Portland’s Bike Share System


Mid September and Portland’s trees changed colors to celebrate the new bike share system (yes, real photo).

Portland’s bike share, utilizing the Social Bicycles system, opened in July of this year. I got to try it out for a few days this past September.

My initial experience wasn’t so great. The BikeTownPDX website did not provide a very good explanation of how things work for Single Ride or Day Passes. I called and talked two very friendly people who were also unsure how it works, and neither could answer my questions, such as “Do I need to pre-purchase single rides on the website or can I get an account, ride, and then you charge me for them after the fact?”

Time for some trial and error.

Well, you apparently do not need to pre-purchase after the first ride. At least based on my experience. Once I had my member number I was able to use the system to my heart’s content, and it showed a continually growing negative balance in my account. After a few days I received an email that they were going to charge my credit card for the debt and they promptly did. This worked well.


The electronics for the bikes are located on the rear rack. There’s a solar charger on top along with a keypad and LCD screen on the rear. Note the two ferrels next to the electronics for storage of the U-lock while riding. The majority of the bikes are Nike (or Dutch 🙂 orange), but there are a few Sneaker Bikes that add some fun interest to the system.

All of the bikes seemed in good condition, though they are also all brand new. Seat adjustment was quite easy, well marked, and seats are keyed to not rotate which is very welcomed. I wouldn’t have minded a larger front basket, but the 8-speed gearing came in handy on a couple of hills.

The geometry and fit of the bikes seems better than other bike share systems I’ve used. I’ll emphasize ‘seems’ though, because it’s difficult to really know without trying them all side-by-side. I have ridden share bikes from Minneapolis, Portland, and Birmingham within a two-week period and London and NYC just a bit before, so a somewhat close comparison.


The racks do not need any electronics so are fairly inexpensive and easy to place anywhere. The bikes attach with a special U lock (grey) and can also be easily locked to non bikeshare racks. The Air Safari above was my favorite Sneaker Bike.

The system with all electronics on the rear rack underneath a small solar charger worked well. I would very much liked to have had it work with the RFID in my iPhone (actually my previous iPhone that did a faceplant a few days prior leaving me using my older non-RFID iPhone for this trip.) Alternatively being able to purchase an RFID card like Birmingham’s Zyp would have been a good option. Each time I grabbed a bike, I had to find an email with my 6-digit account number and 4-digit PIN. Certainly not a big deal but an RFID system is a bit easier.

Update: I have since learned that you can purchase an RFID card from one of the 20 hubs that have a kiosk for $3. If only I’d taken a few hours to read through all of the FAQ’s and stuff before I used the system. I, and you, will now know for next time. BTW, I emailed BikeTownPDX with a question about the cost of these and received a reply 4 days and two cities after Portland.

Better yet, a single RFID card and account similar to The Netherlands OV-Chipkaart (and soon London’s Oyster) that works for bike share and public transit would have been very welcomed. Why more US cities aren’t doing this baffles me[1].

One big advantage to this system is that bikes do not need to be returned to BikeTownPDX hubs. This is particularly beneficial when hubs are full and you can leave your bike locked to a nearby bike rack (which seem plentiful throughout Portland). Some bike racks have stickers designating them as BikeTownPDX approved racks, and return to any of these is free. If you’re in a hurry and want to lock it up to a non-approved rack closer to your destination, it can be well worth the $2 charge. If you leave your bike locked up outside the service area, there will be a $20 charge.

I never found this bike. I suspect it might have been in someone's backyard.

I never found this bike. I suspect it might have been in someone’s backyard.

There is also a ‘hold’ feature. You can lock your bike up anywhere and press hold if you plan to re-use it fairly soon. There is a charge of $2 per 30 minutes for this, cheap insurance to know that a bike is safely waiting for you.

Since each bike has its own GPS, the system can tell you of individual bikes available nearby. I tried this several times but was only able to find one of these. My guess is that the others were near where the system said but perhaps hidden in someone’s personal yard area.


Everywhere you go you’ll see people riding the bright orange bikes.

Overall a good experience, once past my initial confusion, with the bike share system, Portland’s infrastructure, and the people and eateries of Portland.


We enjoyed great lamb burgers and a local IPA here for lunch after riding our Biketown bikes about 1.5 enjoyable miles from our hotel.




[1] OV-Chipkaart works great for Dutch residents and frequent visitors who can purchase a Personal OV-Chipkaart. Less so for less frequent visitors who purchase an Anonymous or Single-Trip OV-Chipkaart. Only the personal OV-Chipkaart can check out OV-Fiets bike share bikes.

Anonymous OV-Chipkaarts cannot use bike share and must be pre-loaded before any use. Worse, any remainder after its 5 year expiration can only be credited back to a Dutch bank account.

