It took nearly eight years of planning and strained anticipation, but bike share has finally arrived in Philadelphia. As of April 23, there are more than 600 bikes and 60 docking stations scattered across Center City, University City, and parts of the surrounding neighborhoods.
But while Indego — that’s the official name — is likely to become well known locally, many Philadelphians still do not understand who, exactly, runs the system and how. In part, this is because bike share programs in general rely on a number of different partners with different roles. Obscuring matters further, no two cities have the same exact setup.
With that in mind, I present SPOKE’s user guide to the main players behind Indego: who they are, what they do, and how Philly’s model differs from those of other cities.
Philadelphia bike share is municipally owned. This does not mean the city government handles day-to-day operations — that job is contracted out to a private company called Bicycle Transit Systems (BTS). However, the city does work with BTS to meet contractual obligations, such as keeping the bikes in good repair, and to dictate how the system will expand in the coming years. Revenue from memberships and one-off users, in addition to funding from other sources like advertising and sponsorship, goes toward paying a fixed rate to BTS.
Philly’s funding plan is not uncommon, though other cities have taken a mix of different approaches to bike share ownership. New York City and Miami, for example, have privately owned systems, while Denver and Minneapolis entrust theirs to non-profit groups that run the show in partnerships with the municipality and advocacy groups. Philadelphia takes after Washington, D.C. and Boston in that it actually owns its system and contracts out the operations.
Bike share systems, like other kinds of public infrastructure, still depend on the private sector for materials. Instead of truckloads of concrete or gravel, the product is a fully realized system with proprietary software, docking stations and bikes.
How is a supplier chosen? Philadelphia sent out a request for proposals back in 2013. The winner, B-Cycle, is one of the largest bike share companies in the country. It supplies bikes to programs in 24 cities, from Savannah to Fargo to Salt Lake City.
In Philadelphia, B-Cycle will install the stations, stock them with bikes, and leave the rest to the operator, providing extra parts and software updates when needed. Indego is the first bike share system in the mid- Atlantic region to use B-Cycle.
For average users, a bike share operator is arguably the most important part of the picture. Operators oversee the system, which means they feel the pressure to make sure things run smoothly. Unlike, say, a subway operator, there are no schedules to keep or tickets to tear. Instead, a bike share operator’s job is to keep the system balanced. As bikes pile up at the more popular stations, the operator must physically move them from one dock to another so that rides are always available across the city. Operators also maintain and repair the bikes, provide customer service, and work with the city to expand the system over time.
Bicycle Transit Systems, which beat out five other companies for the contract following the 2013 RFP, is only two years old. Formed by veterans of the then-troubled Portland, Ore. company Alta Bike Share (now called Motivate and reportedly seeing better days), BTS launched just before Philadelphia got serious about bike share. As luck would have it, the company is headquartered here.
A contract manager at the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities will work with BTS to meet requirements and goals in the contract. These include keeping the docking stations balanced, maintaining the bikes and software, and making sure the system is accessible to all Philadelphians. If the requirements are exceeded, BTS has the opportunity to earn a bonus over its fixed fee. The city can also lower the fee if requirements are not met.
This is who accounts for the shiny, color-coded part of bike share that gets the most attention. The title sponsor is really just a long-term advertiser who earns the naming rights for its contribution. It also happens to pay for a substantial portion of bike share’s operating costs.
In Philadelphia — a land of hospitals and universities — Independence Blue Cross will commit $1.7 million a year for five years in return for the naming rights. (“Indego” is a portmanteau of “independence” and “go.” Geddit?) Chicago’s system also found a sponsor in its local arm of the health insurance giant, though many cities have gone with major financial institutions, such as New York with Citibank and London with Barclays. No word yet on whether Indego membership will raise or lower your deductibles.