Spoked wheels when you want them

One of the things I missed when I was out of town last month was the announcement of the City’s new bikeshare program (about time!), with rollout scheduled by Spring 2014.  The Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities (MOTU) is taking the lead on the two year standing-up process, in which time it hopes to leverage $3MM in city money into raising $6MM in outside funds, to finance a network of ~1100 bikes between Vine, South, and 41st (with a few in a satellite cluster around Temple’s campus).

Unsurprisingly to anyone who has seen the explosive success of bikeshare programs throughout the world, much of the early criticism of the project has been that the initial rollout is much too small (650 bikes in the first year), and almost certain to be oversubscribed at peak hours.  Similar outcry has come over the circumscribed boundaries where pods will be found: Center City and the campuses get an amenity, but not the neighborhoods that can provide all-hours usership.  Well, count me in as well, on both criticisms.  Now, I understand that the number of pods the city can afford necessarily defines the boundaries. The density of pods needed for the system to be convenient and effective seems to be fixed, and very high, based on global experience.  The City cannot skimp on pods in Washington Square to provide bikes to Queen Village without harming the system.  But to me, this is an argument that the City needs to assemble more money to go forward.  Politics may be the art of the possible, but while City Council is burning over $1MM to squat on property in Point Breeze, it might decide to begrudge the Mayor enough cash to launch bikeshare properly.

What am I defining as “properly”?  Glad you asked.  Bikeshare, while it’s certainly usable for commuting, is meant to be more of a casual trips and errands service: rent a bike for a 15 minute trip one way, then return in the other direction when you’re done, with only mild peaks in usage by hour or direction.  I dispute that Center-City-and-Campuses-Only is going to attract much additional bike usage; most trips wholly within that catchment can be made best by walking, and the rest can be made by subway or bus. That ability is why Center City is so attractive (and so expensive) in the first place. Serving adjacent neighborhoods, where the origins and destinations spread out a bit, is more in the sweet spot for the bike mode, especially on “crosstown” trips like Graduate Hospital to University City, or Northern Liberties to Fairmount. Without one or both endpoints in Center City’s density, more trips end up like these, a bit far (though not impossible) to walk, and with SEPTA’s hit-or-miss crosstown bus service as an unappealing alternative. (I challenge you to argue that service on either the 40 or 64 is good. I need a laugh today.) Even trips between Center City and the adjacent neighborhoods by bus can be rather unpleasant, given buses crowded with riders traveling longer distances (the 17 is nearly useless north of Christian St during rush hour, packed to the gills with Point Breeze and Girard Estate riders).

I recommend that any bikeshare network aim to have sufficient coverage from Girard through Washington east of 52nd (plus Temple) by the middle of its second year. That would be a good basis for a well-used — and therefore high revenue-earning — system. It would vastly increase the bicycle mode share, and take a lot of pressure off local SEPTA routes that need it most. In fact (and this is a novel suggestion that will probably brand me forever a heretic at Bicycle Coalition HQ), SEPTA may want to run the bike share program, or at least integrate membership into its fare structure. 1234 Market St. may have the most to gain from seeing bike sharing become a runaway success, eroding car ownership in the city while reducing its own cost of providing quality service to the region’s core.

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  1. I definitely agree that providing bikeshare coverage only between 41st and Front, Vine and South fails to actually cover both ends of almost any trip long enough or unique enough to actually require biking. While ensuring that people will only bike in areas of maximal car density — while these are definitely the places where the amount of driving trips needs to be reduced, they’re also the places newbie bikers are going to be the most terrified. And realistically, none of those bikers were even thinking about taking the cars they may or may not own — they were going to walk, or take the trolley/subway. You have to go just a touch farther west/north/south to get to the places where everybody has a car and wants to drive in to the city for some reason. 41st? Seriously? That’s east of all of West Philly, for the most part.

    If 650 bikes is too small, what kind of pod density would you classify as “sufficient coverage”? How many times more bikes (and thus expenditure) would we need? And how much should it vary between those core areas and the farther-flung, more sparsely populated ones?

    I find it kind of hilarious that you’re criticizing the 17 for being useless at rush hour. I tend to think of the 17 as “the bus that moves at rush hour”, because it’s so much more effective than the 2…

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