Portland's BIKETOWN bike rental program is being hailed as the first-of-its-kind. The bikes feature built-in smart technology which allows the rider to pay, reserve and check in the bikes through an LED screen on the bike, instead of interacting with a hub.

Portland’s BIKETOWN bike rental program is being hailed as the first-of-its-kind. The bikes feature built-in smart technology which allows the rider to pay, reserve and check in the bikes through an LED screen on the bike, instead of interacting with a hub.

Allison Frost/OPB

For a city so involved in bike culture, possessing tons of accessible bike lanes and paths and hosting annual events like the World Naked Bike Ride, it’s a wonder why Portland has not joined the over 60 cities across the world that have bike share, or on-street bike rental, programs.  

That’s all changing with Tuesday’s introduction of BIKETOWN, a city-wide bike rental program sponsored by Nike. It will include 1,000 bikes located in 100 hubs and stations throughout Portland.

“Our goal is to get to 25 percent of all trips in Portland to be bike trips by 2035, so BIKETOWN is a really important tool for us to get to 25 percent,” said Dylan Rivera, spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Transportation.  

The start-up cost for BIKETOWN is $4 million, which is covered by federal grants from Metro and Nike’s sponsorship dollars.  

Rivera said that means no city or taxpayer money will go toward day-to-day operations.

Membership dollars and other scholarships will cover the upkeep, though PBOT does not have a specific member goal in mind to cover those costs. 

Though PBOT owns BIKETOWN, the program is operated by Motivate. On its website, the company calls itself “the global leader in bike share”.  

Portland’s is the company’s 12th on-street city bike rental program throughout the nation and beyond.  

Motivate operates in places like Chicago, New York, Seattle and Melbourne, Australia, but Portland’s program is the first of its kind, says Dani Simons, head of Communications and External Affairs for Motivate.  

“BIKETOWN will be our first smart bike program which means that the technology is on the bikes themselves instead of in the docks of the stations,” said Simons.  

Since BIKETOWN will hold all of its technology in its bikes, it makes the project more affordable, so more money was spent on bikes and expansion rather than docks, said Steve Hoyt-McBeth, BIKETOWN project manager at PBOT.

The in-bike technology also makes the program more flexible for its users.  

“Whereas, in other cities, you’re only able to park a bike-share bike at a bike-share dock, with our system, the locking mechanism sits right on the bike, so besides locking it to any of our 100 stations and 1,800 BIKETOWN bike racks, you can also lock it to one of the public bike racks for a small additional fee,” said Hoyt-McBeth.  

The additional fee is $2. Though if another user takes a bike that has been locked at a public bike rack and returns it to a BIKETOWN bike rack, they earn $1 in account credit towards future rides.  

This system is meant to keep the supply of bikes consistent at the biking stations around Portland, without the use of trucks to transfer them. Hoyt-McBeth says that’s one way the program is aiming to keep its carbon footprint low.  

The bike itself, designed in part by Nike, costs around $1,500 each.

Nike VP of Global Community Impact Jorge Casimiro, Mayor Charlie Hales, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Nancy Hales take off on BIKETOWN's first inaugural ride across Tilikum Crossing.

Nike VP of Global Community Impact Jorge Casimiro, Mayor Charlie Hales, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Nancy Hales take off on BIKETOWN’s first inaugural ride across Tilikum Crossing.

Shirley Chan/OPB

It features a solar-powered LCD display that makes it easy to unlock, put on hold or report issues. Users either enter their BIKETOWN account and pin number, or tap their BIKETOWN membership card to start their ride.  

It also features automatic lights, a front basket that holds up to 20 pounds, and a chainless shaft drive.  

Structurally, it’s a bike that’s made to be safe for commuting, said Hoyt-McBeth.  

“Nobody has entered a bike-share bike in the Tour de France, you’ll notice,” he said.  

“The bikes are really sturdy, they’re made for a comfortable ride, but they’re not made for a fast ride. So, you’re always going at a speed that you’ll have time to react to those around you.”  

Another question that usually comes up about on-street bike rental programs is that of theft.  

Hoyt-McBeth says this shouldn’t be a problem, as the bright orange bikes are obviously not personal bikes. They also have GPS installed in them and users must have a credit or debit card in order to unlock the bike in the first place.  

Along with being Motivate’s first “smart bike” system, BIKETOWN is also offering cheaper pricing options than other bike programs.  

BIKETOWN offers single ride trips, valid for 30 minutes, for $2.50, one of the lowest single use bike share prices in the nation, according to Hoyt-McBeth.  

The program also offers an annual membership for $12 a month, which includes 90 minutes of ride time per day, and a day pass for $12 that gives the user three hours of ride time in a 24-hour period.  

If the user goes over the allotted time, it’s 10 cents per extra minute.  

Simons, with Motivate, says BIKETOWN is working with Portland’s Community Cycling Center to offer affordability programs to lower income riders, but the price points have not been decided yet.  

BIKETOWN might sound great for those who don’t normally have access to bikes, but what about the majority of Portlanders that already own a bike and use it regularly?  

Simons said BIKETOWN will still be a great option for avid bikers, especially with the choice of one-way trips.  

“People really like the flexibility of being able to use bike share, even if they have their own bike,” said Simons.  

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 1,000 bikes.

Shirley Chan/OPB

“It’s great for days when you want to arrive at work and be really polished and dressed up for an important meeting, but at the end of the day you’re just so excited to be able to bike home and blow off steam.”  

Local bike aficionado and publisher of the website BikePortland.org for 11 years, Jonathan Maus, may be proof of that come Tuesday.  

Maus had at least two personal bikes in his downtown office when OPB spoke with him, but is one of the new members signed up for the program. He is confident about the technology and the thought that is going into the launch.  

Maus hopes that BIKETOWN increases the diversity of Portland’s cyclists – a population that Maus said is usually dominated by fast, experienced bikers, who are usually also white.  

“Our bike lanes will start to look a little different and streets will look a little different, not just because of the bikes, but the people, and I think that’s a really good thing for Portland,” said Maus.  

Maus also mentioned that the bike program might help improve public planning, because it will help the city realize where it needs to improve biking accessibility as more inexperienced riders take to the streets.  

“Success for BIKETOWN would be a program that has high ridership, a diverse membership, encourages new folks to take up bicycling and ultimately becomes a new layer of Portland’s robust transportation network,” said Simons over email. 

Although Maus feels generally positive about BIKETOWN’s ability to meet its goals, he does have one major concern – that the program might not be instantly popular.  

According to Simons, though, BIKETOWN had 721 members pre-launch, a number she said, Motivate feels good about.  

Other than the concern over membership, Maus is one of the many bike-savvy Portlanders who believes bike share is something the city should have had long ago.  

Hoyt-McBeth says the reason it has taken the city so long to get one is that there has been a lot of research into how other cities’ programs have worked. 

Whatever the reason, he says, it’s clear for this cycle-centric city, it’s about time.