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Bike to the train

In Portland Oregon a silver spheroid carries three thousand-odd people per day from the banks of the Willamette river to Oregon Health and Science University’s Marquam Hill hospital five hundred feet above. This aerial tram was constructed to deal with the access problems arising from its challenging physical location. With steep winding roads and limited parking availability the hospital needed to figure out how to allow people to access the campus without driving, or to relocate.

Initial plans for the tram included racks for about 10 bicycles to park at the bottom. At the urging of planners at the Portland Bureau of Transportation this was doubled to space for 20. However, the location proved perfect for bicycle access – its low elevation is on the same plane as most of Portland’s most popular cycling routes and bicycles are able to circumvent the bottlenecks at the end of each bridge which make automobile and bus travel painfully unreliable. The racks were quickly overloaded and most people chose to carry their bikes with them up the tram. Bikes left unattended and far away must be securely locked, with lights and bags removed. Even then wheels and saddles are subject to theft. The crush of cyclists in the the tram reduced its capacity significantly.

Kiel Johnson, a cyclist and a friend of mine interning with the Hospital’s transportation office in 2011 had an idea. If there was a secure location at the bottom of the tram, people could leave them there without worry. It could be attended by paid staff who would watch over the bikes – lights, bags, helmets, wheels and saddles and all – and the bikes wouldn’t even need to be locked up. Cyclists in need of a new tube or a tune-up could place a work order with a mechanic on staff and have it ready in time for their commute home. The whole thing needn’t take up much space – hundreds of bikes can fit in an area that would park only a handful of cars. In fact it could be located in vacant space below the tram, advertising it’s services to everyone enjoying the view from above.

And so the Go By Bike shop and valet was born, founded by Kiel and funded by OHSU. Together with the tram it solves a unique problem in an efficient and delightful way. It is hard to imagine Portland’s south waterfront without either, though the tram is only ten years old and the valet only five. Peak daily usage of the valet in 2012 was 180 bicycles. Last year’s peak highest daily count was 420, with another 150 parked on nearby racks outside of the valet.

Bike Valet in Seattle?

Kiel and I have spoken a number of times about the possibility of a bike valet here in Seattle, our home city. The natural analogue to his in Portland location – a rapid transit station near a major institution – is the new UW light rail station . However, the usage pattern of the UW station presents a problem. Many people could bike to the station from surrounding neighborhoods to use light rail in their commutes, but these are not people that UW, the property owner around the station, is much concerned about. Their students and professors arrive from other locations to the UW station. A bike share system – perhaps a UW-only version of the shortly to be discontinued Pronto system – would probably make more sense.

A bicycle valet needs to be located on the other side of a transit commute, between the travelers’ home and their entry point into the system, the so-called “last mile”. This allows the valet to operate during the day and to close up at night having returned all bikes in its care. In Seattle the light rail station in the area with the highest population density is Capitol Hill. The elevation changes surrounding the hill make it daunting to bike up and down, but cycling around the hill is rather pleasant. A valet at the light rail station here could serve riders who have a long walk to station but would be concerned about leaving their bike in a highly trafficked area with a visible homeless population. With 6,000 riders per day in just its first year, the Capitol Hill station alone already has twice the ridership of Portland’s aerial tram.

A new valet could partner with the Capitol Hill Eco-District for funding and there is currently large amounts of flat, vacant land on top of the station that would be perfect for storing bikes during the day – there is even a fence! That land is slated to be redeveloped but nearby street parking spaces, utility corridors, sidewalks, or even a corner of Cal Anderson park could potentially accommodate the 4,000 square feet occupied by the Portland valet. Kiel started the valet by asking: “how can we make arriving and leaving a place by bicycle the best possible experience”? Perhaps it’s that time Seattle cyclists got such a treatment.

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