Portland bike-share program could launch by summer 2022

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After a couple of failed attempts over the past few years, Portland is working on a new plan for a bike-share program.

Bruce Hyman, transportation program manager for Portland’s Planning & Urban Development Department, said Feb. 22 he is optimistic that “the third time is going to be a charm.”

Implementing a bike-share program is part of the city’s plan to combat climate change, increase access to equal transportation for all residents, and help boost the tourism economy.

A woman cycles with her dog along the Bayside Trail last June in Portland. The city is exploring the possibility of launching a bike-share program by summer of 2022. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Hyman said he is working on a new iteration of a request for quotes document, which would invite companies to bid to be chosen as the city’s bike-share vendor. He said the city hopes to select a vendor by June if it gets respondents, and would like to launch the program in late spring or early June of 2022.

Portland has had a couple of false starts when it comes to implementing bicycle sharing. The most notable was in the spring of 2019, when Jump, a dockless bike-share company then owned by Uber, was the only company to respond to a request for proposals.

Hyman said the company had “lots and lots of national experience,” which was appealing, but the deal fell through when Jump’s finances became what he called “queasy.” The city’s more recent efforts last spring were thwarted by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lime, another national company that offers consumers bikes, scooters, and vehicles to rent, ultimately acquired Jump from Uber for $170 million in May of 2020.

Revisiting efforts to launch a bike-share program in Portland and South Portland is one of the goals outlined in OneClimateFuture, the 300-page climate action plan released by the two cities last month. 

An entire section of the report is dedicated to promoting bike accessibility, and planned actions also include expanding bike parking and storage facilities in Portland and South Portland, as well as the number of bike lanes, paths, and byways in the two cities.

“There’s no one silver bullet that’s going to help us on the climate change front, so we need to use every strategy that we can to supplement motor vehicle usage, and in some places, supplant it,” Hyman said. 

The city is hoping to implement a dockless bike-share program, rather than a dock-based program such as Citi Bike, which is the official bike-share program of New York City, or Bluebikes, which is used in Boston.

Dock-based bike-share networks require users to take bikes out of a locked dock and return them to another one. They tend to be less convenient for users than dockless systems, which allow bikes to essentially be left anywhere. And they also require higher startup costs.

Hyman said while there are upsides to a city using a dock-based system, such as easier management, they can be cost-prohibitive to launch. Citigroup, for instance, underwrites the New York City system, which Hyman said costs the bank “multi-millions” of dollars.

“If you could lure in big fish for that it would make sense,” he said.

Bikes in a dockless program, on the other hand, can be locked through a smartphone app and do not require costly infrastructure to be returned. Hyman said dockless systems have been gaining popularity in the bike-share world in recent years and would make sense for Portland because they are “more nimble” and require little or no cost to launch.

He also said the city is now planning to provide a year between selecting the company and launching the program, which is different than what was tried in the past.

“Previously we’ve had a much shorter timeframe from the selection of a vendor to potential launch, in the six- to eight-month time period, which we heard was a little bit difficult, especially in that no- to low-cost (range) we’re looking for,” Hyman said. 

The prospect of a new bike-share program has also been mentioned in the context of the University of Southern Maine’s plans to expand its Portland campus. The university has proposed co-launching a bike-share program with the city as a way to encourage people to move away from using single-occupancy vehicles.

Hyman said Maine Medical Center has also expressed interest in giving its employees access to a city bike-share program. The bikes could be used by employees during their shifts, or to commute between medical offices.

Nell Donaldson, director of special projects for the Planning & Urban Development Department, said the potential USM and Maine Med partnerships are still in development, and there has been no “formal buy-in” from either organization regarding the effort.

With talk of the concept for years, however, Donaldson said the city hopes companies will jump on the bandwagon when the program gets off the ground. A bike-sharing program, she said, would also promote transportation equity in the city.

Donaldson noted that despite more people getting interested in biking during the pandemic, the bike-sharing culture was disrupted by COVID-19, making next year a seemingly good time to launch the program as people rediscover using bikes in a new way.

“I think there’s an opportunity to capitalize on that shift,” she said, “especially as we come out of this moment we’re in.”