Electric bikes come with substantial environmental and social benefits, but some marginalized communities are being left out. Here’s why — and what they’re doing about it.
By Henry Latourette Miller
This summer has the potential to be the first season of a new era of biking in Portland. It follows a year that saw bike sales skyrocket, the introduction of electric bikes (e-bikes) to Biketown, the expansion of Biketown’s service area to the north and east, and the restriction of car traffic to install sidewalk cafes and improve streets for walkers and rollers.
While these developments are exciting, it is hard to overstate the potential for e-bikes to inject new energy into Portland’s bike culture, which had seen bike commuter rates slide in the years before the pandemic.
By allowing Portlanders to go greater distances with less effort than a normal bike, thanks to an electric motor and battery, e-bikes can bring together the necessary reduction in emissions from cars with America’s love of independent mobility. Unlike scooters, e-bikes are more comfortable when traveling across town and can be powerful enough to carry multiple riders along with groceries and school bags. This power makes it easier for Portlanders to swap what was once a car trip to the store, school or office with a more sustainable mode of transportation, even if they do not have access to good transit options. If enough people make that switch, e-bikes can contribute to making our streets less congested, less polluted, safer and more efficient.
Yet Portland’s embrace of new transportation technologies has often come at the cost of already marginalized community members. This is especially the case for low-income residents and people of color, many of who were pushed out of their neighborhoods to build projects like the Interstate-5 corridor or by the gentrification that followed the construction of TriMet’s MAX Yellow Line.
Jump to years later, and many of the low-income and communities of color in outer Portland neighborhoods that did not experience the same rapid pace of gentrification were also not included in the early service areas of Biketown and e-scooter shares. While the reasons these neighborhoods were excluded from shared mobility in its early years may have been different from the outwardly racist and classist reasoning behind the location of I-5, in many cases the communities left out of the benefits of new technology are the same.
Considering the weight of this history, Portland’s agencies and community leaders have many mountains to climb to ensure e-mobility does not slide into the ravines of injustice created by previous planning decisions.
To see how this can be accomplished, I spoke to five advocates who are working with or within communities that have traditionally been denied the benefits of new transportation technology while shouldering its costs. During our conversations, these advocates revealed four core obstacles to a truly equitable e-bike landscape: price, privacy, payment methods and the built environment.
The first barrier most people encounter when considering e-mobility is the price. At the moment, quality personal-use e-bikes cost at least $1,000, not including the cost of storage and maintenance. This is a lot of money to spend if the initial intention is to use the e-bike as a backup mode of transportation or recreational device.
For those who are interested in e-bikes but cannot afford to drop $1,000 just to try out a new way to get around, shared e-bikes are the best way to test the water without getting too wet.
Yet even though Portland’s bike share, Biketown, lowers the upfront cost to e-bikes for Portlanders, it can still be expensive over time. An annual Biketown membership is $99 plus 10 cents per minute of riding time — a substantial increase over the price of renting the analog Biketown bikes. If you were to bike 40 minutes every workday, the total cost of using your annual Biketown membership today would come to about $1,150.
For someone on a budget who uses their car or TriMet pass not only to get to work, but also to pick up their kids from school or get groceries, switching to Biketown might not make a lot of sense. This is especially true if they have access to free or reduced-price public transit through TriMet’s Low Income Fare Program or the Honored Citizen annual pass, which costs $308 per year.
Cole Lalomia, of the Community Cycling Center, said keeping Biketown’s prices down is critical to making e-biking accessible, as the price, complexity and lack of equipment standardization suggests that affordable personal-use e-bikes could still be years away.
Community Cycling Center is a Northeast Portland-based nonprofit that has been fixing up bikes and teaching kids how to become bike mechanics for two decades. Recently, it has been advocating for better bike infrastructure, including bike parking and greenways in underserved communities, and providing support to community programs and events. Since the start of pandemic, the Community Cycling Center has collaborated with Living Cully on a food pantry delivery program that uses four e-bikes purchased with help from a Portland General Electric grant to deliver food to residents primarily in the Cully neighborhood.
To reduce Biketown’s overall cost for low-income users, Community Cycling Center joined other community-based organizations in 2016 to work with the Portland Bureau of Transportation to create Biketown For All. (Street Roots vendors have been recipients of reduced-priced bike rentals through this program.) Today, Biketown for All allows residents who qualify for state and federal assistance programs such as SNAP food assistance and Oregon Health Plan to pay only $5 per month and five cents per minute, with an additional $20 in free ride credits every month. While this is a jump from the $3-per-month membership Biketown For All provided before the introduction of e-bikes in 2020, riding Biketown’s new bikes 40 minutes every workday can cost as little as $28.50 per month, or $342 a year. Compared to the average annual cost of $8,400 per year to own and maintain a car in Portland, this is a dramatically less expensive way to access a more independent and flexible mobility than transit.
When it comes to Biketown, Lalomia said its new e-bikes “are a gateway into increased e-bike ridership in general.” Lalomia also believes Biketown’s new riders might start saving up to purchase their own e-bikes once they realize “how far they can go, they realize how fast they can go, they realize how little effort they need to put in.”
Privacy and payment methods
Unfortunately, shared mobility providers like Biketown introduce new technological challenges that are trickier to address than prices. Most e-mobility devices are activated with a smartphone and paid for through an online bank account, which local community development corporation Hacienda CDC and digital justice nonprofit Suma have identified as significant barriers to the communities they serve.
