Portland bike-share program expands, despite citywide biking decline

By Lillian Karabaic (OPB)
April 23, 2023 5:03 p.m.

Bike share ridership hit a record in 2022, while biking in Portland dropped overall.

Portland's BIKETOWN is the nation's largest smart bike share program with 1,000 bikes.

Portland's Biketown is the nation's largest smart bike share program with 2,000 bikes.

Shirley Chan / OPB


The Portland Bureau of Transportation announced on Friday that Portland’s bike share service, Biketown, is expanding its fleet by 30% to 2,000 electric bikes by the end of summer. Biketown set a record last year of more than half a million rides in 2022. The system’s title sponsor, Nike, will fund the expansion to meet that increasing demand. Biketown’s upward trend runs counter to a recent Portland city report showing bike ridership overall has declined since 2014.

BikePortland editor-in-chief Jonathan Maus has been covering Portland’s bike community for 18 years. He spoke with OPB Weekend Edition host Lillian Karabaic.

Lillian Karabaic: Biketown set a record for rides last year, but bike counts across the city declined. Were you surprised to see this?

Jonathan Maus: Yes and no. Biketown is kind of a separate thing I think for people and for the city. It’s almost as if there’s cycling in Portland, and then there is Biketown over on the other side over there. People should know that when the city goes out and does their volunteer counts, when they count the number of bike riders, they also include Biketown riders. They don’t look the other way when a Biketown rider comes by. So, that’s part of the count.

So, I think the increased numbers for Biketown just show the demand for that system. And the fact that bikes are scarce for the most part, the demand is growing, but the bikes were staying static. I think that’s why the numbers look so good.

Karabaic: So you’ve shared your thoughts on why biking overall is declining in Portland, other than these Biketown statistics, one of these reasons is decreasing safety of bike paths and roadways. Do you think the switch to all electric bikes for Biketown in 2020 has ended up improving confidence for potential riders, especially since they can ride faster alongside car traffic?

Maus: Yeah, I think for people who use those Biketown bikes, they do have a greater sense of confidence and safety, but there’s a limit to that, right? If folks don’t know — the bikes themselves, the Biketown bikes, are much heavier than normal bikes. They [have an] upright position, so people have a good view of the road. They also have like integrated front and rear lights and and a bell on them. So, the bikes are inherently safer. And I think that does translate over to the where people who are using them feel a little bit better on the road.

But it really is only to a point. The same things that have caused a decline overall in biking in Portland in terms of people’s perception of safety when they’re on the road. Just having an electric assist, just having a battery on your bike is not going to get over that hurdle for a lot of people.


Karabaic: Right. If you’re scared, you’re still going to be scared on a e-bike, right?

Maus: Just getting people to try biking is often the hardest thing. And that’s what’s been so great about the Biketown system is it gets new people to try biking who otherwise wouldn’t.

Karabaic: So there’s that, yeah. Well, according to Biketown’s operator, Lyft — [in its] most recent report — 43% of their riders use public transit on a weekly basis. And I’ve been wondering if the service slowdowns on TriMet that they’ve had as part of operator shortages have actually played a part in the increased Biketown usage.

Maus: I think that may not be an unreasonable position to have. I think that makes some sense. Again, I really think of Biketown as a transit system. I don’t think of it as just cycling in Portland. I feel like it’s part and parcel of a whole separate sort of system.

Also, when you look at transit ridership, I think some of the public safety fears that are revolving around transit are similar but importantly different, in the sense that when you’re sharing that space on a bus, you can’t get away from someone if you feel uncomfortable, let’s say. So, if people have that perception that hopping on a bus or a MAX is unsafe, well, if those same folks are going to be more likely to use the Biketown system, I think having that independence of being able to be on a bike and turn whenever you want and do whatever you want. I think maybe that is really appealing for some people who typically take transit.

Karabaic: Part of that is that Biketown has gotten a lot more expensive in recent years. Often when I want to take a ride, it costs more than a [TriMet] ticket would, but they ended up significantly increasing access to their free program for low-income riders, Biketown For All. What do you think the low-income riders program has on the overall ridership in the city? Like, does it affect other biking numbers?

Maus: I think the city’s been really successful in offering discounts for low-income riders through the Biketown For All program. I don’t think that program is even in the thousands of people at this point, though. So, I don’t know if it has an impact overall that you would see. But it also has caused, I think, some challenges for the city and how they deploy the system, right? So they’ve been increasing over the years the geographic footprint of the system, but they hadn’t added any other bikes. So they had to sort of make that up somewhere.

And at some point, the city actually responding to concerns of the higher price to ride was saying, ‘Hey, we could either get more bikes in East Portland, right, or you could have a cheaper service.’

So, this has been kind of the juggling act that the city has had to do when the amount of bikes was fixed and here weren’t enough bikes. I’m hopeful that as they add bikes to the system, they’ll be able to bring fares down.

Biketown has been, for the most part, very, very successful, while some other cities have fumbled or reduced service or moved on from bike-share. [This expansion] really shows [the] city of Portland doubling down on bikeshare, to some degree. Especially because Nike is part of it. And, let’s be honest, [Nike leaders] have very deep pockets and they have a lot of investment locally. They’re very unlikely to want to withdraw their support or to play hardball with the city. I think that partnership between Nike and the city is really strong. So, that is very helpful. These are tensions that remain and I don’t think that 500 bikes into the system is going to just solve everything. I think we’re really needing 1,000 to 1,500 more bikes to really see the full potential of this.

Karabaic: Thank you so much Jonathan for joining us and for chatting about Biketown.

Maus: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.

Karabaic: Jonathan Maus is the editor-in-chief and founder of BikePortland.