a swoosh on a bike to have Nike take part if you have the backing of say the city of Portland.

Osborne: Exactly, that’s a prime example of it.

Miller: So to go back to your early year, you started in 2019, the summer of 2019. What was ridership like at the beginning?

Osborne: It was great, it was perfect timing rolling out bikes in the optimum weather season for Salem, so they were going like hotcakes. A lot of the bikes were being either taken from stations more inside the city to the riverfront area, but a lot of the traffic was along that river, new park area, the Riverfront Bridge that was installed there. So a lot of bike traffic along that park system, along the Willamette River.

Miller: So at that point it seemed like this was going to be a success?

Osborne: It was, yeah, we saw success. We were very, very hopeful. Then of course, when the weather starts turning a little bit colder, fair weather riders tend to not latch onto the bike system and…


Miller: …then the pandemic came…

Osborne: Exactly…

Miller: So what exactly did that mean for you and the company that you were partnering with at that point?

Osborne: Yeah, the company we’re parting with, ‘The Dragster,’ and they operate nationwide or they did at the time, and they were getting hit pretty heavily with mandates, government mandates of having to shut down nationwide and a lot of their funding came from commissions of the ridership revenue that was being acquired across the systems. And so they took a heavy hit on their revenue and actually banking, sought out bankruptcy. So we lost our service agreement with them prematurely. It was about $10,000 in services that were not retrievable because they claimed bankruptcy and our legal team said that we would probably spend more money trying to retrieve that $10,000 than we’d actually acquire. So that’s yeah, that’s kind of how the relationship ended – is COVID, COVID put them under…

Miller: They’re the company that supplied the bikes, so when they ceased to be a company, what were your options?

Osborne: Dragster actually leased from another company, it was a lease / lease relationship, and they were our turnkey vendor, so we we hired them to run the operations to provide the equipment and operate the App that the riders used to check out those- a bit of background there for Dragster, but what we had to do then when Dragster went under was to acquire that equipment so that we could run the operations on our own. So we basically took over what Dragster had been doing for us as a mom and pop nonprofit  and so we ran the entire show, except for the application piece, we had to hire an additional vendor called Colony to run the App, the phone app that the riders used, but everything else beyond that was taken care of by the nonprofit of Dragster.

Miller: Right. So by the summer of 2021 you had relaunched, how was business for version two of this rideshare program?

Osborne: Once again, timing was perfect. We relaunched shortly before the inaugural triathlon in Salem, I believe it was an Iron Man, half Iron Man, triathlon, first time in Salem. So we had all of our bikes up and running and ready to be used and they were going once again like hotcakes, just every few minutes being checked out. So our ridership in July was in the thousands, which was wonderful, but that gradually started changing due to vandalism, bikes not coming back, and also because Ride Salem being the non profit, we’re all volunteers, no one was paid on the board or any of our support staff of any kind – pure volunteers. We can only do so much to maintain the bikes and get them back out, back out into the fleet.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for the scale of the theft and vandalism?

Osborne: I would say, a bike’s lifespan within our system was about three weeks. It was a good chance, within three weeks after rolling out a bike, it would either be damaged beyond repair or completely missing.

Miller: And that just doesn’t seem like if you’re a scrappy nonprofit to start with, I imagine you can’t bleed that number of bikes and stay solvent.

Osborne: Exactly. It’s a compounding issue when you’re not getting your ridership revenue, you can’t pay for the mechanical work or any of the other needs within your organization. So you lean heavily on that supplemental income, and that was a whole, another issue with COVID causing problems with us being able to rub shoulders with local businesses and such and drum up additional funds through fundraising. So that was another issue too – our effort to supplement that lost income.

Miller: You were quoted in the Salem Reporter as saying, ‘...that absent a last minute donor or some other miracle, this was going to close.’ That was a week ago. Has there been a miracle?

Osborne: Yes and no. We will always keep the hope alive whether or not we move the stations out and put a pause on the program. I was recently introduced to a grant that ODOT is volunteering, were putting out there as an opportunity for micro-mobility programs and Ride Salem does qualify. I just found out today I’ll be meeting with ODOT next week to talk about it further, but unfortunately it’s going to be a little bit too little, too late. If we were one of the lucky few to receive a grant such as this, the money would not be paid out until as late as fall of 2023. So there would definitely be a pause in any revenue that would help us regain traction to cover the budget that we need to re-launch for the third time.

Miller: Even though Ride Salem is shutting down, do you think that it had a cultural impact on the city?

Osborne: I really do. There was a number of people that we connected with, new riders that had never heard of bike sharing before. We got people emailing and praising us for the service, thanking us for the service, so we know that we made an impact in many lives. We had, you know, hundreds of riders using the bikes on a regular basis so that…so we know that it was readily used and appreciated for the time being that we were operating at an optimum scale.

Miller: You noted that just today you found out more information about an ODOT grant program for so-called micro-mobility programs, things like this or maybe electric scooters. What’s your vision for the future of these programs and what role do you think they can or will play in getting around cities

Osborne: With how ODOT would fund?

Miller: No, I’m thinking more broadly not about just one state agency’s grant making, but your vision for the role that programs like this can play in how people get around in small to mid- to large-size cities all across the country?

Osborne: Yeah, I think ODOT could have an amazing impact to micro-mobility throughout the state. There has been conversations about collaborations across the systems where if you picked up a bike, you know, there’s… ‘Pedal Corvallis’ also had the same issue as we did with Dragster, and they went under as well before us. We were talking with them about potentially, folks being a member of that program, also being able to have access to Ride Salem so they could pick up a bike in Corvallis, ride over to the Amtrak station, get on the train up to Salem, get off the Amtrak train station and pick up a bike at the station, that we had there at the Amtrak station. So complete connectivity across the cities and all the programs within micro-mobility. So that was kind of the vision I had along with other co-founders of micro-mobility programs in Oregon.

Miller: Evan Osborne, thanks very much for joining us.

Osborne: Certainly. Thanks, Dave, appreciate your time.

Miller: Evan Osborne is the co-founder of Ride Salem. If you don’t want to miss any of our shows, you can listen on the NPR One App on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to get your podcasts. Our nightly rebroadcast is at eight pm. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller, we’ll be back tomorrow.

Announcer: Think Out Loud is supported by Steve and Jan Oliver, the Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust and Michael, Kristen, Andrew and Anna Kern.

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