From 2006 through 2008, Portland’s bike-related industry grew by 38%, contributing $90 million annually, according to a study by Alta Planning + Design. Six years later, the industry contributes more than $100 million per year, with a new crop of businesses helping fuel growth.
Back at South Waterfront, Go By Bike owner Kiel Johnson points out that his business exists at a rare transportation hub: Automobiles, street cars and buses circle the block; pedestrians approach via the Gibbs Street Bridge; a tram whisks commuters up and down the hill; and more than 500 bicycles arrive every day. But Johnson’s close relationship with OHSU, and his plans to grow beyond South Waterfront, highlight another kind of hub that’s emerged in Portland over the past half decade. The city’s entrepreneurial culture is turning Portland into an innovation center for bike-related enterprises.
Go By Bike addresses a specific need. OHSU’s chronic shortage of auto parking requires a 25-person staff, which oversees assigned spaces, parking badges and other transportation issues. As the hospital and medical school system grow, OHSU is trying to encourage more people to take the bus, carpool or bike to work.
When Portland’s aerial tram connected OHSU’s waterfront campus with its top-of-the-hill offices, bike-commuting rates climbed, says John Landolfe, transportation options coordinator. Riders unwilling to trek uphill to the older campus were happy to ride to a lower elevation and then catch the tram up the hill to work. But soon the tram became overcrowded with bikes.
“We needed a way to convince people to park at the bottom of the tram,” Landolfe says. “I found myself asking, how is it that we have a hundred bike shops across Portland, and there’s no bike valet?” Today, 180 riders check their bikes at the base of the tram each day year-round — closer to 300 during peak summer months. Johnson supplements Go By Bike’s OHSU subsidy with bike rentals and repairs, business lines that now contribute about a third of the company’s revenue. Johnson is also developing a proposal for valet service during Trail Blazers’ basketball games. Andersen says he plans to ask Johnson to explore valet service at the Lloyd District development as well.
Go By Bike offers evidence that Portland’s bike economy is about more than just selling bicycles and parts. It’s about supporting a population that increasingly uses bikes as transportation. And as these businesses blossom, they are feeding a growing industry niche that sells to locals, tourists and clients beyond the region, says Kyle Kautz, co-owner of PDX Pedicab.
“We joke that there’s a capitalist bike co-op,” laughs Kautz. “A lot of us try to partner with as many small local businesses as possible.” Kautz took charge at PDX Pedicab in 2009, two years after the business began shuttling downtown drinkers from bar to bar. Local enthusiasm for bicycles brought in enough fares to pay the bills, but Kautz thought he could do better by marketing to tourists.
“Portland is such a beer area, we thought, ‘Let’s do beer by bike,’” he says. “You can’t ride while drunk, so we’ll do it for you.” PDX Pedicab has now developed 10 official tours and experiences, some centered on food and drink, others that take visitors to scenic destinations around town. “Bikes are a big thing in the city, and tourists love it.”
That focus on tourism dollars has transformed PDX Pedicab into a company that’s “exponentially more successful than we were several years ago,” says Kautz, who is preparing a trial expansion into Seaside this summer.
“The city’s goal is to get 25% of all trips made by bicycle in 2030,” says Johnson. “Right now it’s about 6% or 7%. If you’re thinking about starting a bike business, you have a market that’s going to grow three times or more.”