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This fall, New Yorkers have been trying out demo versions of a new bike. In time, it could become as common as the city's yellow cabs. New York has chosen an Oregon company to set up a fleet of 10,000 rental bikes. From Oregon Public Broadcasting, April Baer explains how Alta Bike Share went from tiny startup to major player.
APRIL BAER, BYLINE: Alta founder Mia Birk likes to show off what's behind her office. It's Portland's only solar-powered bike share station.
MIA BIRK: It's a modular station, so any user would come up to the station. A member would have a fob. It looks like this.
BAER: Birk demonstrates how clients will charge up electronic fobs with credit and release a sturdy street bike for a short-term rental.
BIRK: You'd put your fob in here and a green light would come on and when the green light comes on, you just pull the bike out.
BAER: Birk used to work for the city of Portland, then she started doing consulting work. When she went into business, she felt pretty isolated, so few people were trained to design the needed infrastructure.
BIRK: We had this, like, self-fulfilling cycle going on that these students come out of college in landscape architecture, architecture engineering and planning grounded in a thinking around everybody's going to drive everywhere.
BAER: So she started teaching a class at Portland State University.
BIRK: We had to break that by changing the academic offerings.
BAER: Before long, Birk had a pool of smart, talented people ready to work on bike projects. She created her own labor pool. The contract with New York is a watershed moment for Alta Bike Share. It won't be funded with taxpayer money.
Jon Orcutt is with New York's Department of Transportation. He says the city kept a close eye on how other revenue models have panned out, particularly a big one in the UK sponsored by Barclays Bank.
JON ORCUTT: You know, we clearly took note of London's ability to land a major corporate sponsor and, you know, obviously, we and London are peers in terms of big market, you know, cities with huge numbers of eyeballs on the street.
BAER: Alta has to find a corporate sponsor to bankroll $50 million in startup costs in exchange for naming rights or ads on the bikes. Once the funding is secured, Alta expects to hire more than 200 people in New York to set up and maintain the system.
The bikes themselves will come from a Canadian company that makes heavy duty, theft-resistant bikes called Bixis for fleet use. Jeffrey Miller heads the Alliance for Biking and Walking. He says Mia Birk positioned Alta to be in the right place at the right time as bike shares took off.
JEFFREY MILLER: She's the Steve Jobs of bicycling.
BAER: Alta set up successful bike shares using the Bixi system in Boston and Washington, D.C., which is the largest operating bike share in the country. Miller credits the company's rise to Birk's knowledge of how city bureaucracies and rental systems work.
MILLER: I think it's remarkably rapid in that two years. They've gone from starting a new business into what's essentially going to be $50 million contract.
BAER: The flexibility of the system is a plus. Riders who want the bike when they want it, where they want it, not in the garage. Stations can be picked up and moved if they're not getting enough use.
Mia Birk's influence is seen all over Portland's bike scene. Not only did she help design the city's key bike ways and mentor cohorts and bike engineers, she does her part to create the next generation of cyclists, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE CHEERING)
BAER: This is a fundraising bike derby at her daughter's elementary school. The kids got sponsors and now they're zipping around a traffic circle doing laps to raise money.
BIRK: We got about 40 percent of our kids biking and walking now.
BAER: After big bike share successes back East, it's now coming home to Portland. The city is pursuing federal funding for its own bike share program and also will likely bid on the project.
For NPR News, I'm April Baer in Portland, Oregon.
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