The Biketown e-bikes are here: Will Portland return to ‘normal’ in time to enjoy them? (review)

I straddled a new Biketown rental bike last week and gazed upon Portland from the postcard-friendly viewpoint above the lower reservoirs on the slope of Mount Tabor, catching my breath and cursing the wretched device beneath me.

My excitement about Biketown’s plunge into an all-electric-assisted fleet had long since died, left desiccated somewhere in the 15 miles or so of pain I’d left below me while riding the new model all around town.

I ended up riding 22 miles during a 2 ½ hour Tour de Hades in 90-degree weather. I finished drenched in sweat. The new Biketown e-bike was a dud.

I’m not a Spandex-clad weekend road bike warrior, but I’m no cycling novice. In the before times, I was a full-time bike commuter. I didn’t imagine the new e-bike would be so unremarkable. I’d only ridden a few e-bikes before, but I expected more. Was this all that Portland, Nike and Lyft could offer?

My failed and hilarious test run was the culmination of this reporter’s stubborn drive to put the bike through its paces and one Biketown official’s inattention to detail.

I’d watched the bike in action – a staffer test-rode it in front of me before the hand-off. But in the hours between that and when I finally hopped aboard, someone in the warehouse deactivated my loaner bike remotely. It was a dud because it wasn’t active. I’d just ridden a 75-pound bike all around town for no good reason.

Transportation staffers offered me a second chance and explained the goof. I wanted to make sure I was getting the full experience, so I agreed.

I cackled right after taking one pump of the pedals.

Round two didn’t disappoint.

After riding a real deal e-assist bike, owned and operated by the ride-hailing giant Lyft, I can safely say it will be quite obvious if you are riding a dud. First off, the bike will beep at you when it hits low power, and secondly, the bike itself hums like a remote-control car when pedaling. It’s clear when it’s working at normal capacity.

The new fleet, which will hit the streets gradually with 500 bikes on Wednesday and expand over coming weeks to 1,500 bikes, brings a comfortable and powerful commuting and joy-riding tool to Portland. The new five-year agreement with Lyft expands the service area to 32 square miles, up from 19 square miles. Riders can pedal their way up to 20 miles per hour (though you can haul faster going down Mount Tabor).

I rode the power-assisted bike for an hour and 10 minutes, covering 17-plus miles of the city in 90-degree weather, essentially without breaking a sweat. If I were a paying customer, that ride would’ve cost $15 (or $7 for annual members).

Biketown expansion

The expanded service area includes portions of east Portland and North Portland.

The only reason I was hot was the helmet on my head. The bike is a bit of a beast at 75 pounds, but it’s much more of a smooth ride than its predecessors, the orange bikes that dominated Portland’s waterfront during tourist season.

To be clear: My lengthy rides are not what people typically do on so-called bike share systems.

Since Biketown first launched in 2016, its riders’ average trip length has been 25 minutes, according to data on the city’s website. The bikes are built to be tools for short-term travel; most folks don’t go much beyond two miles.

Part of the push to add e-bikes is the assumption that maybe people would go farther with a little help. I found that you can ride a fully charged bike all over town quickly, and safely if you stick to neighborhood greenways and protected routes.

But the new bikes come with some significant changes to Biketown’s payment scheme which are legitimate concerns for many.

Annual members, who pay $99 for unlimited rides of up to 90 minutes, will now have to pay a 10-cent-per-minute fee anytime they ride.

For example, a 28-minute ride for annual users is now $2.80 instead of free. That adds up over time. The city says there are now 4,166 Biketown members, down from a peak of 6,035 last year.

Pay-as-you-go riders will be charged $1 to unlock the bike, then 20 cents per minute. The city, Lyft and Nike, the main sponsor, note that the pricing changes are needed to operate a more expensive fleet.

E-scooters have been wildly popular in Portland, but despite their popularity, there are still countless more people who don’t ride them because of real or perceived safety concerns.

It’s valid to worry about handling an e-scooter on bumpy streets, especially at night.

The new e-bike addresses those concerns because it’s a bike, not a flimsy scooter, and it’s ridable by people of all shapes and sizes (I’m 6-foot-4). And assuming Lyft’s maintenance crews keep the bikes in working order, there are undoubtedly more people who are scooter curious but would feel safer on an e-bike, especially if they don’t have a helmet with them.

Rivera said Lyft technicians will monitor bikes’ battery levels and swap out battery packs during the day. Each bike should last roughly 25 miles, depending on the rider.

But the e-bikes will get you places sooner and less sweatier. This reporter rode from 28th and Gladstone to Mississippi in less than 30 minutes, and while I didn’t ride up Tabor again, I ascended the North Greeley multi-use path while still butt-in-seat and sans sweat.

The new bikes come with QR codes, like e-scooters, making them easy to unlock and get on the road. The bikes lock to any standard rack and will work with the existing dozens of Biketown stations.

The bike comes with a gear shift on the right handlebar, though it’s called an “infinity gear” and riders will have to get used to shifting without obviously landing in a specific gear. It takes a bit to get used to, but it’s a slick setup and is a dramatic improvement from other bike share e-bikes I’d ridden.

In 2018, I test rode a Lime e-bike in Seattle and had an exceptionally difficult time finding a reliable and charged bike that wasn’t fundamentally damaged. I eventually found an adequate model, but it also left me huffing and puffing on Seattle’s steep hills. I wrote then that Portland would seemingly be the ideal city for an e-bike, and the Lyft/Biketown model certainly delivers a level of quality that far outpaced those Lime bikes.

The new Biketown model is clearly better in countless ways, but it also arrives when commuting and traffic patterns are still in utter flux.

Biketown ridership overall declined 70% due to the pandemic, but it’s risen a bit recently, and is down 40% year over year, Rivera said. It’s “still down but getting better and we anticipate e-bikes will bump that up even further,” he said.

If anything, I could see the fleet helping to convert more people to e-bikes, which are already rapidly expanding into the U.S. market in recent years.

Users can check out a Biketown e-bike on Wednesday either through the existing Biketown app (which will likely need to be updated on Wednesday) or through Lyft’s app.

— Andrew Theen