PORTLAND — The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority has a new bike-share program for Amtrak Downeaster passengers who want an alternative way to get around Portland.
The program is offered through Zagster, which maintains 10 general-purpose bicycles at the Portland Transportation Center.
The bikes have been available since June 15, but haven’t been heavily promoted. There were only 18 rentals in the first three weeks.
But the rail authority, which has a one-year contract for the service as a trial run, may become a trend-setter.
The cities of Portland and South Portland are looking into starting their own, larger bike-share systems, and are monitoring the rail authority’s trial run.
The $20-a-day bikes are fitted with lights and a lock box that holds a key to a bike lock. Train passengers can go online and use credit cards to rent the bikes. When they arrive in Portland, they use a code to open the lock box.
Brian Beeler II, manager of passenger services for the rail authority, said the Hubway bike-sharing system in Boston helped inspire the program after passengers started requesting other ways to get to tourist destinations such as the Old Port, about two miles from the station.
“For passengers to get downtown, there was the option of a taxi or the No. 5 metro bus,” Beeler said. “Because we have a limited capacity to allow passengers to take bikes on the trains and we know that the bikes at the North Station were heavily used, we started looking into the possibility of bringing a bike-share to the Portland station.”
The program is targeted at tourists coming up for the day from Boston, Beeler said. People coming to Portland for a longer trip would have luggage, and the Zagster bikes aren’t designed for large luggage, although they do have baskets and racks.
Luggage was an issue recently for Tim Munyon and his wife, Summer Munyon, of Knoxville, Tenn., as they walked off the train dragging a rolling suitcase. They said they were ready for a Portland lobster roll, but wary of renting bikes to get around the city for the weekend.
Summer Munyon said renting a bike sounded interesting, but might be too much of a hassle for the couple’s first visit.
“We don’t know the way around, so we would have to get a map, or look at it on the phone, memorize where to go and then navigate through traffic, which might be a little daunting,” she said.
The rail authority is working on brochures, which will include a map of the city and a route to get downtown.
There is also a map on the Zagster website.
Tim Munyon said the couple planned to get around the city via taxi or bus until they dropped their suitcase at the hotel and learned their way around.
Plus, the couple usually travel with their kids, and Zagster only rents to people over 17 years old.
Besides luggage and navigation issues, bike-share programs in New England see a sharp decline in use during the winter and a lot of wear and tear on bikes kept outside, as the Zagster bikes are.
The bikes will be available year-round, but moved inside if there is heavy snowfall, Beeler said.
He said the rail authority will learn from those challenges, and relay those lessons to Portland and South Portland.
“So now the conversation has been started, and because we’re the first one out and running as a pilot, we’ll see what’s happening,” Beeler said.
The rail authority’s Zagster station works differently from the citywide Hubway system in Boston.
The Hubway system is more extensive and more expensive to operate.
It includes multiple stations where bikes can be picked up and dropped off, and its fees increase over usage time to encourage short trips. It also requires users to buy memberships or passes.
Zagster, with its $20-a-day price and no membership fees, is geared more toward tourists than daily commuters. And Zagster bikes must be rented and returned to the same station.
The 10-bike Zagster system is costing the rail authority about $16,000 a year, which covers installation and maintenance for the bikes and software.
Zagster CEO Timothy Ericson said the Portland station is unusual for the six-year-old company, which has 10 full-time employees.
The rail station is Zagster’s first in a public transit hub. The others are on university campuses, apartment complexes or hotel sites.
“It’s a unique partnership because it’s not our typical model, and this really provides that last-mile transit (into the city),” Ericson said.
Zagster keeps 3 percent, or 60 cents, of every $20 rental, so the rail authority would need at least 825 one-day rentals to break even.
Beeler first said the rail authority was hoping to break even, but later clarified that it would be satisfied if the number of rentals increases each month.
“We would want to see a growing trend, a positive growth pattern,” he said.
“I think that’s our success. If (the number) stayed flat or went backwards … I don’t know if we would continue on.”
Karen Antonacci can be contacted at 791-6377 or at [email protected]