Indego stations bedeviled by power problems

Today, for the second day running, the Indego bikeshare system’s twitter account was apologizing to users in the early morning for dead docking stations.

The gist of the problem is very simple: Indego stations are powered by a battery that charges from a photovoltaic solar panel. They have no connection to the electrical grid. For the last week or so, it has been unseasonably rainy and overcast in Philadelphia, so those solar panels haven’t been getting the sunlight they need to top off the batteries. Therefore, some stations are no longer able to last through the night, and are still dead at 7:00 when early bird commuters walk up expecting to check out a bike. With no power, the station cannot communicate with the central servers to check bikes in or out, or accept payments, or do anything else other than resemble a large paperweight on the sidewalk. The stations generally stay dead until a Bicycle Transit Systems tech comes and swaps out the dead battery for a charged one.

In a way, it’s a good thing that this problem has cropped up so soon, since it will hopefully be resolved on a temporary basis on the first bright sunny day. Long runs of overcast days are unusual for early June, but they’re more seasonal in November, when the problem is compounded by shorter days. Indego is meant to be a transportation system for all seasons. If the B-Cycle station design isn’t electrically robust enough to handle the light conditions of even the mildest Philadelphia winter, that is a design flaw that BTS has to fix, systemwide.

For what it’s worth, while I was dockblocked yesterday morning at 7:15 by the #solarsorry troubles, I was able to use Indego for a 4:00 hoagie run this morning with no problem at all, so the problem is not entirely debilitating. Like other availability problems, one of the easier ways to fix it is to proliferate more stations throughout the service area, so the next available station is no more than a couple of blocks away.

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Indego launches tomorrow. Are you ready?

Philadelphia’s long-awaited bike share network launches tomorrow with a ceremonial ride-off from Eakins Oval.

Indego Founder keyfob.  That's right.
Indego Founder keyfob. That’s right.

It’s here.  It’s finally here.  GET HYPE.

Indego's initial station map.  Click for live version.
Indego’s initial station map. Click for live version.

YOU ARE NOT HYPE ENOUGH.  GET MORE HYPE.

Now if I could only figure out where the hell I put my bike helmet…

Looking back, looking ahead: New Year’s roundup 2015

In the last night of the year, five things we’ll remember from 2014:

  1. The year of citizen action.  I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much when Conrad Benner launched a change.org petition to get SEPTA to run the subways overnight.  But it worked, and now another petition has sparked progress on a second front, in Wilmington.  Can we look forward to more petitions working in 2015?  If the trend of well-informed riders asking for achievable, concrete, inexpensive improvements continues, then yes.  And we’ll keep you posted.
  2. Bridges needing fixing.  A once-in-a-generation maintenance project on the Ben Franklin Bridge has made this an annus horribilis for PATCO riders, but after the major work wrapped in the fall, it faded into the background noise of commuter complaints.  A much bigger splash was made by the I-495 bridge, and only by the grace of higher powers did that not end with a literal splash into the Christina River.  The traffic snarls around Wilmington started out on epic scale, but soon enough people found other ways to get around the closed bridge.  And when the bridge reopened before Labor Day, it was a reminder that, in an emergency, when you don’t have to worry about keeping traffic open, work can get done very quickly.  Something to keep in mind, or look forward to, as SEPTA prepares to replace the Crum Creek Viaduct.
  3. Communication über alles.  PATCO’s troubles finally forced it to copy SEPTA and start monitoring and responding to people on its official Twitter account.  (For the first day or so, whoever was working that desk was the unluckiest schmo in South Jersey.)  In the modern world, this kind of real-time interaction with customer service is a requirement, not an option.  (Hint, hint, NJT, hint, DART.)  SEPTA’s successful app for iOS was joined this year by a counterpart for Android, but its copious APIs continue to put SEPTA in a clear technical lead over peer agencies.
  4. Labor brinksmanship.  In the fractious relationships SEPTA has with its unions, the one thing we all thought we could count on was Regional Rail needing a very long lead time before a strike.  SEPTA turned that axiom on its head by deliberately provoking a work stoppage from the BLET and IBEW.  The first Regional Rail strike since the big one in 1983 only lasted 24 hours before President Obama could intervene.  That assertiveness set the tone for the protracted negotiations and mutual threats between SEPTA and its largest union, TWU 234, whose contracts expired in March and April.  TWU wouldn’t get a new contract until late in the night on Halloween, and it mostly just kicked the can down the road to 2016.
  5. Bringing the word to where people live.  Dear well-off suburbanites: If you drive through communities of the oppressed, you should be prepared to hear from them.  Just saying.

