Philadelphia says it is ready to have a world class bike share system. (Again.)

photo by Mitchell Leff

When Grid launched in 2008, the prototype issue’s cover story about Philadelphia’s newly-proposed bike share system cautiously declared that “momentum for a bike sharing program in Philly was looking good.” 

Five years and more than 50 issues later, Grid can report that, well, momentum for a bike-sharing program in Philly is looking good. Again. 

In April, the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities (MOTU) hosted a public forum on bike sharing in Philadelphia featuring officials from Boston, Denver and Washington, D.C. Mayor Michael Nutter took to the streets on a bright yellow bike alongside vendors who’ve built other cities’ systems to promote the plan. Andrew Stober, chief of staff for the MOTU, says, “We plan to bring a world-class bike share system to Philadelphia by the fall of 2014.”

In that 2008 Grid article, Alex Doty, the executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, optimistically predicted that bike share would arrive in Philadelphia within two years. With the city’s newfound commitment, Doty says, “While we might have wished to see bike share come sooner, I think that the city seems to be dedicated to it now. We might not be the first one to get the system, but the advantage of being later is that you get to learn from what other systems have been doing.”

Behind the Curve

In the years since those initial rumblings, bike share programs have been implemented in several other East Coast cities, most notably Washington, D.C. and Boston. New York City launched its Citi Bike system earlier this year, just in time for Memorial Day weekend.

“Philadelphia isn’t always comfortable being the first at anything,” Doty admits. “But Washington, D.C. in particular has shown that this system can work in a big East Coast city. I think now we’re getting to the point where, if you want to consider yourself to be a top-tier city in the United States, bike-sharing is one of the things that you need to have.”

Russell Meddin, the founder of Bike Share Philadelphia, is frustrated that the city has taken its time catching up with these neighbors. “I just don’t know why it has taken so long for the city to understand how important this is for the vitality of the city,” Meddin says, “for the mitigation of traffic congestion, as a way to mitigate obesity, and just to make life much easier for everyone.”

Meddin has been a self-described “super-advocate” for bike-sharing in Philadelphia since he encountered his first bike share program in Lyon, France in 2005. He became passionate about the subject because “it gives people another alternative for personal mobility. We know that the overuse of automobiles has not turned out to be the blessing that people thought it would be, because people have trouble parking, people have trouble with traffic, and we have a definite pollution problem from automobile exhaust. An easy way to use a non-motorized vehicle is a bicycle, and it becomes much easier if there’s a bike that’s there on-demand. That type of advantageous way of doing things has been extremely successful in over 500 cities throughout the world.”

Slow Ride

So why has it taken so long to bring bike share to Philadelphia? Stober cites two reasons the city wasn’t quite ready in 2008: the cycling infrastructure, which at the time wasn’t seen as ready to support a bike share system, and the economic recession. “At a time when we’re going through the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression and we’re talking about closing libraries,” Stober says, “it hardly seemed appropriate to talk about initiating a bike share system.”

Today, Stober says, those circumstances have changed for the better. “We’ve invested a lot in our cycling infrastructure in the last few years, and we feel like we have a network on the ground that is really ready to support a bike share program. Another important factor is that we’ve seen the success of bike share systems in other cities, particularly the financial success, where once the capital investment is made, the system can be operationally self-supporting. We expect that to be true in Philadelphia as well.”

Nutter has asked City Council for $3 million in capital spending and is seeking up to $6 million in additional federal, state and private sector funding. The program would initially feature approximately 185 stations with 1,000-2,000 bikes in an area between the northern part of South Philly and Temple University and between the Delaware River and 45th Street. 
In the Zone

The system will be separated into two zones. Zone One includes Center City and University City, where housing and businesses are denser and the placement of stations would be more concentrated. Zone Two includes North and South Philly as well as portions of West Philly, with a lower concentration of stations serving these less densley populated areas.

New York’s newly-minted Citi Bike system immediately ran into controversy, from the extreme — Wall Street Journal editorial board member Dorothy Rabinowitz railing against the “totalitarians” behind the “dreadful program” — to the more practical: disputes over the location or aesthetics of stations and bike racks, and concerns that some neighborhoods  are being underserved. Philadelphia is watching those debates closely, but according to Aaron Ritz, bicycle/pedestrian program planner for the MOTU, the city’s plan has gotten almost universal support from all concerned.

“We’ve been talking about this with our internal stakeholders and with business and civic groups in the city,” Ritz says, “and we’ve received unqualified support from almost every corner. That’s been really reassuring. We know we’re on the right track because everybody sees the utility of this and folks are really excited. We’ve already had requests from people and businesses asking to get stations near them.”

