The street fee, bike share, and Portland’s Big Pause

The street fee, bike share, and Portland’s Big Pause

Street Fee Town Hall - non residential fee-6

Our streets: Still without bike share,
new revenue, and a host of other projects on pause.
(Photos by J. Maus/BikePortland)

“There are some who say, ‘Why would you move ahead with bike share if you can’t pave the streets?’”
— Mayor Hales, August 2014

This story was co-written by Michael Andersen and Jonathan Maus

Now that Portland’s erratic search for new transportation revenue is on “pause”, it’s raised another question for the city: How long will the rest of our transportation agenda be on pause?

There’s no better illustration of this problem than the way Portland’s plan for a public bike-sharing system fell apart.

In a previously unpublished interview last August, Mayor Charlie Hales was characteristically candid about this. He and his colleagues have not prioritized bike sharing, he said, because it might endanger their push for new revenue.

The biggest hurdle to his becoming a champion for bike sharing in the way other mayors have been, Hales told us on the Policymakers’ Ride last August, is “the accidental or deliberate entanglement with the street fee.”

SE 136th Press Conference-5

“There are some who say, ‘Why would you move ahead with bike share if you can’t pave the streets?’” Hales said. “Well, those are two separate questions. Both important questions. But it’s politically tempting for those who want to be naysayers to entangle the two.”

“I’d say we’re not highlighting the bike share idea as much because we want people to concentrate on job one,” the mayor went on. “And that is: We’ve got to take care of our streets. It’s a separate question if we should move ahead with bike share or not. But for people that are looking for an excuse to do nothing, the fact that we’re even talking about bike share is an opportunity to say no to the street fee.”

Put another way: If we want the street fee to pass, we’ve got to muzzle all talk of bike share or anything else that the critics might use against us.

In some ways, Hales was correct. It’s practically social science that whenever a bike share system is about to go in, people freak out.

It’s equally true, however, that the freakout always ends a week after the system opens, at which point everyone quickly realizes that public bike sharing is a perfectly fine idea that costs cities practically nothing to operate and makes biking much more visible, accessible and convenient for quick central-city trips.

But in the world of politics, long-run outcomes rarely matter as much as perceptions.

Hales had decided to stick out his neck on the street fee. So on bike sharing, he decided to keep his head down. Or, to use the word that’s becoming distressingly familiar, he decided to put it on pause.

This is what makes bike sharing a clear warning sign of the dilemma Hales and Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick have backed the city into. When a project that practically has money on the table from a private sponsor and would cost the city nearly nothing is put on hold, what happens to projects that actually cost money?

The city still has big projects in its pipeline: A major road diet on Southeast Foster, a downtown protected bike lane project. Both began rolling before the street fee fight got hot.

And to be clear, the indefinite stall of bike share isn’t just a matter of mayoral inattention.

“The timeline for bike share depends on the industry and has nothing to do with the Portland Street Fund effort.”
— Dylan Rivera, PBOT media relations

In December 2013, the City of Portland said the sponsorship money was all lined up. Then a few weeks later, sources inside and outside the city told us the press conference to announce the sponsor was imminent. Then everything changed in late January 2014 when Alta’s equipment supplier filed for bankruptcy protection. According to what we knew at the time, the sponsorship talks didn’t get back on track until early March. On March 4th, former PBOT Active Transportation Division Manager Dan Bower told us the agency, “Could announce [the bike share sponsor] any time,” and that it would certainly happen by the end of April.

But the announcement never came.

We still don’t know all the details of how this verbal understanding between the city and its unknown corporate sponsor fell apart. Maybe they got cold feet about Alta Bicycle Share’s faulty hardware, shaky financial status and the mountains of negative media coverage that came with it?

Mayor Hales at bike share event

Hales at a rare public showing of bike share support in February 2013.

What we do know is that something caused the city to “pause” the bike share effort. That’s the word PBOT Director Leah Treat used in a speech on April 22nd, and it’s the same word Mia Birk used one week later when we asked her why the system hadn’t been launched. “We were very close to having our sponsors ready to go and they are pausing,” she said, “The City and the sponsors are wanting to have more time.”

Months passed and Alta Bicycle Share started to rebound as their New York City system found solid footing and other systems moved forward. But in Portland, as a debate about how to raise new transportation revenue heated up and became ever more controversial, bike share was all but forgotten.

“We’ve never stopped working on developing a bike share system for Portland,” city spokesman Dylan Rivera wrote in an email Thursday. “The money from Metro is still allocated for the project. The timeline for bike share depends on the industry and has nothing to do with the Portland Street Fund effort.”

But as Hales’s comments last August suggest, there are bigger things going on here.

Last year, Seattle’s bike share plans faced almost exactly the same constraints Portland’s do: a contract with the troubled Alta, a sponsor shortage, the risk of media backlash.

Mayor Ed Murray solved those problems personally. He placed a sales call to Alaska Airlines; they signed on as sponsor. Alta turned to a new hardware supplier to get Seattle’s system running. Murray has publicly embraced Pronto, making the system and an accompanying, planned network of protected bike lanes one of his key accomplishments.

Portland has no such champion. All the major players who pushed for it and supported it within PBOT — former Mayor Sam Adams, Alta’s Birk, and PBOT’s Bower — have all moved on. Even Alta Bicycle Share itself, which is now called Motivate, is no longer based in Portland.

The momentum for bike share in Portland has all but halted completely. But as with a dozen other initiatives — some of which, it’s true, will only be possible with new revenue from somewhere — all we’re really waiting for is someone in City Hall to push “play”.

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