A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

City Hall likes bikesharing

I just returned to Portland after a long weekend in Quebec, where, as you may be aware, the pioneering "Bixi" bike-sharing program debuted in Montreal 2009 and has since licensed the technology to several other cities, including Boston.

So I missed last Friday's news that Portland's new planning director, Jeff Levine, had of his own initiative landed an Environmental Protection Agency grant to investigate the feasibility of starting a bikeshare system here in Portland.

From the city's press release:

Bikeshare is a program in which bicycles are made available for shared use. The program is designed to provide free or affordable access to bicycles for short-distance trips in an urban area as an alternative to motorized public transit or private vehicles. Bikeshare programs help reduce congestion, noise and air pollution and support sustainable growth that encourages local economic development while safeguarding health and the environment. As a part of the technical assistance provided, EPA staff and national experts will hold a one to two-day workshop in the city focusing on the Planning for Bikeshare tool, which will explore the potential of establishing a bikeshare program in the community.

According to Tom Bell's report in the Press Herald, the grant will bring in business planners from Alta Bicycle Share, the company that manages most of the nation's largest bikesharing systems, including Boston's "Hubway", using technology licensed from Montreal.

This is only a feasibility study, which means that an actual bikeshare program is probably years away still.

Nevertheless, Portland seems to have the kinds of characteristics that should lend itself to bikesharing: tourists, mostly safe streets downtown, and a bike-friendly density of population, jobs, and services. While bikesharing's North American debuts happened in big cities like Montreal, Washington, DC, and Minneapolis, it's increasingly spreading to and succeeding in smaller cities like Boulder, CO and Spartanburg, SC. Even tiny Pullman, Washington (population 29,799) has 120 shared bikes in its Washington State University-managed "Greenbike" system.

Portland also may benefit from its relative proximity to Hubway in Boston. Rather than roll out its own system from scratch, the city might want to approach it as a self-contained expansion of the Hubway system, to create a northern outpost of the same network with unique local sponsors.

Doing so would give Portland's network a pre-existing base of customers, who would be able to use their same membership card to hop on a bike and ride downtown as soon as they arrive at the bus station, and it would give Portland-based riders the chance to use the same system when they travel to Boston.

Expanding Hubway to Portland might also allow Portland to save on startup expenses by building on existing technology and expertise. Some of that expertise might come from city planner Jeff Levine, the very same fellow who applied for the grant. Jeff was working in the Brookline, MA City Hall when that city welcomed its own expansion of Hubway stations.

If we could convince intermediate cities like Biddeford/Saco and Portsmouth to sponsor their own small networks, Hubway might even become the nation's first intercity bikesharing network to allow for weekend bike tours (it's a 130 mile ride, give or take, with Portsmouth conveniently located near the halfway point).

So, even though I was a few days late on this story, I'll be keeping a close eye on it and will report on this blog when the actual planning study gets underway.

In the meantime, I plan to write a short note to Jeff Levine and his boss, city manager Mark Rees (mrees [at] portlandmaine.gov), to congratulate them on the grant and to thank them for taking this initiative.


John in NH said...

Jeff of course coming to you from Brookline down here, which just launched a Hubway expansion last year. He is a great guy and I would LOVEEEE to see Hubway come to Portland, especially as an extension of the Boston system!!!

Many people are using the Downeaster to go up on vacation or for visits, I am a Boston member and wouldn't mind paying a 1$ or 2$ day fee for usage of my key fob in a Portland system. I wouldn't expect it to be free but a discount would be attractive.

You would want to look at installing more smaller stations vs the giant ones we have here in Boston but with some well placed locations and some advertising I think its doable!

Great news and I look forward to seeing where this goes!

Cli said...

Great news! I think Portland could surely benefit from such a program. The idea of having a multi-city Hubway system is smart and a good sell to the municipalities as well as the consumers. It would be great to have friends visit and be able to (1) bike from the train station as well as (2) having fun biking around the city alongside the people they are visiting.

Adding shared bikes to our less than glamorous public transit system would be spectacular. I would have used it today: the bus was twenty minutes late and I could have very easily hopped on a shared bike and gotten to my destination on time. Go multi-modal or go home!

Anonymous said...

Hubway's contractor, Alta, also runs the systems for DC, NYC (coming next month), Phillie, London, and Toronto.

What's stopping them from offering cross-system use is two problems: 1. their software vendor, (there's a lawsuit going on) and 2. they will have to re-draft their contracts in order to settle which city gets how much money when a customer uses his key as a visitor somewhere.

Still, as a Hubway user, I see nothing wrong with just paying $15 for a 3 day pass when I visit Portland. This is great news.

Ari said...

As a very frequent Hubwayer (see here for proof) and a frequent Portland visitor, Hubway would make me very happy, and more likely to use the bus/train to get north. Portland is hamstrung by a transportation hub sited for automobile access, and while I've certainly walked or taken a bike on the train to get from the terminal to the West End (and beyond) if Hubway were available it would be a great connection to downtown (especially if there was some better walk/bike infrastructure). It's a bit of a black hole, right now, to get from the PTC to the Peninsula, and bike sharing would be a great step. With 20 buses and 5 trains daily between Boston and Portland, there would certainly be a great incentive to have the systems be cross-operational.