Spurred on by disability rights advocates who argued that Portland, Oregon’s bike-share system discriminated against people with mobility issues, the city experimented last summer with renting out tricycles, hand cycles and side-by-side tandem bikes. Though the program is more akin to a traditional bike-rental service than bike-share, it is nonetheless an effort to extend the benefits of bike-share beyond its typical able-bodied user base.
In late December, the Portland Bureau of Transportation released statistics summing up its experiment. The Adaptive Biketown pilot ran for 14 weeks, from late July to the end of October. The city had 10 adaptive trikes, hand cycles and tandems available to rent. It cost $5 for an hour and $12 for 3 hours—an effort to match the pricing structure of the traditional two-wheeled bike-share system, called Biketown. Adaptive Biketown had 59 rentals, more than half of which were from people riding an adaptive cycle for the first time. About 40 percent of users self-identified as people with disabilities. Caregivers also used the adaptive cycles. Despite the relatively low rider numbers, the city considers the pilot a success and is planning to relaunch it in May.
“I rode one of the tricycles on opening day,” says Deidre Hall, a member of the Portland Commission on Disability, which helped put the pilot together. “It was awesome. It was so much fun. I have a disability. The last time I rode a bike was in grade school when the town took up a collection to get me a tricycle. After I grew out of it, I didn’t ride a bike until the day of the kick-off event.”
The Portland Bureau of Transportation partnered with Albertina Kerr, a nonprofit that works with developmentally disabled children and adults, to run Adaptive Biketown. The nonprofit already runs a bike-rental program called Kerr Bikes located on riverfront trail, the proceeds of which help fund their mission work. Kerr Bikes staff were trained to adjust the bikes for users, a process that takes about a half hour each time. Users could leave their mobility devices at the Kerr Bikes location while they were out for their rides.
Because the bikes had to be picked up and dropped off at the same location—as opposed to bike-shares model of one-way trips—most renters said they were using the bikes for recreational rides.
Hall says that “choosing to get exercise, to get out in the community is empowering. It’s liberating. It’s exciting. It’s good for you physically, emotionally, mentally.”
She continues, “if you have mobility issues, you’re used to using whatever adaptive equipment you need to get around town. I use forearm crutches and a manual wheelchair. I have a choice between the two, but I don’t have a choice of using adaptive equipment or not. [Adaptive Biketown] is something people with disabilities can choose to do.”
Adaptive Biketown was not part of Portland’s original vision for bike-share. But in the lead-up to Biketown’s launch in July 2016, disability rights advocates argued that because it was a city program, PBOT was bound by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to provide accommodation for people who cannot ride traditional two-wheeled bicycles. Former Portland Commission on Disability member Suzanne Stahl—who passed away in November—led the advocacy and threatened to sue the city. In the end, the city was found not to be violating ADA requirements, but regardless, it was the advocacy of Stahl and others that made the pilot happen.
“The disability community felt quite excluded by the Biketown situation,” says Hall. “We constantly encounter the ableist perspective on things. If disability doesn’t touch someone’s lives in some way, it’s never even considered.”
Portland is not the first city to offer adaptive bicycle rentals. PBOT’s Adaptive Biketown program manager Liz Hormann says they looked to their southern neighbor Eugene for best practices. Eugene Parks and Recreation offers adaptive rentals. Nonprofits in Seattle and Berkeley do adaptive cycle rentals. And Detroit’s bike-share is launching an adaptive cycles pilot in the spring.
Most of the existing examples center on recreational rentals, much like Adaptive Biketown did in its first season. Hormann says they’re thinking about how to make the program more like traditional bike-share, with shorter rides and a mix of recreation and transportation use. Adding more rental locations could help—though people who leave mobility devices behind would obviously have to return to their original rental location. They also want to speed up the check-out process by having people create online profiles so the rental staff could have a bike prepared ahead of time.
But PBOT’s primary focus is to get more people using Adaptive Biketown in 2018. The season will run from May to the end of October, compared to just 14 weeks in 2017. They also plan to have Adaptive Biketown ambassadors at Sunday Parkways, a weekly summer series where 5 to 7 miles of streets are closed to cars.
Hall plans to serve as one of those ambassadors. “I’m really proud of [Adaptive Biketown]. I’m really hoping it continues to take off. The more we get people involved, the more popular adaptive cycling will be. One of the first things I said after trying it was I want one of these. I want one of my own that I can just ride around.”
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.