Philly Bike Share update: How cash rentals will work, apps, maps and more

I first encountered bike share in Barcelona. It was 2009 and I was desperately hungover, having spent the last few days in a small town Hemingway made famous and partaking in all those things it is now so rightly known for. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t speak a lick of Spanish, or Catalan for that matter. I just wanted to get around, and despite the throbbing along my temples and the queasiness in my stomach, bicycling seemed better than walking.

I failed. I could not for the life of me figure out the system, jamming my credit card into the slot almost blindly and hitting buttons randomly in the hopes of hearing a click from the docking station to signal a bicycle’s release. But the only thing that futile exercise garnered me were the concerned stares of passers-by leery of the unkempt foreigner muttering curses at an inanimate object, reeking of booze.  

According to Andrew Stober, the Chief of Staff in the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, and Bicycle Transit System’s Peter Hoban, I probably never had a chance. “I don’t think that system let non-residents use it back then,” said Stober. Hoban confirmed.

Thankfully, Indego, Philadelphia’s eagerly anticipated bike share program launching this April, will let nearly anyone use it. That will even include residents who don’t have – or don’t want to use – a credit or debit card. But being the only major American city to allow riders to pay by cash instead of card isn’t the only way MOTU hopes Indego will “revolutionize the whole [bike share] pricing system.”

Stober and Hoban gave PlanPhilly a preview of Philadelphia’s latest public transportation system, shedding new light on its unique bike share business model, lessons learned on improving the user experience, apps, maps and more.

FASHIONABLY LATE TO THE PARTY

Over a dozen American cities have beaten Philadelphia to the bike share party, which really began in earnest in the early 90’s in Northern Europe and only started really arriving in the States less than a decade ago.

But there is something to be said for arriving a bit after everyone else. Philadelphia’s bike share team has had plenty to learn from other cities’ mistakes on everything as systemically important as pricing models, docking station distribution to the seemingly trivial, like front baskets and kickstands. Perhaps most importantly, Philadelphia has been able to see how other American cities’ residents and tourists interact with the system, learning lessons on how to make it as user friendly as possible.

Like nearly everything else these days, there will be an app for that. At Indego’s launch, the system will use Spotcycle, the same app used in Washington DC and New York City, amongst others. The app will show the number of currently available bikes and empty docks at each station. 

And for those of us who prefer to limit their phone use to more traditional purposes – like online dating and pretending to not notice your ex walking towards you on the street – there will be maps at every docking location, showing both the entire system with major landmarks and a more detailed neighborhood map replete with street names. While there will be regional rail, trolley and subway lines shown on the map, buses will be left out for fear of overwhelming the user.

The maps will also highlight bike lanes, bike trails and other roads that are considered bike friendly, like those with sharrows.

Even if you don’t use bike share to ride, the locations will be a boon to the city’s wayfinding. Outside of the Center City District and Old City, which have Destination Philadelphia maps and signs, most of the City can a bit hostile to lost newcomers.

Unfortunately for an Indego-utilizing tourist, there is still no good way of getting from the Museums along the Parkway to Independence Mall. Without new bike lanes, the best path would be taking 19th Street to Rittenhouse, then travelling down Pine Street and then back up 5th.  

ACCESSIBILITY STARTS WITH PRICING

Indego will feature more pricing options than most cities, in the hopes of making it easier for more customers to try. Local residents will be able to sign up for 30-day, automatically renewable (yet easily canceled) memberships. Most cities use annual memberships. “We’re really excited about [the 30-day membership model] because it significantly lowers the barrier to starting to use the system,” says Stober. “It also puts people in control of how much they spend.”

Customers using the 30-day membership won’t be charged for the first hour of their trips. Most other cities only make the first half-hour free.

Philadelphia isn’t merely being generous – that’s one of the many ways Indego is being designed to improve accessibility. Many novice riders, Stober explains, overestimate how long a bike ride will take. People think they can’t get to where they want in just a half-hour, creating barriers to trying the system out.  “In fact, they would have no problem getting there in time, but they’re worried about incurring the extra charge,” so the never sign up, says Stober. With an hour, Stober hopes more people will give Indego a try.

And if that wasn’t enough, there will also be a flex membership, which will be more of a pay-per-trip pass. The idea is to offer enough pricing options that one will feel right.

Truly occasional riders – like tourists – will also be able to use credit and debit cards at kiosks next to the stations to rent the bikes by the half hour.

Indego’s system for infrequent riders should also be a slight improvement on so-called “day passes” used in other cities, which are really single day memberships. Confusion over how those passes work have led to tourists using a bike all day – and then getting shocked by a usage fee in the hundreds of dollars in addition to the small day pass membership fee they expected. That won’t happen in Philadelphia, which will have clearer price system (although Indego will still be a pricey way to rent a bike for an entire day). 

The exact price details – like how much any of this will actually cost – will be announced sometime in March.

Indego will also be one of the few systems that won’t require a credit card. By providing a cash option, Indego will be accessible to those who lack access to traditional financial products like credit and debit cards. Philadelphia’s poverty rate – the highest in the nation – was a primary driver for having a cash option, but it remains to be seen how many economically disadvantaged riders will use the system.

When it was first announced, many folks wondered how the system would prevent theft – most bike share systems charge the rider’s credit card a large amount, often $1,000 or more, if the bike isn’t returned. Without a card, what’s to stop someone from just riding off into the sunset?

