Philly On Wheels

Doty and Meddin

Think transit, not recreation. That’s the paradigm shift cities like Lyon, Paris, Minneapolis and Miami made when instituting their bike sharing systems. In Philadelphia, where the average person views biking as a potential blood sport, the ground is being well prepared to take it to the next level. Bicycling has doubled in Philadelphia over the last three years. According to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, there are 76,000 bike trips in the city of Philadelphia every day. The region’s bike culture is thriving, larger even than in Chicago or New York City. And Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia Executive Director Alex Doty and chief advocate for Bike Share Philadelphia Russell Meddin are doing their best to get even more people on wheels.

Looking at the miles of bike trails available in the region, including such scenic rides as Heinz National Wildlife Refuge and Pennypack Park, the average Philadelphian could be inspired to get out on a bike. But the city is more daunting.

“There are 205 miles of marked bicycle lanes on Philadelphia city streets. Unfortunately, most people who live in Center City have no earthly idea they exist because they don’t exist downtown. But they’re everywhere else,” says Meddin, “So you shouldn’t be afraid, because once you get out of Center City proper, there are bike lanes and the streets are marked well enough to ride safely. Once you start riding, you get used to it. You learn real quickly, and you make it safe for you.”

Doty adds, “The most important thing, after you get past some of the basic safety stuff, is just finding a route you’re comfortable with. Like the first time you take a bike to work, it might not be a good idea to launch into that during rush hour on a Wednesday morning. What happens if you go and map out a route on a Sunday morning and see what routes will work, without the traffic pressure there?”

The Bicycle Coalition offers bicycle education courses. The most popular is a three mile urban ride. Nothing teaches like doing. And it helps to have veteran urban pedalers demonstrating tried and true techniques. Bikes have to follow the same rules of the road as cars. In the city, watching out for opening doors on parked cars is an especially important safety tactic. Some people worry they’re going to get honked at, but, Doty says, “that’s good. The person saw you, you’re there! It’s when they don’t see you that you have a problem. For a lot of people in this cycling course it was about getting out on the street and having a hundred cars pass them, and getting used to that feeling of having somebody in that much steel at that speed going past you. And you have the right, as a bicyclist, to go in, if you don’t feel safe, to take the whole lane. Everybody gets upset, they’re blocked up behind you, but you’ve taken the lane for the length of time you need to get into a safe spot.”

The Bicycle Coalition will begin its “Bicycle Ambassadors” program this Spring as part of its effort to improve awareness of bicycle safety. The basics include riding with traffic, and riding on the streets, not the sidewalk. Sidewalk riding may appear safe, but in fact it’s dangerous. Cars in traffic are looking at street and pedestrian traffic when gauging turns. If a car plans a turn at an intersection, the driver will time it in accordance with the rate of pedestrians walking across the street, while being mindful of oncoming traffic. But if a bike is speeding along on the sidewalk at a faster rate, intending to cross with the light along with the pedestrians, there’s a much greater chance that bike will be accidentally hit, since the car hasn’t seen it coming. Bicycle Ambassadors will work to get bikes off the sidewalks as this will improve bicycle safety for everyone.

Many people look to biking as a way to do their part for the environment. The Bicycle Coalition estimates cyclists saved the city 47,450 tons in carbon emissions last year. And while bikers may be glad they’re doing something good for the environment, or something good for their health, or that saves them money, Doty and Meddin agree they keep doing it because they like it. It’s fun.

“People do it more often in places where it’s one of the most convenient ways to get around. You see the biggest increase in bicycling when the price of gas goes up, but people are sticking with bicycling after the price of gas goes down because they like it. In the end, the biggest thing about it is the joy of it,” says Doty, “So if you can transform the part of your day, whether it’s commuting or buying groceries, or whatever are the errands of your day, if you can turn that from something that’s boring or at worst, extremely frustrating, and turn that into a part of the day you look forward to, that’s what people love.”