And five things to look forward to in the new year.

  1. SEPTA Key.  The future of fare payment is coming, and in addition to convenience, it’s going to open up a treasure trove of data about how people use SEPTA, and how to adapt the system to the riders’ needs.  Mmmm, data.
  2. PHL Bike Share.  It’s late, it still doesn’t have a sponsor, but when it comes, it’s still going to be a revolution in how we make short trips around town.  Spring can’t get here soon enough.
  3. The Papal Meltdown.  Not all of the news is going to be good.  When Pope Francis visits in September, the crowds on the Parkway are being predicted for the 1 million-2 million range.  That will overtax every road and every transit resource in the area.  Remember the 2008 Phillies parade and Live 8?   His Holiness is going to be even bigger.  Hope the planners are already crunching numbers to minimize the amount of agony going around.
  4. Don’t mourn, organize.  The 2015 municipal election cycle will provide a lot of good fodder for discussion.  For instance: the 22nd Street bike lane needs to happen, and Bill Greenlee needs to either stop resisting it or stop being in a position to resist it.  I’m not saying that Greenlee doesn’t know that a bike lane will save lives, and is insanely popular in his neighborhood.  I’m just saying he hasn’t done anything that would suggest that he cares.  Even if Greenlee wins re-election, Darrell Clarke, may find it necessary to throw Greenlee’s pro-motor-vehicle fetish under the (metaphorical) bus to preserve Clarke’s own chances of ever being elected mayor.  Good luck, everybody!
  5. Shiny new things with wheels.  SEPTA’s Rebuilding For The Future program and ongoing Amtrak equipment orders will mean lots of new, unfamiliar shapes will be in and around Philadelphia.  Although some of the new orders, like the SuperNova buses and the Viewliner II baggage cars, have already made their first appearances, many equipment orders will be either fulfilled or placed in 2015.  But while the railfans and busfans will have their fun, the real joy will accrue to the the riders, who will get faster, more comfortable, and/or more reliable rides out of all the new equipment.

It’s been a pleasure writing for you all this year.  See you in 2015!

You’re out of your element! This Leninist is not the issue.

Good morning, and for those who are observing it, may you have an easy Shutdown. Out-of-town tourists who were really counting on seeing Valley Forge and Independence Hall might want to stop in at attractions that aren’t National Parks, which is most everything that isn’t either on 5th Street or a Revolutionary Battlefield. Since I happen to be blogging hungry, I’ll put in a good word for Reading Terminal Market; all of the attractions along Ben Franklin Parkway should be open today as well.

As State and Local Authorities, transit services will be running normally today. (As of 3:00a, I have already gotten an inbound referral from a search engine user asking “will septa still run now that government is shut down”. It’s not a silly question.) Amtrak is technically a corporation that merely happens to have the Federal government as the owner of all its preferred stock, so it will also be operating normally. At some point in an extended shutdown scenario, the inability of the Federal Government to write checks will become a problem, but by the time it does, I assure you that we will be so far down that rabbit hole, that any reduction in train and bus service will be the least of our worries.

Congress Hall, 6th and Chestnut Streets.  Image by tim eschaton on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA
Even when Congress met here, it was pretty awful. It does occasionally find novel ways of sucking, though.

In completely non-Shutdown related news, Richard Florida reports in the Atlantic Cities that there is basically no correlation between population growth and economic growth in American metropolitan areas:

Taken together, these top ten leaders in productivity growth averaged population growth of 0.88 percent per year, beneath the metro average of around 1 percent per year. These metros were able to substantially increase their productivity without substantially growing their populations. Boulder, for example, which has been lauded as a center for innovation and start-up companies, was able to substantially increase its productivity while seeing its population decline.

As these maps and tables indicate, population and productivity growth are very different animals. Not a single metro overlaps the two top ten lists. The high population growth metros were mainly in the Sunbelt, while the high productivity growth metros are a combination of knowledge-based regions and energy-belt metros.

Matt Yglesias, blogging at Slate, is alarmed:

Florida’s takeaway from this is basically just that this debunks the notion of “booming” cities in Texas and elsewhere in the Sun Belt. The fast-growing cities aren’t really the cities that are prospering, and “population growth, in fact, creates a troubling fake illusion of prosperity” rather than laying the foundations for real income growth.

