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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Portland's Public Bikes

Air Date: Week of


CURWOOD: Private property is often seen as a sacred right, but some folks in Portland, Oregon, say when it comes to transportation, common ownership has its advantages, especially if the object is a simple bicycle. Patrick Cox of Oregon Public Broadcasting has our story.

(Noise of downtown area)

COX: Downtown Portland is a compact, bustling grid of offices and stores. To those who use the city's light rail and buses, downtown is known as the Fare-less Square because the trip is free. Now there's another way to get around town without paying. Paul Johnson is a city resident.

JOHNSON: I was just in Fare-less Square going up to pick up some forms at the IRS. There was one outside the building there. Got my forms and so I picked it up and started riding around. And rode down to where I live down here. Forgot that I made a bank deposit because I was having too much fun.

COX: Johnson is sitting on the saddle of a community-owned bicycle. The bikes are painted a garish shade of yellow and placed at strategic points around the city for use by anyone. Organizers have dropped 200 of them around town, promising hundreds more will follow. Each bike bears a sign reading, "Free Community Bike: Please Return to a Major Street for Others to Use. Use At Your Own Risk." Veteran activist Joe Keating launched the program after hearing of a similar effort in Amsterdam. Keating says Portlanders have a hard time with the idea of common ownership.

KEATING: It's sort of like a quizzical look, saying what do you mean, free? And then, sort of a like a wry smile takes place, and then usually what happens is after they've - they understand the word free, then the next question is, well, what happens if someone steals this bike?

COX: Keating's response is you can't steal something that already belongs to you. Nonetheless, a certain amount of hoarding does seem to be going on. The bikes are disappearing almost as fast as organizers can put them out. But Keating says feedback from the public suggests the bikes are being used.

KEATING: We're getting calls on a continual basis to have the bikes picked up for repair. If they have a flat tire or the chains go bad or something goes bad, folks are actually giving us a call to come out and pick up the bikes and that's - you know, as far as one of those indicators, I think it's a pretty good one that says that there's a system out here that's being respected.

COX: The bike program costs practically nothing to run. The public donates the bikes, which often come in parts. Local auto body shops spray paint them for free, and U-Haul donates trucks for bike distribution. As a result, the program has won universal approval, not least from Portland's most famous cyclist, Bud Clark, a former Portland mayor, who traveled to City Hall every day come rain or shine on his bike.

CLARK: I think the purpose is to introduce people into bicycling. And if it does that, it's fine, and it's not costing me anything and it's not costing the government anything. And if they get them donated and people do that, that's great.

(Bike shop noises. A man speaks: "What we're doing is taking the derailleurs off, and we're sending them into the middle gear...")

COX: The yellow bikes are prepared for use here at a workshop donated by the county. A team of grade school mechanics strips the bikes of all but the basics: handlebars, brakes, wheels. Organizers know the race is on to get hundreds more bikes out on the streets. Brian Lacey is in charge of retrofitting the bikes.

LACEY: We do need to achieve what, you know, the so called critical mass of bikes, so that the idea catches on. That it's not a bike for you or for me; it's for everybody.

(Man: "We've got all these yellow bikes to put out. The city's waiting for them." Child: "Okay." More shop sounds.)

COX: On sunny days the bikes are quickly snapped up on Portland streets.

LEBRUN: I'm just going to go drink a cup of coffee on the wheel and just cruise...

COX: Portland resident Steven Lebrun is another regular yellow bike user. As to the scarcity of bikes available, Lebrun relates an all too familiar tale.

LEBRUN: I see 'em parked in places they shouldn't be. They're supposed to be left out in public when you're done with them. I see them stashed, you know, like that.

COX: With private property rights in the political ascendancy these days, a program that preaches sharing may face an uphill battle. But yellow bike organizer Joe Keating, a revolutionary at heart, says he's out to change the mindset of at least some Americans.

KEATING: Ownership is not the be-all and end-all. Happiness and joy is really where folks should go. And a lot of time ownership doesn't equal happiness. And hopefully the yellow bikes are a symbol of that. But it certainly has shaken up a few psyches already, that's for sure.

COX: No one expects a few hundred bikes to solve problems like congestion and air pollution. All the same, Portland's yellow bikes seem to have sparked a lot of interest. Keating says he's snowed under with inquiries from more than 80 other North American communities, including that most car-friendly of cities, Los Angeles. Keating says he doesn't quite know what advice to offer. After all, he says, the idea of sharing a one-speed, beat-up bicycle is the essence of simplicity. For Living on Earth, I'm Patrick Cox in Portland.



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