BY COURTNEY SHERWOOD
PHOTOS BY JASON KAPLAN
Swipe, smile, ride away. Swipe, smile, ride away. It’s a damp, chilly afternoon in Portland’s South Waterfront district, and the doctors, nurses and students who swarm Oregon Health & Science University each morning are vacating its two campuses at the end of the workday. They crowd buses, shuttles and the aerial tram. Brake lights glow as cars snake away. And as many as one in 10 workers climbs on a bicycle to make the journey home.
That’s where the swipes and smiles come in. It’s rush hour at Go By Bike, which claims the title of North America’s largest bicycle valet service. Funded through a subsidy from OHSU and bolstered by rental and repair-shop fees, Go By Bike appears to be a small-time operation in the grand scheme of things. The 2-year-old company employs just four people, and its revenues are in the low six figures. Yet as commuters swipe their ID badges, smile while the valet grabs their rides, then swiftly ride off, Go By Bike is at the center of a cultural shift unfolding in Portland — and it’s not just about how people get around.
Today’s bike businesses include plenty of neighborhood retailers and repair shops. Portland has also nurtured dozens of the traded-sector businesses economists love — companies like Alta Planning + Design or Universal Cycles — whose sales beyond city limits help spur outsize economic growth. But in the past few years, the bike economy has expanded to include another kind of business: private-sector organizations that once never thought about bicycles but are now changing how they operate in response to employee and client demand. In turn, those businesses are opening up entrepreneurial opportunities for niche operations such as Go by Bike, a startup that sells transportation assistance to a non bike employer, OHSU.
Nationally recognized as one of the country’s most bike-friendly cities, Portland earned that reputation largely because of its public-sector investments in bike infrastructure. Today, as public investment appears to be declining — Portland has shifted its focus from building bike byways to paving more roads, just as Chicago, San Francisco and other cities are spending more on bikeways — private-sector investment is surging. But the reason businesses today are jumping on the cycling bandwagon is, well, ironic. Today’s bike economy is not about the bike.
“If you had landed in Portland in 1991, you would have seen no bike lanes, you would have seen Waterfront Park and the Willamette Greenway, but not any of the other off-road trails. All of the Willamette River bridges were insufficient for bikes,” says Mia Birk, president of Alta Planning + Design, a Portland-based consulting firm.
Birk, who was the city’s bicycle coordinator though much of the ’90s, recalls a stark divide during that era. Lycra-clad fitness enthusiasts were fighting to get TriMet to add racks to its buses. They enthusiastically supported expanding urban bike infrastructure. But most Portlanders seemed uninterested. Only about 1.2% of the city’s workforce rode bikes to work. So Portland ramped up: The city installed more than 160 miles of bike lanes, TriMet added the racks that riders were seeking, and stores that had always catered to fitness cyclists began targeting two-wheeled commuters as well.
By 2005, 3.5% of commute trips were by bike, according to U.S. Census figures. Since 2008, bike-commuting levels have hovered at around 6%.
Roger Geller, the city’s current bicycle coordinator, breaks Portland residents into four distinct groups. A very small number of people, roughly 0.5%, will get around by bike no matter the obstacles. Geller calls them “the strong and fearless.” Another third of the population will probably never choose to get on a bike. He says 7% of Portlanders are enthused and confident — they likely deserve the credit for the boom in bicycling commute rates. And 60% are interested but concerned.
If urban planners and fearless riders laid the early groundwork for Portland’s bicycle culture, it’s the “enthused and confident” riders who are pushing for changes at non bike businesses around the city.
Dozens of law firms, tech companies, health care organizations, real estate brokerages and retailers are joining those enthusiasts — by offering tax breaks to bike-only commuters, installing bike parking, and choosing office space based on access to bicycle byways and on-site showers. They are doing this because it makes business sense: Bike parking is cheaper than auto parking, healthy employees keep insurance costs down, and strong support for bicyclists helps companies recruit and retain high-quality employees.
To be sure: Not all businesses have jumped on the bicycle bandwagon, and battles pitting bike advocates against interests favoring auto and freight investments are common. Nevertheless, driven by the bottom line and a cultural evolution in how people get around, non bike employers are increasingly shaping cycling’s next wave.