One primary directive of the Bicycle Coalition is to advocate for more bike lanes, and “bicycle boulevards”, streets that are prioritized for bicycles. They hope eventually to create a throughway for the East Coast Greenway, but it gets tricky at Center City. The heart of the city needs an east-west connector route, that runs between the Delaware and the Schuylkill rivers, and a north-south artery. But  narrow, high traffic center city streets make this a challenge. Doty suggests pairs of “bike boulevards”. “Take a couple of streets, a street pair, say Spruce and Pine, as just an expample, it’s not studied, but as a concept,” says Doty, “Knock out a lane of traffic, move the parked cars over, put a bike lane in between the parked cars and curb. You might even, by knocking out a lane of traffic, be able to widen some of the sidewalks. You could have a better pedestrian experience, you could have a better bicycle experience, and really, if you cut down on double parking, car traffic isn’t going to be hit that hard, because most of the time, due to double parking, it’s only one lane of traffic anyway.”

“An underlying thing, if bicycle boulevards do appear in the city, there is a reduced usage of automobiles, therefore the amount of congestion is reduced,” says Meddin. “It’s what happened with Philly Car Share and Zipcar. They really did take cars off the street. And Bike Share will do the same. We’re trying to build a bike sharing culture and it will totally transform the way people get around in the city.”

It did in Lyon, France, the first place Meddin saw a bike share system in place while visiting a friend. His friend gushed about the system, declaring it was the best thing that had happened to Lyon. Impressed, Meddin wanted to learn more. “Lyon is a very similar city to Philadelphia. It’s population is not as large as Philadelphia, but it’s a very large city. Its at the confluence of two rivers making one, an old city surrounded by industry, and the largest city for students in France. A lot of people don’t realize, in Philadelphia, we have more students than Boston,” says Meddin. “The topography is the same too. The downtown is flat because of the valley of two rivers, but the surrounding suburbs are hilly. Because it works so well there, we thought it would work well here.”

Lyon’s system started in 2005. Within a year, according to the June 2006 Velo’v newsletter, the system, with over 52,000 subscribers, was registering more than 22,000 rentals daily. It’s reduced the amount of carbon in the air by 8,000 metric tons, according to a recent newsletter. Amsterdam and Copenhagen have long integrated biking, but now bike sharing systems are blooming all over Europe. Paris has a 20,000 bike system. It’s wildly successful.

“The thing that gets me excited about bike sharing for Philadelphia is that in Lyon, 90% of the people that use that bike sharing system had never ridden a bike in the city before. So bike sharing is a transformative tool for a city to become, almost overnight, more bicycle-friendly,” adds Doty.

It’s good for your health, it’s easy on the pocketbook. The Bicycle Coalition estimates that bicyclists saved the region 47,450 tons of carbon dioxide emissions last year, so it’s good for the environment. So what’s the hold up? Conceptually, there’s not a problem, but the devil is in the details. Most cities with successful systems are funded by “street furniture” contracts that give advertising companies the right to sells ads on public properties like bus shelters and trash receptacles in exchange for their maintenance.

“In every one of the successful ones there’s been virtually no cost to the cities for these programs. Street furniture income from the advertising pays for the maintenance, pays for replacements, and, in some cases, those who’ve done a good job of setting up the system, it actually pays the city back money. So there’s income. But the advertising aspect is troublesome to many in the United States,” says Meddin. “Most of these programs have placards, about the size of this [cafeteria lunch] table, which are put on the sidewalk. And in Paris, for every three ads, the fourth one has to be community related.”

Europeans are comfortable with the model, but in the US there is more resistance to outdoor advertising. Philadelphians are especially sensitive about billboards, and that may translate to reticence about kiosk ads. Europe, by contrast, has no billboards. Other funding models are available, though. Minneapolis, for example, will roll out its system in May with 1000 bikes, 75 stations, and a plan for expansion. It will be managed by Public Bike System, a Montreal nonprofit, which assembled start up funds from federal grants and private donations, significantly from Minnesota Blue Cross, in recognition of biking’s contribution to health.

Mayor Michael Nutter appointed Charles Carmalt as a pedestrian/bicycle Coordinator in October 2008.  New York City has more than a dozen such specialists on staff, but it’s a good start for Philadelphia, and a sign the administration is serious about addressing the issues. Since Nutter ran on a sustainability platform, Meddin likes to point out that a bike sharing system is one of the most “demonstrable, visible sustainability initiatives” he could implement. City Council is interested in the benefits of a bike sharing program and passed a resolution last summer authorizing a full study to be completed in December 2008. Unfortunately, Deputy Mayor and Deputy Managing Director for Transportation and Utilities Rina Cutler informed Council shortly thereafter that the study could not be completed within the time frame. To date, the study has not begun. Luckily, Bike Share Philadelphia was able to find funding. The Bicycle Coalition will undertake the study to identify best practices elsewhere, predict usage, and recommend what would work best for Philadelphia. The administration has yet to award a street furniture contract, but it’s understood that a bike sharing component will be considered whenever it is ready, as an independent request for bid. Philadelphia’s system will cost $25 million to start, give or take. Here, users would pay a subscription fee, around $35 to $40 per year, but then be able to ride the first half hour for free. Average rides are 22-25 minutes. Employees would need to reposition bicycles overnight to be ready for the next day’s demand.