“Cash memberships will be only available for 30-day membership,” Stober explains. The cash process is a complicated one – it isn’t as easy as sticking a $20 in the kiosk and getting a bike. Customers that want to use cash will need to sign up for a 30-day membership first – again, that’s online or over the phone – and they will also be sent a barcode over email or text, which will be taken to a “very popular convenience story or very common grocery store in the region” said Stober. A store cashier would then scan the barcode and accept cash, allowing the person to them use their membership card to use the bike share system.

“That entire process is what you need to do to steal just one bike,” said Hoban. “It takes a month’s work to steal one bike, and you still have to pay money to do it.”

Perhaps more importantly, the Indego bikes will have a lower fenced value than most bikes. Unlike personal road bikes, an Indego for sale will be obviously stolen. Its parts are all custom and unusable on other bikes. Even as scrap metal, they aren’t worth much.

“Bike share bikes don’t have to be totally impossible to steal,” said Stober. “They just have to be harder to steal than other bikes in Philadelphia and have less fenced value than other bikes on the street.”

The cost of making this bike so difficult to steal, of course, is limiting the usefulness of a cash option. The process is long and difficult, forcing those individuals to go online or to call the system. Stober admitted that there is an obvious digital divide, but said that public libraries and other options will help allow those individuals to use the system if they want.

On the flipside, Washington DC uses it’s bike share system to encourage individuals to use Bank on DC, a program that helps provide mainstream financial services to economically disadvantaged individuals. In short, if you don’t have the means to afford a traditional checking system, Bank on DC helps you get one. And Bank on DC account holders actually get a discount on the annual bike share rates.  Philly’s system is about as complicated, but without the added advantage of helping individuals into mainstream banking.

“A LOT OF MINOR THINGS THAT JUST MAKE INDEGO A BIT BETTER”

The bicycles themselves will also feature “a lot of minor things that just make [them] a bit better,” said Bicycle Transit System’s Hoban. As PlanPhilly noted earlier, the bikes will have a legit front basket, a feature lacking in many cities’ bike share program. The Indego bikes will also have a longer kick stand than other programs’ bikes, which had a tendency of tipping over. Hoban also noted a spring steering limiter, which should help inexperienced riders keep the front wheel pointed forward.

Another improved feature on Indego will be the lights. As with other systems, the automatic lights on Indego will be powered by the rider’s pedaling. But Indego bikes will also feature a small capacitor, allowing the lights to stay on for up to two minutes at traffic stops. Stober and Hoban both also offered high praise for the seats and the bells, both of which are apparently superior to other bike share systems.

Indego will start off with at least 600 bicycles spread across 60 stations. Each location will average around 20 docking stations, with busier locations having more (30th Street Station, for example, will be larger, while the locations in Center City – where there will be many, reducing demand for any particular one – will be smaller). Getting the right number of spaces and bikes at each location will be difficult at first, when the team is essentially just making educated guesses about expected ridership patterns. 

The first two months are the hardest, says Hoban. “People don’t really settle in to using bike share yet, so you see a lot more of random, scattered rides. Once the commuters start taking over and doing their predictable rides, you see patterns”

As more data comes in over the first few months, Bicycle Transit Systems will rebalance the system by tweaking capacity at some locations and starting to expand where demand is greatest.

Philadelphia’s somewhat unique commuting patterns pose another challenge. In cities like Washington DC, Stober notes, the commuting patterns are obvious: folks ride down from Columbia Heights and Mt. Pleasant to the downtown areas near the Capital and White House in the morning, and then back home at night. In Philadelphia, our distribution of commercial and residential is far more balanced, meaning folks commute all over. Stober said he’s “very curious” to see how self-correcting the system will be.

MOTU and Bicycle Transit Systems will be able to track where bikes are picked up and dropped off, providing most of the data needed to optimize the system. But they won’t be the only ones able to look at this information: Stober said the data will be made publically available in short order following launch, which will allow the public to glean greater insights on where many Philadelphians live, work and play.

EXPANSION EVENTUALLY… BUT NOT EVERYWHERE

From other cities’ experience, though, Philadelphia already knows some things about how the system will work. Even after giving riders one hour before additional costs, Stober expects most trips to last just 13 to 21 minutes – the approximate times for casual rides of a mile or two. “Three miles or less” is considered a “good bike share trip,” he says.

So residents in some of the farther reaches of town, where most trips to work or the store can cover over three miles, might be waiting indefinitely for a location. “I’m not sure we ever get to the Northeast,” Stober said. “I’m not sure how many three mile trips are really occurring up there.” Indego is expected to expand to 180 locations with 1,800 bicycles in the next few years.

Things might be more promising for the Northwest neighborhoods of East Falls, Manayunk and Mt. Airy, where there is a for the system to “build out along the trail network and work [its] way up to Manayunk,” but there aren’t any concrete plans yet. The trip from the Falls Bridge to the Art Museum along the Schuylkill River Trail is a little over four miles.

Expansion is more likely in the areas around the Center City core, where the system will likely spread like an amoeba, slowly reaching out into new neighborhoods.

IMPROVING LANGUAGE ACCESSIBILITY

Language deficiencies like those that plagued me in Barcelona shouldn’t stop non-English speakers from accessing Indego, Stober said. Learning from CitiBike in New York City, the bike docking stations will be designed with “iconography that explains how to get the bike,” said Stober. The idea is to make the icons so clear, “it will be universally understood what the steps are to use a [Indego] bike.”

Additionally, by the time ride share launches, Indego’s website will have instructions in Spanish, so a Latino version of me trying to grab a bike after the Running of the Santas will have better luck. MOTU will also be reaching out to immigrant communities and cultural groups to assist with signing up for the system. Over time, PDFs and handouts will be made available in German, Italian and French – the three most popular languages. 

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