June 12, 2015

Philly's bike share program geared for greater accessibility

Bike Share Transit
06122015_Indigo_rider_Thom Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

A man rides an Indego bike in Rittenhouse Square.

“This is a smooth ride,” says Troy Rimes, having just dismounted from one of Philadelphia’s new fleet of blue Indego cycles, available through the city’s new bike share system.

He is referring, in particular, to the easily changeable gears that can be shifted from the handlebars with minimal fuss.

“Anything that helps people get some exercise and promotes healthy living,” says Rimes, a middle-aged African American and resident of the 2100 block of 15th Street in North Philadelphia. Asked if he’d pay the $15 a month for a membership, Rimes says, “If I didn’t have a bike, yeah I’d do it.”

RELATED STORY: City bike share programs may make commuters more active

Indego is unique among U.S. bike share systems in its initial commitment to reaching working-class and other lower-income people, not just tourists and Center City-types. This quest is spearheaded by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia’s Street Team, who bring the robust cruisers to community events in neighborhoods near the new stations and try to catch residents’ interest.

On a gorgeous Saturday in May, two staffers with the Street Team had set up a demonstration outside Rimes’ rowhouse in the midst of a thinly populated block party dubbed Hoodstock. (Its related basketball tournament, on the courts of Tanner Duckrey Elementary, is better attended). That's where Rimes had the opportunity to give an Indego bike a spin. By mid-afternoon, however, the number of test rides can still be counted on two hands, with a couple fingers to spare.

Indego, just seven weeks old, is already posting respectable ridership numbers: 65,000 trips as of June 2. Its creators specifically designed the system to avoid the lopsided ridership demographics of its cousins in Washington, D.C.— where 45 percent of riders hail from households with median income of more than $100,000 — and New York, where City Limits reported that the director of the program said its riders are "mostly white, male, and live in households with six-figure incomes.”

That’s a reputation bike share supporters want to avoid in one of the poorest big cities in the nation. The coming months will tell whether this commitment to accessibility will succeed in making bike share a genuinely equitable appendage of Philadelphia’s transit infrastructure.

“I don’t really get what the problem is that the bike share model is trying to solve [for lower-income communities],” says Adonia Lugo, a Washington, D.C. based cultural anthropologist who focuses on bicycle use among impoverished populations. “If you are a poor person, it's way cheaper to just buy a beat-up old bike than it is to maintain a bike share membership. They will just make something work because they have to, to survive.”

Lugo says Philadelphia’s system will be interesting to watch, because it has had the opportunity to learn from the mistakes, and bad press, of its forebears.

SYSTEM STRIVES FOR ACCESSIBILITY

Unlike other systems, there isn’t a lump payment prerequisite for becoming a member: Members pay $15 per month and start riding. For non-members, however, a 30-minute ride is $4 — almost twice the cost of a cash fare on SEPTA's subway or El. This option is only available through credit or bank card statements. And the stations are not densely distributed, against the recommendations of many advocates, a tradeoff that ensures the system will reach beyond downtown from the very beginning.

When asked what might prevent his neighbors and friends in North Philly from signing up, Rimes says, “You’ve got to make it more accessible for people without credit cards.”

Indego has done just that, partnering with PayNearMe, an electronic payment service that allows people to sign up for a membership with cash and a smartphone at 7-Eleven or Family Dollar stores. No other American system has gone as far to ensure that those who don’t rely on banks or credit cards can share a bike. 

None

PayNearMe brochures at the 7-Eleven store near Front Street and Girard Avenue in Kensington. Philly Bike Share has partnered with the payment service to enable memberships paid in cash – no credit card necessary. (Thom Carroll / PhillyVoice)

Of the 3,500 monthly members on the rolls of the city's program as of Memorial Day, a little over 100 of them had paid in cash. But the city has not promoted the cash memberships.

"Importantly, we have not yet rolled out dedicated advertising or marketing for the cash option," Aaron Ritz, bicycle programs manager for the city's Mayor's Office of Transportation and Utilities, said in an email.

According to Chad Eason, of the bicycle coalition’s street team, the number of riders at the events he attends often range from a handful to the dozens. His partner, Jaleel Williford, says their outreach at community forums has been “mostly positive.” There have been “some mixed emotions” seen at events in North Philadelphia, where residents said they believed “only the college kids will use it” and that “it’s not for [them].” Some expressed serious reservations because they associated bike share with Temple, which is aggressively expanding its student housing in the surrounding blocks.

“You see all kinds of folks riding bicycles up around here," especially older men, says Jeannine Kayembe, an organizer with Philly Urban Creators, which organizes Hoodstock. “But $15 a month for a year? That buys a bike.”

Asked about riding to work downtown, she says “I don’t think folks who have night jobs would use it for commuting in this neighborhood. I just don’t think these folks who have to work [late at night] are going to choose to bike home at the end of a shift, park somewhere, and still have to walk six more blocks.”

WILL PHILLY TELL A DIFFERENT BIKE SHARE STORY?

Those who climbed aboard the Indego bikes at the Hoodstock gathering and cruised up 15th Street seem to have nothing but good things to say about the experience.

“It’s nice, it’s real nice,” says Benjamin Green, a middle-aged African American from North Philadelphia, who was taking a test ride. “$15 a month? That would save me a whole lot of money, at least in the summer.”

He said he works in Center City and his monthly SEPTA pass is $91. He says it would be good for “people just going to work downtown. If you go downtown you don’t want to drive down there.”

Around Memorial Day the number of cash memberships, a useful proxy for lower-income ridership, was in the double digits and has only risen slightly above that in the two weeks since (including a purchase by the author of this story). The process of signing up requires web access, a smartphone, and a nearby 7-11 or Family Dollar, which can be found in many neighborhoods. After a payment, the customer must wait for the necessary equipment to be mailed.

It remains to be seen whether the lack of access to credit or bank cards is the principal obstacle, or if the concerns raised by Kayembe and Lugo are more responsible.

So far the first phase of Indego is looking like a success in regards to system-wide numbers, but almost all of the neighborhoods that currently host stations are home to significant upper-middle class or student populations. (Temple Town flags flutter in front of many of the row houses around Rimes’ block).

A second phase would theoretically extend the system’s reach into deeply depressed neighborhoods like Strawberry Mansion and Kensington as well as working class neighborhoods with substantially smaller groupings of middle-class professionals, like the rest of South Philadelphia below Morris. There, the barriers to usage, practical or psychological, could be even greater.

“Philly has the opportunity for the bike share story to unfold differently than it has in other places,” Lugo said. “But maybe bike share just isn’t an equitable model, maybe it just works really well for tourists and office workers in the central city.”