Portland BikeShare: 2nd Thoughts

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With the bizarre traffic maelstrom in Portland, Oregon this spring of 2017, anyone trying to get downtown via car, bus, or MAX Train will be in need of some calming medications to manage their enormous frustration.  Meanwhile, bike riders are the sole bearer of efficient transportation via Portland’s streets which are clogged with construction, lane closures, light rail track repairs, bridge anomalies, and highway shutdowns.

Nike “swoosh” on Portland’s Bikeshare logo

You would think this would mean that enterprising commuters would seek out alternative methods of arriving at their respective destinations, and that they might consider using Portland’s Nike funded “BIKETOWN” bikesharing program.  Think again.

Never have more clunky bikes been pawned off on the public.  These machines feature massive wheel flop (disastrous for bikes designed for a front end load), a 45 lb weight, and, worst of all, a sit up and beg riding position that makes only very tall riders able to master these bikes with relative safety.  I have ridden these bikes exactly 3 times, and hope to never ride one again.  And, that’s me – I love to cycle!  What is wrong with these bikes?  Just about everything.

In fact, my Dad’s 1965 2 speed Schwinn American would be a far more comfortable and efficient choice for anyone seeking passage through Portland’s beleaguered streets.  The riding position on this bike is adaptable to many cyclist’s sizes, and its geometry and excellent bullet proof steel construction means that it has lasted through decades of abuse and neglect.  The handling on this Schwinn is intuitive.  You just get on and ride.

Not true with these BikeTown bikes which were built by SoBi.  One commentator has this to say about these bikes:  “These clunky SoBi Social Bicycles look like they weigh a ton, and have the maneuverability of a circus elephant. With the ongoing costs, invasion of privacy and potential liability on the user’s end – you might want to consider alternatives.” – Hobeken 411.

Indeed, one thing that Portlanders noted right away was SoBi’s demand that users of its system waive their legal rights.   This is yet another reason to re-think whether or not you want to attempt to ride one of these machines.

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Brompton Folding Bike

I am a strong supporter of public transportation as a “public good”, and I also support bike share programs as part of the solution to many of the challenges facing urban environments.  I served on TriMet’s budget advisory committee for years, and count public transportation advocates as friends and colleagues.  In short, I am the last person you would expect to criticize Portland’s Bikeshare program.  The problem with the program lies not in its conception, but in its execution.  I would love to see a bike share program designed around user friendly bikes, such as this Brompton folder, pictured above.  Interestingly, Portland’s Brompton retailer – Clever Cycles – offers Brompton rentals. I might try this out!

Obviously, any bikes which are to be used for bikeshare need extra technology and engineering, but there is no reason that should come as a sacrifice to ride-ability.  Having observed numerous riders attempting to master BikeTown SoBi bikes, and seeing their consternation I think its time for Portland to throw in the towel on SoBi, and re-think the Bikeshare program.  We need to offer bikes to all kinds of riders, not just to tall and fit riders who can physically overcome the poorly designed weaknesses of SoBi’s offering.

Portland Bike Share – 1st Ride on the 1st Day

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With Portland’s typical giddy fanfare for anything bicycle related, the city’s bike share program went live today.  I had tentatively planned on attempting to test ride one of these bikes today, and as it turned out, all of the day’s mishaps led to my first ride on one of these orange monsters.

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I was down at South Waterfront awaiting an annual doctor appointment which went awry.  My physician’s schedule got seriously backed up so after waiting for too long, I had to reschedule and move on to my next appointment.  But, while I was cooling my heels in the waiting room I had time to download the Biketown app on my iPhone and go through the steps to set up an account and review the process of renting the bike, which at first seemed kind of daunting.  Thankfully, the app worked perfectly so that when I exited OHSU to the street level to feast upon the orangeness surrounding me, it was very easy to enter my codes into this solar powered key pad and unlock the bike from the rack.  Unfortunately, the bike I unlocked turned out to be unrideable.