Bike Share Philadelphia has taken the initiative on that front, creating a crowd-sourcing map on its website (bikesharephiladelphia.org) for station placement suggestions. By early June it already had more than 700 sites located.

A major challenge, as Ritz sees it, is “the double-edged sword of Philadelphia’s compact street network. The same scale that makes it a great place to walk and bike make it a challenge to fit in new infrastructure. We’ve been following the clamor in New York City as they’ve rolled out their system, and they have much bigger spaces than we do, with bigger streets and bigger sidewalks. We’re looking to partner with private landowners and agencies throughout the city to find the right places to put these stations.”

Billing Cycles

 Funded by a grant from the William Penn Foundation, the MOTU, the Bicycle Coalition and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council worked together to devise a business plan for the city, and a request for proposals (RFP) for the system will be issued in late summer or early fall, at which time the logistics of the program will be decided. Other U.S. cities have used a variety of methods to fund their programs. In New York, Citi Bike is run entirely from sponsorship money, with Citi Bank contributing $41 million for five years as title sponsor. Washington D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare is paid for by transportation funding and public contributions.

“Finding the money and building a system — that’s not the hard part,” Doty says. “The hard part is figuring out how to create a system that can sustain itself for decades. There are a lot of different ways to structure this, so the city has a lot of decisions to make. One of the things that the city has been clear about is that once the system is built, it should be able to stand on its own, to support itself from sponsorships and user fees.”

Stober says that Philadelphia “recognizes today a unique opportunity to significantly leverage the city’s investment with other public and private dollars to create a system that will support itself in the long run.”

MOTU has created a business plan advisory group comprising leaders from the corporate sector, including executives from Comcast, Liberty Property Trust, Independence Blue Cross and GlaxoSmithKline. They’ve also begun meeting with the city’s large universities and some of the smaller colleges in the program’s market area. “We want to make sure we’re building the most socially inclusive and equitable bike share system in America,” Stober says. “We have an incredible opportunity to do that in Philadelphia that other cities haven’t had. In our core market area, we have neighborhoods with low-income families, middle-income families and significant populations of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians. When you look at other cities, bike share is decidedly [used by people who are] white and wealthy, and that’s an insufficient transportation option as far as we’re concerned.”

Pedal Pushers

Creating a more inclusive constituency for cycling has long been a stated goal for the Bicycle Coalition, which shares Stober’s hopes for the new program. “There are some interesting things to think about when it comes to how bike share is marketed, priced and used as a tool for getting people with lower-income better access to jobs and as a way to increase their transportation choices,” Doty says, adding that other bike share programs have been relatively  ineffective at helping those with the least transportation resources.

Stober expects that bike sharing will create an important alternative to the city’s overall transportation landscape, in which cycling has already taken on a more prominent role. “We’re seeing continuing increases in people choosing to travel by bike around the city,” he says. “And people...make that choice for the same reason that people make most of their transportation choices: It’s the least expensive and easiest way to get around. Our city has a physical environment that’s really supportive of cycling. We’re flat, we have lots of housing within a three-mile distance of lots of jobs and lots of commerce, and bike trips are really perfect for trips that are three miles or less.”

Though much of the support for bike share is coming from the cycling community, that’s not who Doty believes are the program’s primary beneficiaries. Instead, he says, “What we see in other cities is that bike sharing is not about giving current bicyclists another option. The demand for bike-sharing comes from people who are not currently riding a bike. In many ways, it’s about creating trips that are not being taken today, to places that are a little too far to walk, that are too congested to get to by car, and where transit isn’t much faster or doesn’t go point-to-point from where you are to where you want to be.”

And it’s not just the potential bike rider who benefits from the new convenience of these small trips, Doty says. Those short jaunts would also pour more money into the local economy. “A great bike-sharing trip would be to go and have a coffee or lunch someplace because the possibility of the trip is there. It’s a trip that you’re not making today to a place or a neighborhood where you’re not spending money. So what you’re saving on transportation you end up putting into the economy in other ways; instead of sending money off to Exxon, you’re spending it in a restaurant here in town.”

A cyclist himself who uses a bike for most of his daily trips to work, Stober foresees any number of potential uses for Philly’s bike share program. “Say you have to catch the first train in the morning and instead of having a twenty-five minute walk, you now have an eight-minute bike ride. In that case you’re getting ten minutes back in perhaps the most valuable part of your day. If you’re a tourist, you’re able to get between the Independence Mall area and all of our museums and experience our beautiful Schuylkill River Trail, all in the same day in a really convenient way. So whether you’re a resident or someone who comes to the city to work or visit, you now have a choice to get around the city in a new way that’s affordable, convenient, and healthy.”