This story is possible because of Amplify, a community storytelling initiative of Pamplin Media Group and Metro, the Portland regional government. Amplify supports three summer internships for high school journalists in the Portland metro region to cover important community issues. The program aims to elevate the voices of student journalists from historically underrepresented groups, such as communities of color, low-income residents and others. Pamplin Media Group editors oversee the interns, and Metro plays no role in the editorial process.
A few months ago, Portland’s streets were teeming with shared bikes and e-scooters. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic surges across the state, with more than 24,000 cases confirmed as of Aug. 20, some are questioning the safety and cleanliness of these ride-sharing systems.
Bike and scooter sharing programs allow anyone to locate and hop onto a bike or scooter for a small price and ride to wherever they need to be. When the pandemic hit, however, these companies had to figure out how to sanitize their two-wheelers and stop the spread of the virus through shared germs. Different companies have taken different precautions.
During the pandemic, Biketown PDX and the three scooter-sharing programs, Bolt, Lime and Spin, have continued operating. All four companies were contacted about their response to the virus outbreak, but only Biketown PDX and Spin responded.
Biketown PDX, operated by Lyft, is a bicycle-sharing program in Portland that started in 2016. For eight cents per minute with a $5 sign-up, anyone older than 18 can rent a shared bike and, when they are done, return it to one of 125 bike stations located around the city. These bikes are taken to a depot for regular maintenance by employees.
Similar to Biketown’s sharing system, Spin is a scooter-sharing company in Portland. Spin scooter users are required to pay a base fee of $1 for every 30-minute ride and an additional 15 to 33 cents per minute based on the location of the ride. Employees who run Spin operations collect the scooters and bring them to a warehouse for repairs, recharging and sanitization.
Biketown has upped its cleaning protocols since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to take these extra precautions for the foreseeable future, according to a Lyft spokesperson.
Some patrons argue that these precautions are not enough, given that shared bikes can be left wherever a ride ends, meaning a single bike can have multiple users before it ends up back at the depot High-contact surfaces on each bike, such as brake levers, bells, shifters and seat post clamps are frequently disinfected by workers every time the bikes are returned to the depot and when the operations team encounters a bike in the field, a Lyft spokesperson said. Now that face coverings are mandatory statewide, face coverings are required for all employees, including those disinfecting the bikes.
“The [language] of the precautions Biketown are taking is not specific enough and therefore, I find it difficult to trust,” said Sofia Jayaswal, an incoming senior at Lincoln High School. “‘Frequently [disinfecting]’ is a bit too vague, and if the bikes are standing outside for an extended amount of time, numerous people could have touched them.”
Although Jayaswal occasionally rode Biketown bikes pre-pandemic, she has chosen to stay away from them in the past few months due to the risk of getting exposed to the virus.
Like Biketown, Spin has been taking extra precautions.
Each scooter that enters their warehouse is cleaned with disinfectant wipes or disinfectant spray and a clean towel at all major points of contact, like the handlebars, before it can be repaired or charged, according to Spin’s COVID-19 response plan. Scooter delivery vehicles are fully disinfected after each shift, and all towels used for disinfecting must either be thrown away or washed thoroughly using an approved disinfectant solution.
All Spin employees, too, are supplied with personal protective equipment and are required to practice proper physical distancing.
Those precautions are enough for Xander Levine, an incoming Lincoln High School junior.
“At a point, you’re going to have to make a decision: either do as best you can to sanitize the scooters and have more employees wear gloves and stuff, or you just can't have them out at all,”Levine said. “I'd like to think that all [ride-sharing] companies are taking similar precautions when it comes to disinfecting.”
Levine rides a shared scooter once a week or once every other week, usually because they are fun to ride and they can get him places faster, he said. He’s not concerned, either, that the scooters can be used by any person in the city.
“Spin is designed to be a ride-sharing system, so if someone were to have COVID-19 and they’re on it, that's a chance I'm willing to take,” Levine said. “I'm also thoroughly wiping whatever I'm putting my hands on, so I feel like the risk is low.”
Ride-sharing companies come to aid of essential workers
While the general public has mixed feelings about whether riding shared bikes and scooters is safe, some essential workers rely on these shared modes of transportation to get to and from their place of work. As a matter of necessity and in an attempt to help out these workers, both Spin and Biketown partnered with the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) to make essential trips cheaper for all Portlanders.
From March 31 through June, Spin coordinated an Everyday Heroes program that provided free 30-minute rides and helmets on its scooters for frontline health care workers and reduced all rider trip fares by 50 percent. Spin also increased its overall fleet size by 250 scooters.
Biketown’s partnership with PBOT, which began in April and ended at the end of May, made essential trips for all Portlanders 1 cent per minute on their pay-as-you-go plan and dropped the sign-up fee to 10 cents for their shared bikes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the challenges of operating ride-sharing programs in Portland, pushing the companies to work harder to keep their riders healthy and safe. At the same time, it has provided opportunities for these groups to give back to those helping the city out the most.
“[Biketown] has always been committed to improving people's lives with the world's best transportation — and this took on an even greater importance during COVID-19,” a Lyft spokesperson said. “Through [this program], we are proud to have served all Portlanders, including critical workers, during the pandemic by providing them with access to discounted Biketown rides to complete essential trips.”
During this pandemic, vehicle sharing programs have done their best to help the general public both through more frequent cleanings and through lowering their prices for essential workers. As coronavirus case numbers continue to rise in Oregon, Portlanders will have to choose whether to take the potential risk of riding a bike or a scooter.
“I can definitely see it being a difficult choice for people who rely on the bikes or scooters as transportation,” Jayaswal said. “I can’t speak on whether the general public should take the risk because I feel that, if people really need a mode of transportation, scooters and bikes could be valuable. So, if necessary, it’s not the biggest risk to take. But if it’s not entirely necessary, I wouldn’t take the risk.”