Support the news
New Yorkers spent part of this fall pedaling demo versions of a new bike that may become as common as the city's yellow cabs. New York has chosen an Oregon company, Alta Planning & Design, to set up a fleet of 10,000 rental bikes. Alta Bike Share has gone from being a tiny startup to being a major player in an emerging field.
Alta Planning & Design founder Mia Birk likes to show off what's behind her office. It's Portland's only solar-powered bike-share station.
Birk demonstrates how clients will charge up electronic fobs with credit, and release a sturdy street bike for a short-term rental.
Birk used to work for the city of Portland. Then she started doing consulting work. When she went into business, she felt pretty isolated — so few people were trained to design the needed infrastructure.
"We had this self-fufilling cycle going on, that these students come out of college in landscape architecture, architecture engineering and planning, grounded in a thinking around everybody's going to drive everywhere," Birk says. "We had to break that by changing the academic offerings."
So she started teaching a class at Portland State University.
Before long, Birk had a pool of smart, talented people ready to work on bike projects. She created her own labor pool.
The contract with New York is a watershed moment for Alta Bike Share. It won't be funded with taxpayer money. Jon Orcutt, with New York's Department of Transportation, says the city kept a close eye on how other revenue models have panned out — particularly a big one in the U.K. sponsored by Barclays Bank.
"We clearly took note of London's ability to land a major corporate sponsor," Orcutt says. "We and London are peers in terms of big market, cities with huge numbers of eyeballs on the street."
Alta has to find a corporate sponsor to bankroll $50 million in startup costs, in exchange for naming rights or ads on the bikes. Once the funding is secured, Alta expects to hire more than 200 people in New York to set up and maintain the system.
The bikes themselves will come from a Canadian company that makes heavy-duty, theft-resistant bikes called Bixis for fleet use.
Jeffrey Miller, who heads the Alliance for Biking and Walking, says Birk positioned Alta to be in the right place at the right time as bike shares took off.
"She's the Steve Jobs of bicycling!" Miller jokes.
Alta set up successful bike shares using the Bixi system in Boston and in Washington, D.C., which is the largest operating bike share in the country. Miller credits the company's rise to Birk's knowledge of how city bureaucracies — and rental systems — work.
"It's remarkably rapid, in that two years they've gone from starting a new business, essentially what's going to be a $50 million contract," Miller says.
The flexibility of the system is a plus. Riders want the bike when they want it, where they want it, not in the garage. Stations can be picked up and moved if they're not getting enough use.
Birk's influence is seen all over Portland's bike scene. Not only did she help design the city's key bikeways and mentor cohorts of bike engineers, but she also does her part to create the next generation of cyclists.
At a fundraising bike derby at her daughter's elementary school, the kids got sponsors, and they zipped around a traffic circle, doing laps to raise money.
"We've got about 40 percent of our kids biking and walking now," Birk says.
After big bike-share successes back east, it's now coming home to Portland. The city is pursuing federal funding for its own bike-share program. And Alta will likely bid on the project.