Lakeisha Bishop, Serita Lewis and Bonny West happened upon the thickly-framed, shiny red bicycles when their University of Pennsylvania office had a fire drill late Thursday afternoon.
The bikes were brought to the corner of Market and 36th Streets by Bike Share Philadelphia as part of its on-going effort to make bicycles a big part of public transportation in this city. Simply put, bike sharing works very similarly to car share programs. Bikes are located at key locations around a city. Program subscribers can pick up a ride at any one of a network of self-service stations located about three blocks from each other. Then, when they are finished with it, users can return it to any station. Some programs offer daily or monthly subscriptions. Others are free, for a short ride.
Advocates say the bike share systems lessen vehicular traffic, encourage people to exercise, train motorists to be more aware of cyclists and increase interest in cycling. “Inevitably, in every city with bike share, bike sales increase,” said Russell Meddin, a Bike Share organizer.
Meddin said his organization brought the bikes in because once people see them, they inevitably want such a system.
His theory seemed to be working with Bishop, Lewis and West, all of whom work in MBA admissions.
Lewis, who lives in West Philly, imagined herself hopping on one to buy a few things at the market. “The basket is gorgeous!” she said. She thought it would be a boon for students, too, who wouldn't have to worry about storing a bike of their own – or someone stealing it. “You just ride.”
Bishop, a Bridesburg resident, said the bikes would open up all sort of options for people who drive to their jobs. West commutes to work from Upper Darby, and she never wants to take her car into Center City and pay to park a second time. But she would ride a bike across the bridge, she said. She might even do it on her lunch hour just for the exercise.
City leaders have shown interest. And earlier this year, a feasibility study paid for by the William Penn Foundation said bike share is compatible with Philadelphia.
“What we need is for someone at the city to say it's time to move forward on it,” Meddin said.
Andrew Stober, a spokesman for Deputy Mayor of Transportation and Utilities Rina Cutler, said one of the biggest obstacles to bringing bike share here is the $6 million price tag the William Penn-funded study estimated. "That is not something the city can afford right now," he said.
The study also said Philadelphia would need more Center City bike lanes for the program to work well, he said. That's something his office is already working on, Stober said. It's a needed foundation for any future bike share, but even if that never happens, more bike lanes are good for the city, he said. "Philadelphia is the number one large city for commuters who bike to work," he said. "There are more than 10,000 people who do that here, and we want to pursue ways to make that more attractive and safe," he said.
The city is talking about building some lanes that travel north-south, Stober said. Professionals are analyzing where the best spots might be, and then community input would be sought before anything moved forward, he said. That process will begin this year, he said. And new bike lanes could be added next spring.
As far as bike share goes, Stober said the city wants to find out more. His office is co-sponsor of Friday's bike share demonstration at Love Park. The office is also now studying funding approaches that other cities' programs use. But no one has begun searching for a source of funding here, Stober said. He also said the city would need to have public input sessions to determine how much desire there is for bike share among city residents. "Now, there is a small, vocal group of advocates" pushing for the program, he said, but he doesn't know how broad support is.
Not everyone in town thinks bike share is such a great idea.
Michael McGettigan, co-owner of Trophy Bikes at 3131 Walnut Street, said that even though a program here would likely boost his sales, he's no fan of bike share. Programs are often paid for by sponsors who in return get adds on the bike kiosks or street furniture, and it irks him that cycling, a "green, inoffensive thing that is great for cities," is being tied to billboards, which can "blight" a city. Big corporations get big billboards in key parts of the city, and because they are associated with cycling, they also get to "greenwash" their image, McGettigan said.
McGettigan also thinks the programs are too expensive, and it would be better for those interested in riding to purchase even a cheap bike at a discount store that is more tailored to their individual needs. Bikes are safest, most efficient and most comfortable when a specific model is sized to a specific person, he said. And speaking of safety, McGettigan wonders if its a good idea to encourage anyone except very experienced urban cyclists to use bikes as transportation in the busiest parts of Philadelphia.