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The bike’s quick release for the seat post binder bolt would not hold position because the nut on the bolt could not be turned to tighten it.  Lacking any tools, and knowing that I was not willing to damage (further) my knees with a too low seat height, I put the bike back into its rack and forfeited my $2.50 rental fee.  Then, I checked the seatpost QR’s on all the other bikes in the rack and found that they similarly could not be tightened adequately to hold the seatpost, until I finally spotted my ride – an orange monster parked askew with the seat post jacked way up.

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So, I entered my codes again – a very easy process that involves an account number plus a PIN, unlocked the bike, slung the lock into its holder on the left side, tossed my brief case into the front basket (which is very narrow), and started to get underway.  During this process, several cyclists approached me and asked about the steps involved in renting these bikes and how the system works.  I did my best to educate them with the tiny bit of knowledge in my head at the time.

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Then I mounted the 45 lb. machine, which involves pushing your leg above the lowered top tube rather than throwing a leg over and which actually seems harder to do.  Immediately I noticed the terrible handling – a result of ill conceived frame geometry for a bike which is designed to carry its weight on the front.  The bike wobbled around as I got underway, and I felt like a novice cyclist rather than the experienced rider that I am.  Once moving, I was okay, but anytime I put my foot down the bad geometry kicked in and the bike weaved from side to side. But, as with any bike, you can adapt to strange handling characteristics with enough saddle time.  I’m not sure I really want any more saddle time on these bikes, though.  My 1950 Raleigh Sports Tourist, which also weighs 45 lbs is an absolute gem in comparison, being well balanced, easy to handle, and with an amazingly comfortable, if upright, riding position.

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These bikes, provided by Social Bicycles, aka SoBi, are equipped with a shaft drive and an internal Nexus 8 speed hub.  Having not ridden a shaft drive before, I was curious if I would notice any particular differences as compared to a chain drive.  And, I hadn’t tested the Shimano 8 speed internal hub, so I was also curious how this component would perform.  Since I needed to head over the to east side of Portland, that meant taking the Tilikum Crossing‘s mild but long hill in my work clothes.  These bikes have no bottle cage, so even if I had a water bottle, it would not be readily accessible.  Riding east over the bridge, I was passed by ALL cyclists, and a few called out to ask me how I liked the ride.

I found the shaft drive to feel fairly normal, but the Nexus hub seemed to have a lot of inefficiency in the lower gears.  I only engaged the 4th and 3rd gears of the hub, but those gears felt so compromised that I ended up stomping up the hill in a higher gear so I could avoid the sluggish feeling that the hub offered in the lower gears.

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The Kenda tires were fine and seemed to absorb some road shock, but the High Nelly upright position made my back hurt right away.  The drum brakes required a lot of force to stop the bike quickly, making me think “whoa, Nelly!”.  At least there would be no danger of doing an endo on one of these machines.

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By the time I got to the east side of Portland, I couldn’t wait to scan the horizon for the first orangeness I could spot.  I ditched this bike at a Bikeshare rack along the Max line, and continued the rest of my journey via public transportation, having spent a total of $3.60 to rent the bike, and now spending another $2.50 to continue on my journey.  While on the bus, I sent an email to customer support to alert them to the seatpost QR issue.  A few hours later I received a response letting me know that if you encounter any mechanical issue with a bike, put it back in the rack and hit the “repair” button on the keypad and the bike will be taken out of service until the issue is resolved.

Who are these bikes for?  Well, maybe Nike can answer that question.  Portland is unique in that its Bike Share program is not funded with taxpayer dollars, but rather relies on the millions received from corporate sponsors.

Possibly, these bikes could be useful for inner city users who need a quick jaunt to areas not covered by public transportation.  The apps provided by SoBi worked extremely well for me, so the barriers to use involve not technology, but lack of access to technology.  And that will be my final criticism for this program.  Who is it helping?  Those who don’t really need help at all.