Indego Bike Share: Not As Dumb As You May Think
When the city of Philadelphia announced the arrival of their bicycle share program, Indego, in February of this year, it was met with an unprecedented flurry of hype—perhaps more than any city-funded project in recent years. It was almost impossible to not romanticize the concept. A bike share program appeals to hardened commuters and casual riders alike; it entices the environmentalists who decry the pollution from motor vehicles; it stands in solidarity with the exercise fanatics.
And I desperately wanted to hate everything about it.
Maybe it was the premature unveiling of the already-trademarked name and brief concern of a lawsuit (“Indego” also belongs to a Cleveland robotics company). Maybe it was the hulking, baby blue bike frames that loudly proclaim all of the implied “uncoolness” of public access. Maybe it was simply my frustrations as a biker of over three years in Philadelphia, finally boiling over at the idea of throwing hundreds of inexperienced riders directly into the crosshairs of my commute. But just one week into the throes of Indego, I find my skepticism slowly dissolving.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of a bike share, it’s as straightforward as the term implies. 71 stations across the city will house vibrant blue bicycles that are accessible to the public for varying fees, 24 hours a day. Facilitated by the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities (MOTU), Indego is made possible by a host of private sector investors in addition to government outlets. Its namesake, Independence Blue Cross, will ante up $8.5 million over the course of five years to aid the program. Bicycle Transit Systems, based in Philadelphia, will act as the steward of Indego, handling operations, maintenance, and customer service. According to MOTU’s introductory guide, the next several years will feature multiple phases of release, bringing bike stations to more areas of the city. For phase one, they span as far north as 6th & Berks, as far west as Clark Park, and as far south as Point Breeze.
Subscriptions to Indego are currently offered in tiers. The “Indego30” month-long membership costs $15, and offers unlimited rides up to one hour per trip; “IndegoFlex” requires a down payment of $10, and allows users to get rides of up to an hour for $4. Non-members can pay the same $4 rate for rides up to one half hour.
Indego certainly has cost on their side for the active cyclist. If commuting round-trip five days per week, an Indego30 member could spend $180 each year, or roughly $0.70 per day, to fuel their round-the-clock travels, without ever having to assume the extra responsibilities of owning a bike. The public lock stations alleviate any need to meddle with U-locks (or their less secure alternatives), and all repairs are performed by the company. If a station is full when returning a bike, riders at the station kiosk are given a ride extension to find an open lock-up point. All riders are required to provide a name and address to deter theft, and the company will be able to actively pursue any mishaps via credit card records in the event that a rider fails to properly dock their bike at a station. While not quite comparable to the “boardwalk bicycle” system, Indego is targeted at frequent riders, not tourists, and there’s a relatively steep price jump for foregoing commitment. A city resident who wants to rent from Indego spontaneously will be looking at a minimum of $4 per ride—a price that still manages to exceed the $2.25 rate that SEPTA charges, but skirts the “wait time” that accompanies public transit.
Access to Philly’s “fringe neighborhoods” is only slightly hampered by the scope of the launch. Fishtown dwellers’ closest points of access are the stations at 6th & Berks, 2nd & Germantown or the stops accompanying the Girard and Spring Garden stations of the Market-Frankford Line. Ideally, as the program moves forward, stations with frequent use will grow in size, or migrate to areas with higher demand. Indego’s primary headquarters actually occupies a warehouse space in Kensington, cementing the hope that expansion throughout the neighborhood will be easy and inevitable. As pointed out by Matthew Norris at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign earlier this week, Philly’s bike share learned from the mistakes of its cross-country predecessors, and is accessible in many low-income neighborhoods.
So, it’s not easy to rally against Indego’s intentions or price. Even their revenue source is remarkably clean. Where was my hesitation coming from? Could I truly be so jaded that my city, frequently rated one of the top cities nationwide for biking, is aggressively pushing their inhabitants toward a healthier, cheaper, cleaner, reduced-footprint method of travel?
After mulling it over for months, grudgingly watching Indego gear up to roll out their polished blue carpet, I came to conclusion that it was the “grace period” that continued to nag at me. There’s a forced adjustment that comes with being a biker in an urban area. It’s easy to forget that even with a lack of a motor, bicycles are vehicles, and are still subject to the laws of the road. We’re required to obey traffic lights, lane restrictions, and, god help us, stay off of the sidewalks. Surely, we’d all be overwhelmed with the lunacy of inexperienced, reckless millennials who would inevitably flock to Indego, and our cyclist fatalities would skyrocket without remorse.