“Nobody’s going to get the sweetest deal Paris got,” notes Meddin, “Here’s what they did: they built their system, 20,000 bikes, the biggest in the world, 1 bike per 250 people in the city, and the system pays the city money. Decaux (the advertising company) not only pays the city a percentage of sales on the advertising revenue, they pay for the bicycle program and all the revenue from the program goes directly to the city. In the case of Paris, it’s now running about 15 million euro per year. That’s a lot of change. They might not get the full revenue from advertising, but they probably get more than half of what they would have gotten (with a more standard contract). They’ve reduced the amount of traffic, they’ve changed the way people travel around the city, they’ve increased the health benefits to the city, it’s been an incredible win situation for the city.”

It’s impossible to predict the potential for transformation a public use bike system could bring to Philadelphia. As Meddin points out, “people who are not avid bicyclists view bikes as toys. And no one, for close to a hundred years, has thought of bicycles as transportation. We’re just starting to think that way now in the United States.”

Bike Share would be a boon for Philadelphia’s existing public transport system. Once the system rolls out fully, residents anywhere in the city would be just a few minutes from a bike share station. It would effectively change mass transit to point to point transportation, eliminating or greatly reducing wait times between the various lines. The idea is that within a one or two minute walk from anywhere in the city, a commuter would have the option to pick up a bike at a station to use in combination with other transit options. Better transportation access also means better access to jobs.

Imagine, says Doty, “if you work at Urban Outfitters in the Naval Yard, you’re taking a subway line to Patterson Station, then you wait for a shuttle to take you to the Naval Yard. If there’s a bike station that’s set up right there, then on a rainy day you take the shuttle and wait the extra ten minutes. But on a nice day, and you do have to bicycle-friendly out the route there a bit, but then you get into the Naval Yard and you have one of the most pleasant rides in the City of Philadelphia.”

At an anniversary event of Bike Share Philadelphia’s first successful forum in 2007, organizers will present Streetfilms ‘ videos of bike sharing systems already in place, as well as other documentaries depicting “livable streets”, urban streets harmonized for all types of traffic. They will have a demonstration solar-powered bike share station on hand in front of the Academy of Natural Sciences starting at 6PM. The program starts at 6:30PM at the Academy.

Streetfilms has documented many examples of multi-nodal best practices, much of it in New York. In New York City there is a lot of innovation, but at little expense, says Doty, “It’s become a very exciting place to talk about bicycle and pedestrian issues. Their Department of Transportation (DOT) has been transformed in the last seven or so years. The head of the DOT, Jeanette Sadik-Khan, came in with a set of ideas, and they already had some bicycle/pedestrian professionals in there, and she just sort of turned them loose. And they have this attitude that if we can do it with paint, why not try it? And they’ve been able to sell their transportation engineers on the idea that if you put some planters up you don’t need to put up a curb necessarily. So they’re using paint to knock out middle lanes of Broadway at different intersections and putting up a bunch of picnic tables and umbrellas and planters and you have a park in the middle of what was once two lanes of traffic between two sets of curbs. The end result is this swath of land that’s reclaimed for pedestrians. The amount of traffic that is put through has not been reduced because it’s more orderly, because they’ve rethought how to get traffic through this intersection.” This is called a “road diet”, and it’s worked wonders in many places including in Northeast Philadelphia.

In Center City, it’s harder, but Bike Share Philadelphia and the Bicycle Coalition have challenged Philadelphians to rethink the way they move around town. They have put the city firmly on the path to livable pedestrian and bike friendly streets.

Join Bike Share Philadelphia for a night at the movies with a presentation of Streetfilms ‘ movies documenting bike share programs and examples of livable streets around the country. A demonstration Bike Share Station will be set up in front of the Academy of Natural Sciences. The program starts tonight at 6:30PM at the Academy.

2009-01-12 09:07:22

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