Biketown's All-Electric Fleet and Expanded Area Take Portland’s Bike Share Program to a New Level

Yes, it’s yet another ‘I rode an e-bike for the first time, and it was kind of cool’ story.

By Margaret Seiler October 14, 2020

A Biketown e-bike at Peninsula Park, newly included in the bike share program’s service area. (We’re not sure if the sticker was placed on the rack before or after the bike was parked there. Is Biketown New Portland? Or if it’s a next-gen version of the Yellow Bike program, does that give it some Old Portland genes? Hmm.)

In September, the city’s bike share program, Biketown, rolled out an expanded service area focused on East Portland, and completed its conversion to e-bikes.

The new fleet of swoosh-emblazoned orange bikes is the latest evolution for bike sharing in the city, and a far cry from the ’90s era Yellow Bike program that offered free bikes around town. Started in 2016 by the Portland Bureau of Transportation, Biketown is sponsored by Nike and Kaiser Permanente and now managed by Lyft. The ride-hailing service is now the largest operator of bike share systems in the country, and Portland is home to its first all-electric fleet.

Originally focused on downtown, the Pearl, and inner Southeast, the service area has nearly doubled. Instead of stopping in the 50s on the east side (part of the service’s first major expansion, in 2017), it now stretches to NE 82nd on the north side of I-84, to 114th between Gateway and SE Division, and to I-205 between Division and Foster Road. Smaller areas were added elsewhere, with the northern boundary extended from Killingsworth to Lombard and now taking in much of Concordia, Woodlawn, and Arbor Lodge, as far west as N Greeley Avenue. The southern edge now includes more of the South Waterfront on the west side and extends to Holgate on the east side of the Willamette.

The new Biketown fleet can be unlocked with a QR code scan and the Lyft app.

On the new chariots, which number 1,500, rentals begin with a QR code scan as opposed to typing in a number, which makes for pandemic-friendly reduced surface contact. Anyone with a Lyft account might have noticed a bike icon pop up as an option when the updated service launched in early September.

“It will be a seamless experience, where Lyft members will have a choice—do I want to hail a ride or rent a bike?” says PBOT’s Dylan Rivera.

On an e-bike, Rivera says, “People tend to go farther, they’re more comfortable, your experience can have a lot less exertion. So it will be more comfortable for people using it to go to work.” Of course, the service is arriving at a time when more Portlanders than usual are working from home, and the September launch was somewhat scuttled by the wildfire smoke that blanketed the city; Biketown actually shut down for what would have been the electric fleet’s first weekend due to air quality concerns.

Just before the launch, and before the smoke hit, Lyft and PBOT kindly delivered one of the new bikes to my house so I could give it a whirl, even though my part of North Portland is still the hinterlands as far as Biketown is concerned, outside of even the newly extended service area. So yes, you are reading what is surely at least the 10,000th “I rode an e-bike for the first time” piece of lifestyle journalism. Reader, I rode an e-bike for the first time. And it was … kind of cool to, on one of the hottest days of late summer, arrive at my destination barely sweaty at all. I did sweat pedaling up the steep hill from Cathedral Park in St. Johns (also out of the service area, so I couldn’t have started or ended a rental there), and the battery even blinked off for a few minutes after I got to the top. (The bug was only temporary, unlike the unfortunate experience of the Oregonian’s Andrew Theen—and Rivera said such kinks should be worked out by the launch date.)

On pristine pavement, the bikes glide along quite comfortably. There is still exercise involved even on the flat, and the responsive pedal assist offers instant reward for a bit of effort. On a commute, the e-bikes could make the Broadway Bridge ramps a breeze, and despite their limited turning radius they would easily carry you up the switchback from the Steel Bridge’s lower level. But the 75-pound bikes have minimal suspension and are not the most butt-friendly on uneven or broken pavement, and the smooth tires combined with the weight make gravel very slippery.

The upgrade to all e-bikes comes with a price increase. Single rides are now $1 plus 20 cents per minute, plus another $1 if you end the rental at a public bike rack instead of a Biketown docking station. (There’s also free locking anywhere in Biketown’s East Portland Super Hub Zone, east of 72nd Avenue.) Frequent riders can get an annual membership for $99, skip the single-ride $1 fees, and be charged 10 cents per minute instead. (In the past, the $99 annual memberships included unlimited ride time.)

Under the new pricing structure, the annual membership is worth it if you take 50 10-minute rides a year and always park the bikes at an official docking station or the hub zone, or more than 33 10-minute rides if you’re going to leave them at other bike racks. If your average ride is 20 minutes, then the annual membership is cheaper if you take more than 33 trips using official docking stations, or 25 trips if you park the bikes at any old rack.