“Happy Bike Share Day!”
That was the popular, improvised greeting at Thursday’s launch of Indego, Philadelphia’s Bike Share program.
For most there, the event was a celebration, the culmination of years of advocacy, planning and execution. “I couldn’t be more excited to bring this new affordable transportation and recreation option to Philadelphia” said Andrew Stober from the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities.
As of launch, the system already has over a thousand members. Membership isn’t required to use the system – you can buy a half-hour ride for $4 – but the $15 -a-month membership provides unlimited rides of up to 1 hour, suggesting there are at least a thousand Philadelphians who intend to take at least four trips a month.
The bikes themselves were the main draw – around 300 of the initial 600 bikes in the system lined Eakins Oval – but a pair of Eagles cheerleaders and a DJ spinning dance hits lent to a party atmosphere. (Attendees were treated to the sight of 2nd District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson dancing to V.I.C’s “Wobble Baby”; his challenger in the May 19th primary, Ori Feibush, is lucky the race isn’t decided by a dance off.)
For MOTU, members of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and the Bicycle Transit consulting team, this ride was a victory lap. They’ve spent years working on the project and leveraged $3 million in city funding into $13.3 million in grants and sponsorship from Independence Blue Cross.
But others in the crowd were simply excited to try the new system. Jennelle Battle and Mercedes Jones traveled from University City and Allegheny West, respectively, to use the launch as a test drive.
“I’m riding to my neighborhood to see how the ride is, because I never rode a bike in the city before,” said Battle “I’m excited to give it a try.”
Jones was also going on her first Philadelphia bike ride. “It seemed like a fun activity, to join in with everyone else,” she said.
Both said they expected to become members after their trial spin. “Especially if the weather is going to be nice, I don’t want to have to jump on buses or wait on corners,” said Battle. Jones added that she would probably use Indego to supplement her Enterprise CarShare membership. Neither of the two friends owns a bicycle or a car.
Despite the valedictory feel, there’s still plenty of work to be done.
None of the stations have maps yet – installation of those starts next Tuesday – so to find a docking station you’ll need to go online or use the app made by B-cycle, the manufacturer of all the Indego bikes. Like their bicycles, B-cycle’s app is a bit clunky compared to Spotcycle, the app used in most other cities; Stober said he expects Spotcycle to add Philadelphia soon. When you use B-cycle, go to “Select a Program” and scroll to the bottom to find Indego. Then to find a location go to “Find a B-cycle”. Finally, click on a location to see how many bikes and open slots it has.
And Indego is still a few short of the 60 stations it initially hoped to launch with – like the one in front of WHYY. Over time, the system is expected to expand to 180 locations with 1,800 bicycles.
But enough about first time riders and increased transportation options. How did it ride?
The bikes are heavy to lift – about 50 pounds – but surprisingly easy to peddle. The gears shift smoothly, the brakes stop decently.* Overall, Indego bikes are a pleasure to ride.
On my initial trip, I found myself thinking about the ’89 Lincoln Town Car my grandfather gave me when I was a teenager. It was big and lumbering, clunky and old, but more comfortable than a feather bed and a pleasure to drive.
So it goes with Indego. Fast it is not, nor does it look particularly cool. But you ride in comfort, sitting upright and at ease. Unlike some other bike shares I’ve tried, there are no balance issues at starts and stops – in DC and Montreal, those bikes seemed hell-bent on tipping if you aren’t going fast enough.
My personal bike, a 2000s era Cannondale road bike, felt like a Miata in comparison: definitely faster (but not, like, “Yo bro, wanna race?” fast) and lighter, but also a much rougher ride. Unlike a Miata, though, I bought my bike because my old one died, not because I realized that my career was hitting a deadend and my marriage was falling apart.
Indego’s wide tires and heavy frame smooth over the ever-frequent rough patches of Philly roads. Small potholes I would normally swerve to avoid (as you would in a Miata), I rolled right through on Indego with nary a jolt.
The initial launch ride was a well-orchestrated bit of cleverness by the Indego team, a fix-two-tires-with-one-patch-kit kind of situation. First, it served as a way to distribute around half of the bikes to half of the docking stations with volunteer labor. Secondly, and more importantly, was the spectacle of it all – it was natural advertising.
From Eakins Oval down to Logan Square, there was a bicycle parade as hundreds of blue bikes glided down the Ben Franklin Parkway under police escort. Without that escort, it would have been less of a launch event and more of a mass suicide; traffic flies on the Parkway and Indego bikes are simply too slow to handle it the way thrill seeking speedsters can.
Personally, I love to ride this stretch of road; it's fun in the “Weeee I might die any second!” kind of way. I like pushing myself to keep up with the traffic whipping round the bend. But I'm also an experienced cyclist and a relatively fit rugby player (my teammates would laugh at that one) and I'm on my much faster bike when I do it.
I worry about what might happen when some newbie rider grabs an Indego from the station at feet of the Art Museum steps and decides to head to City Hall. There’s traffic from MLK Drive heading onto 676 to contend with, as well as drivers trying to get from the leftmost of the Parkway’s six lanes to the rightmost and visa versa.
From Logan Square, the bicyclists, now unescorted, split off into smaller groups, each heading to a different station. I followed a Bicycle Coalition member to Independence Hall by way of 17th Street to Pine Street, then down Pine to 5th, and up 5th to the station on Market, next to the Independence Hall Visitor Center.
Our group of nine was a sight to see, based off the gawking faces of pedestrians we passed. We were met mainly with smiles, curiosity and general bemusement – there were a lot of light bulb faces that seemed to say “Oh, yeah! I heard that was going to be a thing!”
But there were also some less-than-ideal moments. One of our group, distracted by something, almost peddled into cross traffic. Another, apparently live-tweeting the ride for Philly.com, dropped her phone in the middle of 17th and Walnut. We took up an entire lane – as is our right to do – but we also rode side-by-side, not single file as safety and the law both dictate. Perhaps amazingly, we only had one impatient driver honk at our slow moving group.
On the other hand, none of us engaged in the sort of behavior that inspires monthly Stu Bykofsky rants. No one weaved in and out of traffic or blew through red lights. On Indego, you really can’t: you’re too slow and ungainly. And in this regard, my beloved road bike is more like an SUV in a blizzard: four-wheel drive doesn’t make me any safer, but I feel more confident and thus engage in riskier behavior. So far, no one has died while using bike share in America.
At one point, it felt as though I popped the chain a little bit from a particularly forceful bit of pedaling; to be clear, I’m bragging here, not complaining (have I mentioned how fast and manly I am?). And the pop was so light, I wonder if it wasn’t something else entirely; when the chain pops on my bike, it can be extremely jarring, to the point of knocking my foot off the pedal.
Indego was a delight, but it won’t replace my beloved Cannondale. But that was never the point. Bicyclists like me will use it when their bike is in the shop, or when they’re only biking one way – my roommate intends to ride Indego to the bars and take a taxi home, for example. The real hope is that it’ll inspire new riders and provide an option for those who, for whatever reason, decide not to own a bike.
GoPro video of Jim Saksa's intrepid bike share day will follow shortly in the space below
*CORRECTION, 2:03 P.M. 4/24/15: Sentence corrected because Jim apparently doesn't know the difference between "break" and "brake." Sometimes his homophonic ignorance is just unbareable, am I write?