The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia is quick to dispel that train of thought. Their December 2014 “Safer Streets” report not only shows that bicycle fatalities have trended extremely low in Philadelphia for several years, but increasing the amount of cyclists, and thereby decreasing the amount of motorists, will result in a sharp decline of fatalities from pedestrians. Even further, they propose that proper commitment to building bicycle-friendly infrastructure (dropped an estimated 37% over the last ten years) could save the city millions of dollars in excess.
In the shadow of two consecutive rough winters, it’s no secret that Philadelphia streets are a mess of potholes, worn-down pavement. Putting outstanding circumstances aside, the fringe neighborhoods of our city are relatively difficult for bikers to navigate. The major streets that cut through Northern Liberties and Fishtown, Girard Avenue, 2nd Street, and Frankford Avenue, do not have designated bike lanes (Spring Garden is the closest to the south, and Lehigh to the north).
Dave Barman, a Northern Liberties resident a daily bike commuter, was quick to raise his concerns about the city’s infrastructure, which he views as unreliable.
“The deplorable state of sidewalks and safety [within] construction zones should be number one on the city’s to-do list,” he writes. “Our bike lanes are in bad shape with faded paint…
[our] car-centric culture and the out of state drivers who flaunt traffic laws with no reproach [make] a fatal cocktail.”
Indego’s web presence has done well to link to The Bicycle Coalition’s comprehensive list of laws in and outside of city limits, as well as general safety tips for riders, but they certainly can’t guarantee that every user will read up before renting a bike. They also do not require customers to wear helmets while renting a bike (in accordance with the law), or even provide them (citing sanitation and availability concerns).
Mike McGettigan, owner of Trophy Bikes at 712 N 2nd Street, offered a surprisingly optimistic perspective on the situation, in light of the radical changes that Indego brings. He could rightfully feel pressured by the beginnings of a business warfare: Faced with the bike share’s arrival, McGettigan lost one of his employees, who was offered a job as a mechanic at Indego. Despite this, he looks forward to commuting in a busier bike lane, even if it means being alongside novice riders.
“I know what it is to live in a city dominated by automobiles,” he says. “Bike shares fill an important role for many people. I wholeheartedly share and support [it]. It makes [the roads] safer for me, for my son, for my sister, and for all of our fellow cyclists.”
When asked about the projected effects on his ability to sell bikes, McGettigan casually brushed away the pressure, laughing.
“In one year, I think we’ll start selling more bikes as people “graduate” from bike shares. I’ve used public bathrooms, and I still want my own bathroom!“ he jokes. “There isn’t one bike we sell that isn’t faster or cooler than a bike share bike. Cheaper? Maybe not, but cooler? Without a doubt.”
McGettigan also took time to emphasize that infrastructure change, especially on a grand scale, takes time. Reaping the rewards of new bike trails, rehabbed lanes, and safety awareness can only happen when there is a demand for problems to be solved.
“Look at what it took to funnel 95 through the city,” he said. “They paved over so much of the historical district. They spent 50 years improving [automobile] access around [Philly]. We’re still working around that…[but] I know that more riders will encourage faster and better repairs that will be felt [by new and old commuters alike].”
Indego’s market-worthy preparedness is just shy of bulletproof. Finally, we’ve been given what seems to be the ultimate groundwork required to foster a blossoming bike culture. The city in which it resides, however, would do well to consider what it means to bear this self-imposed weight: making a city bicycle-friendly stems from more than just supplying people with bikes. MOTU, Bicycle Transit Systems, the Streets Department, and every commuter, Indego or otherwise, should be held to a higher standard of accountability than ever before. Positive change is fragile, but susceptible to setbacks, and needs to be nurtured through its growing pains. Riders should be compelled to speak to their city council representatives, contact the government departments responsible for action, and above all else, work to develop flawless road habits.
For Philly to be worthy of its innovations, it’s necessary that the dialogue of safety and concern has as much stamina as a tenured cyclist. Only time will tell if the ongoing phases of Indego are curated with as much pride and attention to detail as the celebratory launch.
Indego bicycle stations are currently open across the city. For more information and a station map, visit www.rideindego.com. Riders looking to become more informed and vocal about Philly’s bicycle infrastructure can get involved with The Bicycle Coalition at www.bicyclecoalition.org.