The bikes outside the Penn bookstore were literally brought to town by the Bcycle company, which is based in Wisconsin and has sold its bike share systems to Denver, Chicago and Des Moines and will soon be providing the bikes, racks and software for six other U.S. cities.
Meddin and Bcycle sales director Lee Jones talked about the bikes and the system to passersby yesterday. “Do you have any for big, fat guys?” asked one man – who was not fat, but said he was 6-feet, 8-inches tall when Jones asked. Jones gave him an apologetic look that said that he was outside the realm of “most” in “one size fits most.” But he demonstrated how the seat could be adjusted much more than on a typical bike to accommodate people of most heights.
Later, Jones said the bikes can be adjusted to fit people between 5-feet and 6-feet, 5-inches tall, without a doubt. Some taller and shorter people can use them, he said, depending on their torso and leg length. Weight wise, the bikes can certainly hold someone of 300 pounds, he said, and perhaps more.
Meddin said that there are a host of different ways to bring a bike share program to the city. A sponsorship system that entails ads on kiosks or street furniture is one of them, he said. But so is a system funded entirely through grants, or by a private business, or with public funds, or a combination.
Denver's program began this year on Earth Day – April 22 – with 500 bikes and 10 stations. Soon, an additional 500 bikes and 10 more stations will be added, Lee said.
It costs between $3,000 and $4,000 to add each bike, including the bike itself, the software and all other equipment, Jones said. That's where Bcycle has made its money, but they would consider other arrangements, he said.
Denver has invested about $1.5 million, but none of it is tax dollars, Jones said. Instead, the city has received grants and business sponsorships. Kaiser Permanente, the chief sponsor, has in exchange received advertising at every bike kiosk, on the back side of the bicycle map. “It's not massive,” he said. “It's about 2 1/2 by 3 feet.” Other sponsors have plaques on the kiosks, he said.
Denver bike share participants have a choice of paying $5 for a 24-hour membership or $65 for a year, Jones said. After that, trips of up to 30 minutes are free – even if they chain together a longer trip by returning a bike to a kiosk and immediately taking out another one.
Bikes are kept locked at the kiosks. They are electronically tracked. One is somehow missing in Denver, Jones said. It might have been stolen, he said, but he thinks it's more likely that an accounting error is showing a bike missing that is really still around. The investigation continues.
Bike share programs already exist in Washington, D.C. and Minneapolis. Pittsburgh has a small program mostly geared to allow users to ride along a riverfront trail. Boston has received a $3 million federal grant to finance a bike share program. International cities, including Paris and London, have systems, too.
Kelley Carroll, a Penn architecture student who lives in Center City, used bike share from January through May when she was studying in Paris. She loved it, but didn't use it as much as she liked – American credit cards don't have the embedded chip required to use the bikes in Paris, she said. So she could only partake with the assistance of a Canadian friend.
Carroll took one of Meddin's cards, and intends to sign the petition urging the city to act on bike share. She said she's planning to buy a bicycle, but won't if bike share comes to town. “I think I would use one of these and not take a risk on (my own) getting stolen,” she said.
Program critic McGettigan said that even though Philly has a lot of bike theft, people can keep their bikes safe if they are careful.
Carroll said despite the city's impressive bike lane system, drivers aren't always respectful of cyclists. She hopes that a bike share system could improve that, but said that in Paris, where bike share is huge and includes large groups of tourists pedaling through the city, there has been a bit of a backlash. “There is somewhat of a clash between the believers and the taxi drivers and other drivers,” she said.
Still, she said, she's eager to try it here.
Until 6 p.m. Thursday, the bike share equipment is on display in front of the University of Pennsylvania book store at 36th and Walnut Streets. Between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., about 300 people stopped by, organizers said. The show moves to Love Park/JFK Plaza at 15th Street and JFK Boulevard from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, and then travels to the Walnut Plaza at Penn's Landing from 10 to 6 on Saturday. The demos are happening in cooperation with Penn, the city and the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, respectively.
Meddin said in addition to taking a look, folks are welcome to take a ride. They'll have to sign a waiver and leave behind their drivers license as collateral.
Bike Share Philadelphia also plans to bring in a different company to demonstrate how its system works in the fall, Meddin said.