There are discussions to make the system much more visitor friendly to allow visitors the same experience as residents. This is expected to be rolled out in 2017.

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8 Responses to Portland’s Bike Share System

  1. GlowBoy October 12, 2016 at 4:30 pm #

    Thanks for another good story about Portland. I’m a member of both Nice Ride and Portland’s BikeTown system (since I live in Minneapolis but frequently travel to Portland for work). The electronics and checkout systems are very different (Nice Ride bikes being totally mechanical with all the electronics in the kiosks, whereas Biketown’s kiosks have no electronics and they’re all on the bikes) but they both seem to work equally well. With the obvious exception that the BikeTown bikes have nice integrated locks and you’re allowed to lock up anywhere within the service area for a small fee.

    As far as riding the bikes, I do feel like the Nice RIde bikes are just a bit more sprightly. I attribute this not to the BikeTown bikes’ shaft drive, but to their 8-speed internally geared hubs. In addition to the Portland BikeTown system, Nike (in the suburban Beaverton area) has its own corporate bikesharing system using the same bikes, but with 3-speed hubs like those of the NIce Ride bikes. I’ve ridden these too, and found them them noticeably more efficient than the 8-speed BikeTown bikes in the public Portland system – more on par with the Nice Ride bikes. The 8-speed feel particularly “draggier” to me in their lower 4 gears (the ones you use to climbing hills), so I’ve found myself putting the shifter in Gear 5 and standing up on the pedals whenever I could.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell October 13, 2016 at 9:03 am #

      Thanks for this info. If there really is a difference in the IGH hubs that can’t be fixed I wonder how difficult it would be to have some of each in the system. Most of my rides could easily have been done with a 3-speed which I would have chosen if it were better. Then the 8-speeds for the hillier stuff.

      Is it possible that the bikes at Nike were just using upgraded components and that was the difference?

      • GlowBoy October 13, 2016 at 11:08 am #

        No. The Nike bikes are absolutely identical to the Portland bikes except for the hub and shifter, and some of the printed markings inside the front metal basket. Same shaft drive, same tires.

        8-speed hubs are known to be less efficient than 3-speed hubs. My detailed knowledge of IGHs’ internal mechanics is a bit limited, but I believe hubs with more than 3 gears are “compound” drive in which power is transferred through an additional set of gears.

        I agree, 3 speeds would be sufficient for most riders in most of the BikeTown Portland service area. Most of Portland’s bigger hills are outside this zone, and the “core” area is relatively flat. Hillier than most of Minneapolis maybe, but not hillier than St. Paul.

  2. Joseph Totten
    Joseph Totten October 12, 2016 at 8:18 pm #

    One issue is that the front basket can throw off your balance for any bicyclist, experienced or not. A friend and I biked to a professor’s social hour and he rented a BikeTown, and couldn’t manage to hold it when stopped once because the 12 pack in the basket made the front wheel gain momentum too quickly when it started falling over. Note, this is a 200 lb guy who has biked his whole life. The bike fell, we lost one beer (luckily that was all), and we continued on. Just something to keep in mind as you highlight basket size, not everyone is horribly familiar with loading the front end of a bike as well as you are, and giving everyone a larger basket implies an ease of use that is not present.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell October 13, 2016 at 8:56 am #

      That’s a great point about the added weight. In my case I had a laptop bag that was too big and had to sit in there crooked which left it ready to fall out so weight wasn’t a problem. A 12 pack would certainly be an issue.

      We have frame mounted front racks (Stecco) on most of our city bikes and these do a lot better with heavy stuff. I wonder if something like that would work on bikeshare bikes?

    • GlowBoy October 13, 2016 at 11:10 am #

      If I remember right the BikeTown bikes have a steering-stabilizer spring connecting the fork to the downtown, which should prevent *most* such incidents. But maybe a 12-pack is enough weight to overpower it. (I didn’t think the basket was big enough for a 12-pack, but maybe just barely?)

      I think Nice Ride bikes would carry the same risk though, since they too have front baskets.

  3. Peter Bajurny October 12, 2016 at 9:04 pm #

    I really like the idea of the lock being integrated into the bike, and I wish we had that locally. There have been a number of times where I’d like to park my bike outside some business while I run in for a few minutes, then be able to get right back to my bike and continue my journey.

    Right now I can just leave my bike outside, which has worked out fine, but still worries me. But it’s not worth it for me to find a dock a block away, walk 5-10 minutes round trip, so I can spend 2 minutes inside a business.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell October 13, 2016 at 8:58 am #

      Yep. I have often chosen not to use NiceRide due to station proximity. In parts of St Paul you can easily be headed somewhere 4 or 5 blocks from a station. The Social Bikes system eliminates this problem.

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