Bike share programs have become popular across the country, and it is no surprise that famously bike-friendly Portland is part of the trend. That’s why the news that Motivate, the company that runs Biketown (and many other bike share programs nationwide), has a new owner should be of interest to anyone who cares about Portland as a cycling community.
The buyer is Lyft, a company best known for its car-hailing app. The Oregonian quotes a company statement promising “to help take bike share to the next level” with more bikes and more docking stations. With a single company running the bike share programs in cities across the country there is also the potential for rentals to become nearly seamless nationwide.
But Lyft’s emergence as a major player in bike share also raises questions. Let’s start with maintenance. When you return a rental car it is checked before being sent back out with another customer. When you roll a share bike into a docking station it usually just sits there until someone else checks it out or until the bike share operator moves it to a different location (regular and systematic redistribution of the bikes is a key element of any successful share program). Clearly no one is going to select a bike from the docking station if it has serious, visible damage. But there have always been legal questions about how bike share companies should deal with more subtle mechanical problems. Gears, the chain and the brakes can all be damaged in ways not immediately visible to someone who knows little about bike maintenance. It is worth asking what steps are being taken to guarantee a safe ride for bike share customers.
This issue will become even more critical as Lyft and other companies add electric bikes to the mix. Lyft’s statement announcing its acquisition of Motivate speaks of “deploying new electric bikes, on a major scale.” Electric bikes are increasingly popular. ORS 814.405 states that “an electric assisted bicycle shall be considered a bicycle, rather than a motor vehicle, for purposes of the Oregon Vehicle Code.” But for bike share operators they pose more maintenance issues than ordinary bikes, and are potentially more difficult and dangerous to operate.
Another issue worth considering is helmet use. Municipal law here in Portland requires any bike rider under age 16 to wear a helmet. The law holds parents legally responsible for ensuring that their children wear helmets (or other approved protective headgear), but it is unclear whether bike share companies have an obligation to enforce this.
As an Oregon lawyer I believe this is a legal area that requires greater thought on the part of government bodies, bike share companies and the community. Oregon’s industrial accident laws require that companies keep gear and equipment in good working order, and that workers be properly trained in its use. It is not a stretch to apply the same logic to bike share programs. If equipment is not properly maintained then everyone using a share bike is potentially at risk, as are both the pedestrians and cars around the bike riders.
Some of these issues are explored in a fascinating policy paper from the urban policy think tank CityLab (see link below). As that document makes clear, bike share programs are good for the environment, help ease traffic congestion, offer significant health benefits for regular users and, in many cities, also generate a surprising number of jobs. They are also, however, fairly new (according to CityLab the first modern bike share program was established only in 2007, in Paris). That’s why I enthusiastically support both Biketown, and an effort to ask probing questions about its day-to-day operation and what ownership by Lyft will mean for Portlanders.
City of Portland: Bikes and the Law