Biketown, the day after (reflections on a big deal)

Biketown, the day after (reflections on a big deal)

Portland bike share launch-6.jpg

Makes your jaw-drop huh?
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Wow. Yesterday’s bike share news was pretty amazing. Our heads are still spinning here at BikePortland headquarters.

Nine years ago when we announced that Portland wanted to be the first U.S. city with a bike share system, we never expected it would take this long. But now that it’s happened, we’re just glad that the deal was done. And, like many people in Portland, we’re eagerly awaiting the sight of 1,000 orange bikes being used in our city.

We’ve posted 70 stories about Portland’s bike share saga since 2007 and things are just now getting interesting, so expect a lot more coverage in the months to come. For now though, Michael and I want to share some brief thoughts about PBOT, Nike, Biketown, and what this means for all of us. Some are fun, some are serious, and like always, we’d love to hear your thoughts…

Wait. Before we get started. I want to publicly congratulate the team at PBOT. There are some smart and dedicated people who worked very hard under a lot of pressure and ups-and-downs (understatement) over these past nine years to pull this off (I won’t name names, you know who you are). Something like this doesn’t happen in a city unless someone makes it a priority and sees it through to the end. High-fives all around.

OK, let’s go…

Hey, wanna’ grab a Biketown? Let’s Biketown to the Timbers game.

I’ve been wondering how the system’s name, Biketown (pronounced bike, not bikey), will be used once it becomes common parlance. It works well as a place name, but it’s not so great as a noun. And will it work as a verb? This is only the second time naming rights have ever been sold to a title sponsor of a U.S. system (the other one is CitiBike in New York), so we’re all a bit new to this.

Did Nike just make cycling cool, or did cycling make Nike cool?

Yesterday I wrote, “With one fell swoosh, Nike has made cycling cool in Portland.” To my surprise, several people took lighthearted offense to that. They said cycling is already cool and it’s Nike that benefits from an association with cycling, not the other way around. My point was that, while cycling might be cool to you and I (and other bike nerds), the vast majority of Portlanders disagree. Sorry to break it to you, but most people prefer to drive and young people especially don’t see cycling as being cool. But with Nike now in the picture, cycling has instant street cred. Cycling in general will benefit from the halo-effect of Nike’s powerful brand association. Pretty cool huh?

Hopefully this one miracle can lead to others

This was a miracle deal. After all the years searching for a corporate sponsor, PBOT pulled a rabbit out of the hat. If they mustered the urgency and commitment to make this deal, surely they can solve other pressing transportation problems — like find more money to improve streets, build more protected bike lanes and fill in glaring bikeway gaps that exist all over the city. Momentum is our friend, let’s ride it.

The visual impact

Imagine: 1,000 beautiful orange bikes designed by Nike strewn all about the streets of Portland. Once these bikes are out in the wild, they’ll serve as a constant reminder of this city’s belief in bikes. The impact of having more humans riding bikes downtown will itself be a game-changer, but the orange bikes themselves will be a real-life, tangible version of Strava’s heat map. The data these bikes yield will be invaluable to researchers, engineers, planners, and advocates; but to everyday people who see them on the street, they’ll serve as a free daily advertisement for cycling.

Nine years is a long time

While we bask in the euphoria of Biketown, let us not forget it took us nine years to get here. And let’s hope that PBOT doesn’t see this planning process as a great template to replicate with other big projects. We need to get better at delivering game-changing solutions to our city’s problems in a much shorter time-frame.

It’s not all about downtown

This will be a big deal downtown but it’s arguably an even bigger deal for Northwest Portland, because its residential density makes private bike storage so annoying, because public transit options aren’t great, and because there are so many homes within bike share’s service area. Inner northwest will likely be the epicenter for bike share memberships. The downside to this is that northwest has even less bike-oriented infrastructure than downtown.

Welcome to the neighborhoods

With more money than expected from the title sponsor and 66% more bikes than originally announced, there’s a much greater chance that Biketown will cross the river into Portland’s inner neighborhoods. When bike share’s startup funding was debated, some advocates weren’t on board because of its geographic focus on the central city. We haven’t seen a revised service area map; but our guess is it’ll spread much further than anyone expected. Lents will still be out of luck for a while, but docks on NE 28th Avenue are looking likelier (that is, if anyone can spare the auto parking space…).

“In the near future, we will begin a public engagement process to solicit input from Portlanders about station locations and the service area,” city spokesman John Brady said. “This information will help determine the service area borders for the summer launch.”

Bikes are bad for business! Oh really?

Nike just decided to spend $10 million to make it easier for people to ride bikes in Portland. Now, I’m sorry, come again, what were you saying about this new bike lane will hurt your business?

Let’s talk about profit

Will Biketown be a moneymaker? Probably. One of the great things about the size of the title sponsorship is that it’ll probably be profitable enough to finance a decent share of its own ongoing expansion. If all goes well, profits will become a growth engine that will gradually make the system bigger and bigger, which will in turn make it more and more useful.

Why do we think Biketown will be profitable? Well, other bike sharing systems are. In Chicago, Divvy operates far enough in the black that its profits are used as local match for state and federal grants to improve biking and walking. In Phoenix, which has a similar smartbike system, Grid Bikes doesn’t even have a lead sponsor and it might turn a profit anyway.

Secondly, the numbers for Portland look good — really good.

After a 20 percent sales commission for Motivate, the Nike deal will give the city $8 million over five years — 46 percent more money than the city had been expecting to get from all sponsorship revenue under an earlier version of its bike sharing plan. Add to that the fact that a smart bike system is likely to have significantly lower operating expenses than the earlier smart dock system would have.

Add that all up and it looks likely that Biketown is going to deliver at least a modest annual surplus, maybe in the six figures. Under the city’s deal with Motivate, half of that would go to the operator and half to the city itself. PBOT’s John Brady said Friday that any city profits will get reinvested in bike share.


Now that you’ve had time to process the news, what are your thoughts?

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 –
— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 –

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