Building a bulletproof Bikeshare

By Adam Newman

We’ll just admit it: Bikeshare bikes aren’t exactly sexy. More of a passenger bus than a Ferrari, they are simple, utilitarian and sturdy. But it turns out there is a lot more to their design than meets the eye.

When Nick Foley joined Social Bicycles, the company that provides the bikes for Portland’s Biketown bikeshare system, it was trying to adapt existing bikes to a sharable model. Even when built on the industrial-strength Worksman Cycles that are typically used in warehouses and factories, they were coming up short. It was clear that a ground-up design was in order.

Foley, now the vice president of industrial design, started with a traditional Dutch bike design and started bulking it up with a heavy-duty frame, stronger wheels and even replaced the chain with a shaft drive that is nearly impervious to the elements.


“Mainly [it’s] making a bicycle that’s one size fits all,” he said. “With a really comfortable handlebar position, regardless of how tall you are, a really big seat adjustment range, making it strong enough to withstand a rider that is much heavier than a consumer bicycle rider in a lot of cases. Just taking all the concepts of a traditional bicycle and making them bikeshare-grade.”

Because the bikeshare contracts typically require the bikes to meet minimum standards that are far higher than typical consumer bicycles, the frame, fork and other components needs to be designed, constructed and tested to a higher level.

“Whenever we’re designing new components and running those tests we’re very frequently running a familiar test to the bike industry, but with two or three times the loading on it, because we know we need to withstand maybe a reasonably large person riding it in a reckless manner. That’s a relatively normal user for bikeshare.”

But even while the bike got heavier and stronger, it was important to maintain the ride quality, he said. The program would never be a success if the bikes were terrible to ride.

“I think the core of it really comes down to getting a bicycle geometry that gives a ride experience that is both approachable for new riders but also somewhat nimble and responsive for experienced riders, and making that true across a wide range of heights and weights. And making that true even with a bike share bicycle that’s maybe 50 pounds.”

While the frame and fork are constructed to Social Bicycles’ specifications, the components to make it roll need to be sourced from all sorts of manufacturers, and most of them were never designed to handle the kind of use and abuse that a bikeshare bike endures. Some off-the-shelf components like the tires work great as-is, but many do not.

“Almost all the components on the bicycle are [derived from] taking a consumer bicycle component as a starting point and then replacing the key materials or finishes or coatings, in order to make it last as long as a bike share bike needs it to last.”

Examples include using high-grade stainless steel fasteners instead of typical zinc-coated units, choosing grips and saddles that can withstand thousands of hours of UV exposure without fading and even choosing industrial grade paint that is much more sturdy than what’s found on a typical bicycle.

“Basically any contact point on the bicycle you can’t really use a consumer grade part, because it’s just not meant to be used with the frequency that a bikeshare bike experiences,” Foley said. “That includes quick releases, seatposts, seats, grips, all of those things just go through too many interactions to withstand what a consumer bike would be able to handle.”

Foley said each bikeshare contract includes specifics about how long the bikes and their components are expected to last before needing to be replaced. Consumable parts like tires are replaced as needed, and many components have a one- to three-year expected lifespan, and unless it’s damaged, the frame can be repainted and used indefinitely. According to Foley, the frames could potentially last decades.

“On a practical level, I think these bicycles will last a very long time,” he said.

Even though the bikes are overbuilt and sturdy, they still require regular maintenance to keep them running. Hubs wear out, tires go flat and bearings need checked and lubricated. At Biketown headquarters, the mechanic’s stations are outfitted with exactly the right tools needed to work on the bikes, including special wrenches for the anti-theft bolts used throughout the bike.

“Everything that we do to make the components on the bicycles hard to steal also introduces extra complexity when you’re trying to fix a flat tire. But I will say that on a practical level, using even a high grade puncture resistant tire brings flats down into a very, very manageable level for all our operators.”


Unlike a typical bike shop, these mechanics know exactly which bike is going to come through the door each day, and they become incredibly familiar with its design and weak points. Their feedback is used to constantly improve the bike’s design.

The Portland Biketown system isn’t even a year old, but Foley says he’s thinking ahead to the future of bikeshare programs. What is he looking forward to?

“Really streamlined, totally integrated, silent, wonderful to ride, electric bikeshare. I think that’s going to be the thing that really takes bikeshare to the next level.”


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