While electronic payments can cut down substantially on the hassle of e-mobility and other essential services for many, not every Portlander has a smartphone or bank account. Despite Biketown For All and a few private shared mobility companies allowing riders to pay for memberships using cash or a prepaid debit card, those riders typically have to travel downtown to make this transaction.
Suma Executive Director Alan Hipólito pointed out that this extra step is a reflection of how frontline communities, who could benefit just as much or more from better mobility options and reduced emissions, have not been given the opportunity to shape shared mobility. “Many of these systems are set up to be technologically seamless,” said Hipólito. “And when you try to go outside of that, it’s by definition a workaround.”
Hacienda CDC’s Jessica Lam has also found that just because someone has a smartphone and bank account, it does not mean they feel comfortable using the Biketown app or sharing their personal information online. “A lot of our families rely on younger kids, the high school kids, to help navigate all of that,” said Lam, who praised a Suma workshop that taught a small group of Hacienda’s community members how to navigate the internet safely. The workshop included lessons on inputting personal information safely and avoiding phishing scams.
Suma is working to address the above challenges through community organizing, training and informational sessions, and by creating its own community-based digital platform (the “secret sauce” of which Hipólito kept under wraps).
“One of the challenges of technology is that there are not many technology companies that are started specifically with an eye to address poverty or justice. So companies don’t come to neighborhoods like Cully to build platforms to co-create them with people who live there. That’s what we are trying to do,” said Hipólito. “We think there’s an opportunity at the community level to build a different kind of platform that is specifically built to serve these kinds of communities, that is specifically built to overcome cost, privacy and banking.”
The built environment
For decades, most of Portland’s streets were designed and redesigned for the benefit of the automobile, usually at the cost of safety for pedestrians and cyclists. Even as the Portland Bureau of Transportation continues to install better bike and pedestrian infrastructure on Northeast Portland streets such as Killingsworth Street and Cully Boulevard, many frontline communities live in areas with a higher density of PBOT-identified High Crash Network streets and intersections.
In the 2000s, Hacienda CDC created Verde, a nonprofit that serves low-income residents of Cully by “building environmental wealth” for the community. While Cully saw more of its streets included in Biketown’s 2020 service area expansion, Verde’s director of strategic partnerships, Vivian Satterfield, believes that substantial infrastructure investments are needed in Cully before we can expect residents to feel safe using e-bikes to get around. “While some may feel confident taking a bicycle or another mobility device on a gravel road, a majority of folks don’t find that confidence easily,” said Satterfield, referring to the concentration of unpaved streets in Cully.
While Satterfield sees the merit of shared mobility provided by private companies, she stressed that the priority in Cully should be affordable, accessible and frequent mass transit, “because then we have all the public investments that support a mass transit system. Stuff like sidewalks and paved streets and lower speed limits in thoroughfares, and transportation infrastructure like shelter and lighting. That’s public infrastructure, and I don’t believe that private enterprises are ever going to deliver all of those corollary needs.”
Despite the inhospitable environment for cyclists in Portland’s outer neighborhoods, the Rosewood Initiative’s Jossie de la Garza has noticed more people in the neighborhood taking interest in recreational biking since the pandemic began.
The area de la Garza’s organization serves is still beyond Biketown’s service area, but she has noticed the bike repair shop next to the organization’s headquarters on Southeast 162nd Avenue and Stark Street staying busy throughout the past year. “COVID has definitely made it apparent how much outdoor space does matter, especially in the Rosewood neighborhood, where you have a lot of apartment complexes, but not enough green space,” de la Garza said.
Yet this enthusiasm for bikes as a form of recreation also hints at why some residents might never use their bikes for anything more. It’s not just the high traffic and car speeds that punish cyclists in the outer east-side neighborhoods. A history of poor transit access and a lack of nearby job centers and services mean that if you decide to bike for utility, you likely face a long ride.
De la Garza said larger families would struggle to rely on regular bikes for non-recreational trips, as the distances and errands — from groceries to visiting the doctor to picking up kids from school — would be too unwieldy. De la Garza believes e-bikes might address these practical problems to some degree.
While adding new bike infrastructure would make it safer to bike in the neighborhood, de la Garza thinks there are community members who would be concerned that it might result in gentrification of a neighborhood that is 30% Latino. “That’s something we always have in the back of our mind, and I think that’s why it’s much more important to have the community involved” with any new bike infrastructure projects in the neighborhood.
Both Lam and de la Garza said they expect their organizations to work with PBOT this summer to discuss improving bike infrastructure and Biketown access for their communities. In the meantime, de la Garza expects to see even more residents take up biking around the neighborhood.
Hope for the future
Despite the challenges, Hipólito believes there is an opportunity for shared e-mobility to be different than previous innovations in transportation.
Many private shared mobility providers are new companies in a political environment where it is getting harder to ignore the negative consequences their services might have on frontline communities. Some e-mobility providers “are seeing a real opportunity to serve frontline communities,” Hipólito said.
As e-mobility is still a young industry, Hipólito believes these companies have the flexibility to decide, “Well, just because we did something this way over here doesn’t mean we can’t try something different in Cully, or in this other community in Portland, if it means we have a chance to respond to what the community wants us to do.”
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