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Portland Wants to Make Bike Share Work for Disabled Riders

The city is becoming one of a handful to shed the notion that people with disabilities don’t want to ride.

Adaptive cycles make riding easier for those with disabilities. Here, a man tests a hand-powered trike designed for veterans with prosthetic limbs. (Bill Morrow/Flickr)

Portland has one of the largest “smart” bike shares in the U.S., and soon it might also have one of the most diverse, adding hand-powered cycles, easy-balancing trikes, and tandems to its 1,000-strong fleet.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation is developing an adaptive-bike pilot project to supplement its Biketown program, which rents Nike-sponsored bikes with GPS and solar-powered LCD displays. The idea is to serve more riders with disabilities, who have been vocal in lobbying the city for bikes they can comfortably control.

“These customer needs were quite distinct from how conventional bike-share systems operate,” says Steve Hoyt-McBeth, operations manager at PBOT’s Active Transportation and Safety Division. “People wanted a staffed service to help with questions and fitting, they wanted storage for their mobility device, and they were mostly not interested in biking with auto traffic.”

The city plans to partner with existing, private bike-rental shops located near multi-use trails that don’t allow motor vehicles. It might propagate some form of parking stations for wheelchairs and other mobility apparatuses, so riders can store them safely while they chug around town for a few hours. City staffers have consulted with a number of advocacy organizations, as well as interviewed riders with disabilities. The plan is to launch the pilot in June.

What might the new bikes look like? Hoyt-McBeth says Portland is leaning toward three types, including a “more athletic/aggressive version” of this leaner that helps people with limited or no lower-body movement. It’s also considering delta/trike foot-pedal bikes for those “who can use their legs to propel themselves but may have balance issues,” and tandem bikes (either front-and-back or side-by-side) that “would allow people who can’t comfortably ride on their own to bike.”

In developing this program Portland is helping disabuse the notion that people with disabilities don’t like to ride bikes, which is reflected in the paltry number of American bike shares with alternative vehicles.

“Only a handful of cities have bike-share systems with options for disabled riders,” says Tim Frisbie, communications and policy director at the Chicago-based Shared-Use Mobility Center. “Portland is by far the largest city to have this type of program, although it looks like only a small number of adaptive bikes will be available (initial plans called for six).” (Other cities with similar programs include Carmel, Indiana; College Park, Maryland; Corvallis, Oregon; and possibly soon Oakland, California.)

A likely reason for the lack of these programs is that adaptive bike-sharing is a relatively new concept. One of the first companies to adopt it in the U.S.—BCycle, which inserted trikes into its operations in San Antonio and Madison, Wisconsin—did so only in 2013. Frisbie says he hopes to see more cities embrace adaptive bikes in the future, including different designs like heavy-duty frames for larger riders and electric/pedal-assisted bikes for those who find riding a challenge.

“We see adaptive bike-sharing as part of a larger trend to make shared mobility available more broadly to people with varying financial and physical needs,” he says. “Because shared mobility can offer significant benefits—including helping to reduce household transportation costs, mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions, and increase access to jobs, opportunity, and a better quality of life—we believe cities should do what they can to expand access to these services for all residents.”

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.