Many cities have gone to e-bikes for their bikeshare programs, and Portland is one of them. Its first bikeshare launch several years ago was pretty much a bust, although PBOT and the Biketown folks will certainly never admit this. Those bikes were clunky, bad handling, heavy, and exceedingly unpleasant to ride. I used that system exactly 2 times, swearing to never ride them again, and as I love to ride all kinds of bikes, that should tell you something.
In early September, the “old” fleet was decommissioned (not without some controversy), and the new e-bikes hit the streets. The new system is run by Lyft, which will be a familiar platform for many city dwellers who use ride share. The launch experienced some unfortunate timing problems: dangerous wildfire smoke enveloped the city for many days, causing a temporary shut-down of the new bikeshare program, then torrential rains and winds followed shortly thereafter, meaning that no one was biking in Pdx. But finally, clean air and good weather returned, giving me the opportunity to test out these bikes in Portland’s ideal fall weather.
My first test ride was totally unplanned: I came across a stable of these bikes on one of my noon walks, and decided spontaneously to hop on and go for a ride. The process was very easy. I downloaded the Biketown app, scanned the code on the rear fender, and bam! the bike was unlocked. Before doing this, I checked all the bikes in this line-up for the one with the best feel on the brake levers and tires, and checked to make sure that the seatpost clamp would hold (something I learned from my prior and limited experience with Portland Bikeshare). The bikes are tall, and weighty – somewhere between 75 and 85 lbs, according to various web sources. They feature a front disk brake and rear drum. The gears (using a continuously variable rear hub) are controlled by a simple grip shifter. The drive train uses a chain instead of the unpleasant shaft drive on the previous models. The power is always on, and theoretically delivers juice based on the cadence and force on the crank. The front and rear lights come on once the bike is underway. There is a minimal front rack (more on this later), which is (over) rated for 25 lbs.
On my first ride, learning how to unlock the bike wasn’t immediately intuitive. I tried pulling the cable straight out, but it wouldn’t budge. Finally I jiggled it a bit and it broke free. Once out, you put the locking end into the pink “holster” shown above, while riding. When you are ready to terminate the ride, you park the bike (properly – more on this later!) and secure it by putting the lock back in place.
The Schwalbe tires were fine, offering some shock absorption, but the bike did bounce around and rattle a quite a bit while underway. The front-end handling of this bike is vastly improved over its predecessor, but even so it wants to fall into corners and is wobbly while getting underway, a fact made much worse by its sit up and beg riding position which doesn’t allow the cyclist to weight the bars for control. Even so, slowing down while approaching stop lights, I was able to avoid putting a toe down (a long ways down it is!) for the most part, so slow speed handling is not bad for such a heavy machine. While stopped with your foot down, the bike’s front end will flop over, so you have to actively keep the fork pointed straight ahead it to keep it upright. The battery is mounted on the sloping downtube, and contains some very simplistic instructions on how to unlock and lock the bike.
The bike’s front rack is too small to hold a standard sized brief case, and the very tight bungee cord supplied will squash your bag and possibly even damage its contents. Fortunately, I was using my “vegan” brief case which can take extreme abuse, as shown above, and still bounce back to normal. There’s no bottle cage mount, and the rack itself is shallow. Riding with a bag, even my lightweight one shown above, adversely affected the handling and made the front end more ponderous than in its unladen condition. I smooshed my water bottle in, and hoped that it wouldn’t pop out while underway, which fortunately it did not.
Biketown does not provide any technical data regarding these bikes, except perhaps upon request, but I have been able to determine that the rear hub is a Nuvinci continuously variable unit as licensed to Enviolo. I don’t know what groupset this is, but I did feel that the gear range provided was adequate for the steep hills I encounter on my usual routes. You move the grip shift forward to lower the gearing, and back to ride in higher gears. Shifting was seamless, as expected, but power delivery was very uneven. On uphill stretches, it seems that the motor only responds to a higher cadence rather than to pressure on the cranks, which I found out while trying to get myself up Mt. Tabor. Pedaling an 85 lbs bike up a steep hill with very little power assist is the stuff of muscle strains, as I found out the next day. Finally, when I shifted to a REALLY low gear, the power kicked in and I was spinning away to the top.
Braking performance was adequate, but with such a heavy bike it takes longer to stop, so planning ahead is needed when approaching stops. The rear brake was almost useless, but the front performed reasonably well on the four different journeys I took. You’ll notice the difference in the feel of the brake levers – they are clearly operating two different kinds of brakes. I worry about less experienced riders not understanding the extra time needed to slow down, especially in emergency situations, and given that average speeds are much higher on e-bikes. But, there’s no danger of doing an endo on these machines.
The Biketown app is user friendly and intuitive to use. When you want to ride, you open up the app and up pops a map of the bikes available in your area. The app shows battery life (in miles) for any bike you click on, and also shows you the number of minutes estimated to walk to the bike of your choice, which you can reserve in advance if you want. That, so far, would be completely unnecessary, as virtually no one is currently riding these bikes. The above shows a recent screen shot taken from my iPhone app. The map contains no legend, which turned out to be an important omission, potentially costing a lot of money to unsuspecting riders (see more below).
Pricing of rides has been controversial. For the four rides I took recently, I spent a total of $15.60 and traveled a mere 7 miles. At 20 cents per minute (without $99 membership fee which lowers the price to 10 cents per minute), I also racked up extra $1 charges whenever I didn’t park the bike at at “station”. Even though the instructions on the bike say it can be parked at any “public” bike rack, there’s a $1 charge whenever it is not left at a “station”. The map on my iPhone doesn’t clearly identify stations, but even if it did, parking the bike wherever one ends up is the ideal situation, and I think it’s unfortunate that the Biketown folks decided to tack on this extra charge, as it reduces the bikes’ usefulness as an alternative to other transport modes.
To determine whether you should spring for the $99 annual fee, I created this formula, where X represents the breakeven number of rides and Y = the average number of minutes per ride. In the formula below, I’ve set Y at 15 minutes, which then yielded 40 rides per year as the breakeven for buying a membership:
My last ride of the four I took on these bikes ended unpleasantly. I wanted to ride the bike home, and park nearby. Of course, there are no public racks in Portland’s residential neighborhoods (but clearly there should be). So, the next best thing was to leave the bike in Mt. Tabor park, locked up to a sign post, but away from the right of way for pedestrians. As it turns out, I was charged a $25 fee, later waived, for parking in a “no parking zone”. How do we know it’s a no parking zone? As I said, there’s no legend on the map, but I finally learned that anything outlined in red is a no parking zone. So, beware, and study your map closely before locking up.
All of which is counterproductive to the whole idea behind these bikeshare programs. If the goal is to reduce driving, I can’t see that happening with this program, except for maybe the short “last mile” jaunts or quick trips near someone’s workplace. If the goal is economic justice and greater access to transit for low income populations, these bikes fail on three counts: stations are non existent along large swaths of north and northeast Portland, the cost is astronomical compared to public transit, and the bikes are not capable of hauling groceries and work tools. While they do go faster than regular bikes, that efficiency is quickly lost in the time it takes to locate and walk to one of these bikes. The lack of available helmets, combined with the extra speed and ponderous handling characteristics raises safety concerns as well.
I do think that e-bikes represent a great opportunity to get people out of their cars and moving for transit, but I don’t see bikeshare as a way to optimize this. Someday, I may own an e-bike, and be glad for it, but in the meantime I’m planning on enjoying my vintage, lightweight steel machines, with their wonderful performance and superb handling.