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Bike sharing faces uphill climb in Portland

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Bike sharing faces uphill climb in Portland

PORTLAND — A proposed "bike-share" program has moved closer to becoming reality, based on the results of a recent workshop.

But the idea is still in the training-wheel stage.

Bike-sharing offers the public free or low-cost access to a shared pool of bicycles for short trips. Riders usually pick up and return the bikes at self-service kiosks, which use automated devices to unlock the bikes and collect payment.

Proponents, including the federal government, have hailed bike-sharing as a way to reduce traffic and pollution from motor vehicles, increase physical activity and improve public health.

In July, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a report summarizing the findings of a bike-share workshop in which city staff, city councilors, and representatives of the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, and other groups participated.

The workshop was coordinated by the EPA Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities Program. Portland was one of five cities across the country that each received about $20,000 of EPA technical assistance to conduct bike-share workshops.

The area already is home to a couple of small bike-share programs. In June, the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority and bike-share vendor Zagster launched a 10-bike service at the Portland Transportation Center. And the University of New England has operated a bike-share program with several dozen bikes on its Biddeford campus since 2010.

But launching a municipal program, as nearly 100 communities across the country have done in recent years, poses different challenges.

"You don't wave a wand and make it happen," said Jeff Levine, the city's director of planning and urban development, who is the point person for the bike-share initiative. "It takes money and effort."

One of the challenges is balancing the number of shared bikes with the demand for them at different locations and at different times of year. Too few bikes, in too few places, and the bikes are rarely used. Too many bikes, and the program isn't economical.

In Washington, D.C., a bike-share system was launched in 2008 with only 10 pick-up and drop-off stations. It quickly failed. Today, a new system includes more than 140 stations, where riders made more than 1 million trips in the first year.

Bike-share programs are most successful where regular riders use the bikes in combination with mass transit, according to Levine. Boston's Hubway program, for example, provides more than 1,000 bikes at more than 100 stations, many of which are at or near stops along the area's extensive subway and bus system.

But in Portland, transit ridership is much smaller, and transit sites much fewer.

Workshop participants recommended 30 locations for potential bike-share stations; 20 were on the peninsula. Further study will be required to determine which sites may be practical.

"You have to have a certain scale," Levine said. "The main concern is, is there enough overall, critical mass in Portland?"

Still, the city has "a lot of the pieces in place" for creating a successful bike-share program, he said. Among them are an active community of cyclists, and a growing network of bike lanes and trails.

The workshop report also outlined some other issues the city will have to grapple with in considering a bike-share program. They include:

• The possible extension of the program to South Portland or Westbrook, or integration of the program with the Boston-area Hubway system.

• Funding, ownership and management responsibilities for the program.

• Operational challenges, such as the impact of Maine's climate and how the city's many hills could affect the use and distribution of bikes.

Levine said city staff will be submitting recommendations for funding and planning a bike-share program to the City Council's Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee this fall. The committee could then take action on the recommendations, including referring them to the full council.

"We want to do this right, we want to do it efficiently," he said. "We'd be entering new territory."

Depending on its size and scope, a bike-share program in Portland could take 15 to 27 months to implement, according to the report.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.