Ride Salem leaders optimistic about bike sharing despite tepid start

Six months after the bike sharing program Ride Salem launched, Evan Osborne said he’s excited. Not because it’s a runaway success. In fact, the program could still falter.

No, the co-founder said he’s excited because it’s thrilling to try and change the way Salem residents view transportation. The concept of pay-as-you-ride bicycles in Salem has been questioned from the start, he said.

“A lot of the folks I spoke to were afraid Salem wouldn’t accept something like this and I said over and over ‘How do we know?’” Osborne recently told Salem Reporter. “The only way to find out is if we actually do it.”

“The big goal is to change the view of cycling, that it’s for everybody,” he added. “Everybody’s view of bike-riding changes when you become a bike rider.”

Ride Salem launched June 22, allowing people to walk up to stations of bikes and rent one immediately using an app on their phones. Ride Salem, a nonprofit, administers the program and contracts Massachusetts firm Zagster to supply the bikes, app and other operations.

By December, Ride Salem had six stations around the city and had notched its 1,000th ride. Pedal Corvallis, a Zagster-led effort in Corvallis, drew 8,000 rides in its first two years, according to the Corvallis Gazette-Times.

Meanwhile, Portland and Eugene have drawn huge numbers. Portland’s program, BIKETOWN, started in 2016 with 100 stations and netted 160,055 rides in the first six months. Eugene’s bike share program, now called PeaceHealth Rides, logged 190,715 in its first year.

Osborne and other board members say they aren’t worried. Unlike those other cities, they said, Salem needs time to learn.

“For Salem that’s pretty good,” said board member Hersch Sangster. “This isn’t a big center like a Eugene or Portland where bikes are the mecca.”

Sangster called the 1,000 trips so far an inspiration.

“In Salem and Keizer, we don’t have the culture just yet,” he said. “So a thousand to me is inspirational that we can move ahead — but we’ll never match Portland or Eugene.”

To date, Ride Salem has made about $42,000 in revenue so far, according to Osborne. The program makes its money through annual membership, on-the-fly riders, donations and sponsorship deals. It has 484 members. Most revenue comes from sponsorships, where local businesses and organizations slap logos on bikes and stations.

“I think it’s being used a lot more than I even anticipated,” Osborne said. “It’s doing well.”

Osborne, 40, doesn’t get to use the bikes very often. His cycling occurs mostly in Houston, where he and his wife, fellow co-founder Jenna Osborne, now live. His primary job as a consultant in the healthcare industry has had him relocate twice in the past two years and now the couple steer Salem’s bike share program from two time zones away.

When asked how they manage to stay abreast of Ride Salem’s business, Osborne said: “Lots of emails.”

“I was pretty successful with face-to-face when I was living in Salem,” he said. “But being so far away now makes it difficult.”

On a recent trip back to Salem, he said he was cautiously optimistic about Ride Salem’s future. The ridership numbers may be tepid, but the couple said their goal is less about profitability and more about turning the community on to cycling.

“As a nurse I see a lot of health issues and a lot of people can be on a million different medications to fix their problems, but it really comes down to small life changes,” said Jenna Osborne. “There are people who won’t be able to do that, but any kind of encouragement we can do to increase a little bit of activity… who knows what that can bring.”

The dollars and cents vision of Ride Salem is also flexible. The nonprofit makes an annual payment to Zagster, which administers the app riders use and owns the bikes and stations. Osborne said if Ride Salem can’t recoup costs, they can cut expenses by eliminating bikes and stations.

But Ride Salem plans to add “two or three” stations by spring, Evan Osborne said. He also said the company is eying an e-scooter program.

Still, Evan Osborne said he plans to seek out a flagship sponsor, similar to how Nike sponsored Portland’s bike share program. He said that would sustain the program for the long term.

“It would be good for the community, so I hope for that someday,” he said.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.