July 12, 2013

In Portland, a bike service built for tourists

Rail officials begin a pilot project to see if train riders want to rent two-wheelers to pedal around the peninsula.

By Karen Antonacci / Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

The Zagster company provided the bicycles for rent at the Portland Transportation Center.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Brian Beeler II, manager of passenger services for the Downeaster, demonstrates how to unlock one of the bicycles being offered for rent at the Portland Transportation Center. Bikes can be rented for $20 a day under the program, which is targeted at tourists coming up for the day from Boston.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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