I would put my point of emphasis on the other side of it. If you want to understand the long-term prospects for prosperity and growth in the United States, the fact that we aren’t seeing population growth in the cities where we’re seeing productivity growth is a disaster. It’s of course fine for people to move to Memphis, Tenn., or Houston when all things considered they decide they want to move to Memphis or Houston. But one of the main “things considered” that makes Memphis and Houston look more attractive than Boston or Seattle is that houses are much cheaper in Memphis and Houston. If there were nothing Boston and Seattle could do to increase their ability to add population, that would just be one of those things in life. But there’s plenty that Boston and Seattle (recalling, again, that we’re talking metro areas here, so “Boston” includes Somerville and Newton and Wellesley and so forth) could do to reduce the cost of housing—they could upzone. They could let three-deckers be replaced by tall apartment buildings, and they could let single-family detached homes be replaced by rowhouses. Not that the whole metro area would become apartment towers in either case, but somewhat more of both would.

The basic issue is that in the modern economy most people work providing face-to-face services to other people. So access to a prosperous local market is key to economic opportunity. It’s the 21st-century equivalent of getting a piece of fertile land to farm. And right now we’re not giving enough people that opportunity.

This starts as basically a restatement of the Strong Towns manifesto, identifying the traditionally laid-out streets of Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle as generators of value, and the sprawl development of the Sunbelt as a Ponzi Scheme. So much, so familiar.

Of course, here in Philadelphia, we have in relative abundance what these highly productive cities lack: developable land close in to the urban core. We don’t necessarily need to upzone (although in some places, like along Broad Street, I think we should) in order to give many more people access to economic opportunity. Our bloated cost of construction keeps rents and purchase prices high, but we don’t see the runaway unaffordability that’s chasing the middle class out of Manhattan, Brownstone Brooklyn, and San Francisco. The task in Philadelphia has to be maintaining and expanding the zone where new middle-class residents can comfortably build their lives. That means 1) fixing the public schools, 2) building more new housing, and 3) improving transit access to Center City from the neighborhoods.

Zone 1: Girard to Federal, river to river, plus Penn, Drexel, and Temple.  Zone 2: South of Lehigh, east of 52nd.
Philadelphia’s bikeshare map: the new hotness.

While the litany of despair form the schools is rightly demoralizing, I take great hope from the ambitious geographic scope laid out for the 2014-15 rollout of the city’s new bikeshare program, whose map I include above. Bikeshare is by far the cheapest and most cost-effective investment available in mobility today, and can pull a lot of pressure off of crowded buses in Greater Center City. The decision to spread the system all the way north to Lehigh Ave by 2015, an ambitious service territory for a fledgling system, serves two purposes. It makes the system available to current residents of neighborhoods beyond Greater Center City, who are, if anything, even more in need of bikeshare as inexpensive transit. And it lays out a marker for newcomers and the developers who want to build for them, saying “we’re going to do whatever we can to expand the desirable area of this city to be as inclusive, geographically and demographically, as we can”. In a city that’s still, in many ways, struggling for its own soul, that’s a big commitment. We’ll see if, and how, it sticks.

If you are a property owner interested in having the convenience and foot traffic of a bikeshare station at your address, you have until Monday to register your interest with the City.

Character limit workaround: a reply to @IngaSaffron

The heart of this tweet is the fear of getting a good idea, bike share, embroiled in an extended NIMBY fight energized by idiots who hold “a cost-free street parking spot” on their own list of rights, right after (or before) speech, religion, assembly, and non-self-incrimination.  Fighting idiots is necessary, but creates delays and just feels like a demoralizing waste of resources.

I would suggest simply going around the parking-worshippers and siting bike share pods by simply asking for volunteers.  There are plenty of enlightened property owners and/or tenants out there who understand that a bike pod in the parking lane in front of their building adds far more value than a car.  Just ask those people or businesses to come forward.  The city can then distribute many (most?) of the pods where they will be guaranteed not to be offensive to the immediate neighbors.  Indeed, it would make for an effective publicity campaign to base the process around the loudly stated assumption that there will be more demand for a pod than pods to be distributed.  Make it a desirable status good, not a sacrifice; if you want to be really cheeky, auction the pods in the most oversubscribed locations.  And let the smart businesses reap the benefits of their early adopterhood.

(Normally I would reply to a tweet wih a tweet, but 140 characters is just not enough to explain an idea, sometimes.  Apologies for any issues from the WP phone client.)

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.