Michael Heaney learned Philadelphia’s streets from the seat of a navy-blue bike. He moved to the city in the spring of 2015, just a month before the launch of the Indego bike share system, and for a while he depended on his car and mass transit to get around. Then he started using bike share. “I know how to get around the Indego network more easily than I do on the freeways,” he says.
Bike share has become a way for Heaney to orient himself in his adopted home. The Indego station map, like the most effective subway maps, informs how he sees the city. Individual stations, meanwhile, serve as gateways to new areas. The station at 9th and Spring Garden streets, in particular, has helped Heaney explore Callowhill and other surrounding neighborhoods.
“It’s very involving, very visceral,” he says. “It’s something you can identify with.”
For Indego, which is owned by the City of Philadelphia and privately managed by Bicycle Transit Systems, Heaney’s experience is the ideal. Indego has not only a committed customer in Heaney, but also a sort of evangelist — someone who feels connected to the system in a personal way.
“We think we can do a better job than just providing a basic transportation system,” says Aaron Ritz, who oversees Indego for the City’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems. “We think we can provide something more focused on community.”
When Indego launched in April 2015, Ritz and other officials had already spent months meeting with community groups across the city. At the time, their goal was to explain how the new system would work and address any fears about its impact. Today Indego uses community engagement for a loftier goal: to instill a sense of public ownership in bike share, so that users see it not just as a service but also as an ingrained part of the city.
Many Philadelphians, however, still don’t have access to a station in their neighborhood, or the desire to hop on a bike at all until the streets become safer. In addition, Indego has to contend with how city dwellers have an often-contentious relationship with their infrastructure. Late trains, gridlocked highways, and blocked bike lanes — to name just a few common complaints — have to a degree taken pride in public works out of the equation. Where does that leave a relatively new system like bike share?
One of Indego’s strategies has been to thread itself into the lives of Philadelphians. That entails keeping up a steady attendance at community events, from low-key happy hours to large outdoor festivals. “I can honestly say that from the outset, I was daunted by the sheer amount of outside-office time that went into it,” Ritz says. “But I think that’s the right way to do things.”
At those events, Indego routinely sets up temporary stations to accommodate guests. The system has also stepped up service during citywide celebrations and emergencies. During the papal visit in 2015 and the SEPTA strike last fall, for instance, Indego didn’t hesitate to market itself as an alternative to driving or public transit. Ridership spiked during both incidents.
Indego has also employed more traditional forms of marketing. In the months leading up to its millionth ride, the system urged riders to help it reach the milestone. Those that did won a chance to have a station named after them for six months. The millionth rider was profiled on Indego’s website.
In a similar vein, Indego launched a program in late 2016 called “IndeHero,” which gives “points” to people who help balance the system by riding from high-volume stations to stations in need of bikes. “The points will guide you on your quest to become an IndeHero,” a recent promotional email read. “The more points you win, the more credit you earn on your pass!”
“I know how to get around the Indego network more easily than I do on the freeways.”
Indego isn’t alone in looking beyond billboards and print advertisements when it comes to outreach. Bike share systems across the country are experimenting with how to establish themselves in their respective cities.
“No matter where you are in the country, we’re all fairly scrappy organizations and we don’t have the money,” says Sean Wiedel, who manages Chicago’s Divvy bike share system and heads the North American Bikeshare Association, a trade group for the industry. “So it’s really about trying to do things that capture people’s imagination and make bike share fun and accessible.”
He notes that promotions like Divvy’s “unicorn bike,” a specially painted bike that riders seek out for the chance to win prizes, help make bike share engaging at a low cost. And cost does matter. While bike share systems use a wide range of funding models — most of which include government money — they still need revenue from rides and memberships to survive.
“More than half of our revenue is made up of user fees,” Ritz says. “Having people riding is important, not just because it validates having the system in the first place, but it also pays itself back.”
Bike share isn’t immune from competition, either. There is fear going forward, Wiedel says, about how the public will view bike share after it loses some of its novelty and becomes just one transportation option among many. He points to low-cost ride-sharing apps, such as UberPOOL and Lyft Line, as a potential threat.
But both Wiedel and Ritz, who recently joined the board of the North American Bikeshare Association, agree that the unique qualities of cycling give it an advantage over even the cheapest alternatives. “It’s easy to mentally own, in some ways, because you’re thinking about [bicycling] as something you’re doing independently,” Ritz says.
In other words, bike share can be fun and satisfying while also providing a degree of freedom and autonomy. But Indego has ambitions beyond recreation. It wants to become a truly public transportation mode, and one that is less prone to the public frustrations attached to other services in Philadelphia.
Dylan Gottlieb, a graduate student at Princeton University and a writer on urban history, has studied past incidents in which Philadelphians rallied against an infrastructure project, such as the crosstown expressway proposed to run along the southern end of Center City. In that case, a coalition of artists, shop owners and neighborhood residents who lived along South Street ultimately stopped the project. He sees Indego almost as an inverse of that situation — a reflection of public will toward infrastructure, but in the positive.
Gottlieb points to changing demographics as one reason something like bike share has gotten off the ground. New residents are asserting their control, he says, to realize a particular version of urbanism, one that includes pedestrian-friendly streets, green spaces, and diverse transportation options. “The bicycle fits into that almost utopian vision of what the city can be,” he says.
The early history of bike share in Philadelphia squares with that theory. Years before the system launched, a group of devoted advocates kept the idea alive and pressed City officials to make it happen. Indego, nonetheless, has actively tried to engage people outside of the bike advocacy community. It offers a cash option and a discount to people on public benefits, and it has steadily expanded beyond Center City and its surrounding neighborhoods.
“The bicycle fits into that almost utopian vision of what the city can be.”
There is still a fundamental disparity, Gottlieb says, in how new civic projects come to be. “You don’t have the government throwing around the sums of money that it used to,” he says. “You actually need stakeholders to buy in.” He notes projects like the Viaduct Spur and the Grays Ferry Triangle, which required layers of grant funding and public support before the City sanctioned them. Each had a base of supporters that was engaged, organized and, most importantly, loud.
Yet this proactive approach to how cities are changing, Ritz says, was never limited to advocates or the civically engaged. It just manifests itself in different ways for different communities. “People who live in places have always tried to make them useful to themselves,” he says.
Indego, however, has clearly benefited from the work of advocates who come from a robust cycling community. What remains unclear is whether their vision for the city, and their commitment to fulfilling it, extends to other people’s needs.
“What are they willing to give up?” Gottlieb says. “Are they willing to let others in the community have an equally loud voice? I think it’s an open question.” ◆
Photos by Juliana Laury