With oil and gasoline prices subject to the volatile, roller-coaster-like ups and downs of worldwide supply and demand, more and more bicycles are showing up on the streets of Philadelphia, notably in Center City, but elsewhere around town, as well.
Bicycles are in vogue because they offer a convenient, space-saving and fun form of basic transportation, aside from the fact that they save on gas. Tell that to anyone who tried to drive in or take public transportation to the Phillies victory parade, only to be stranded at the station because of overflow.
So, with the use of bicycles on the rise, is it just a matter of time before the Ben Franklin Parkway, for example, is as full of bikes and riders as, say, the Champs Élysées in Paris? And will the number of Philly's "pedal pushers" rival those of Amsterdam eventually?
Yes — if the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, based in Center City but with a metropolitan-area reach, and a pro-pedal city government led by bicycle-enthusiast Mayor Michael Nutter, have their gas-saving, pollution-cutting, exercise-affording way.
And it's all thanks to an ambitious program called Bike Share Philly (www.bikesharephilly.org).
"The success of the programs in Lyon and Paris, France, has led to the idea being proposed here, which has been met with an overwhelmingly positive response," said John Boyle, advocacy director, BCGP. Thousands of shared bicycles are in use in Paris daily, thanks to that city's program.
While bike-sharing has been popular in many places in Europe for some time, it's only now being introduced in the United States. For the first time, for example, bike-sharing was offered at both the Democratic and Republican national political conventions this year.
SmartBike, the program begun in Washington, D.C., recently, that costs $40 a year to join, is off and cruising with 120 bikes, 10 bike stations, computerized bike racks and online registration. The start of that program has helped to fuel growing bike-sharing interest in Philadelphia, Boyle said.
"Philadelphia has launched a feasibility study for bike-sharing, including how many bikes and stations there will be, and how to pay for it. The study process should take about six months," explained Boyle.
"If the political support and funding is put in place, then it should take about a year to design and implement a program. Most of the bike stations will be located in public spaces, so the city's buy-in to the program is necessary."
The model in other cities, in Europe and in the nation's capital, he noted, is that the funding of bike-sharing is tied to a "street-furniture" contract. That means, he said, that advertising rights are awarded in exchange for the installation of street furniture, such as bus shelters, bike racks, benches, kiosks and street lights.
Some cities, Boyle remarked, have decided to operate their bike programs within their own budgets. "It could also be tied to transportation funding, just like highways, streets and SEPTA," Boyle stated.
According to information on its Web site (www.bicyclecoalition.org), the Bicycle Coalition has 1,200 members. It promotes bicycling as a healthy, low-cost and environmentally friendly form of transportation and recreation, and its research shows that 36,000 commuters bicycle to work at least once a month in the city.
Philadelphia Councilwoman-at-Large Blondell Reynolds Brown estimated the earliest a public-use bike-share (PUB) system could be up and running is spring 2010, with the usage study in the hands of city council by next month.
To date, she said, the mayor has received nearly 1,100 letters in favor of a PUB system.
Steve Buckley, director of policy and planning for Philadelphia's department of transportation, talked about reasons the idea is being floated and some of the policy decisions the program presents. "There are significant public benefits, potentially, including less traffic congestion and exercise, and it's a good option for people who don't drive or have a car," he said, noting that in other cities the program works best in pockets of high density.
With regard to questions of policy, Buckley continued, "as we study models of programs working elsewhere, we will be looking at such things as insurance and whether, perhaps, riders will rely on their personal health insurance for coverage, should they need medical care.
"Rates might be about a dollar an hour, while use of the bikes could be free for up to a half hour, as is the case in some places. And a membership fee, like the program in Washington, could be considered," said Buckley.
As for potential user groups, he commented, these could include workers and others commuting into the city, and possibly tourists.