Philadelphia bike Share planners share early lessons about values, partnerships and outreach

by April Corbin, PeopleForBikes equity writer

Indego launch event. (All photos by Darren Burton)

Posters on the shiny new Indego bike share station kiosks declare Philadelphia “the city of bicycle love.” And so far, it doesn’t seem like false advertising.

After it’s first weekend in operation, more than 1,200 Philadelphians had signed up for monthly memberships and more than 3,500 trips were taken. City officials see these numbers as a promising start for a system that has been years in the making.

We spoke with bicycle programs manager Aaron Ritz and manager of strategic initiatives Cara Ferrentino, both with the mayor’s office of transportation and utilities, about the process of launching their 600-bike, 60-station bike share system and what they have learned along the way.

Prioritize your values and stick with those

There are lots of approaches cities can take when planning and promoting bike share, argues Ritz. They can emphasize health and wellness or environmental sustainability. They can target existing tourist amenities and cater to that crowd. They can choose to see bike share as public transit designed to make commuting easier for residents of all income levels.

No approach is wrong, as long as it’s deliberate and thought out. “You have to define success and what bike share is,” he says, “because you can make it work in many different ways.”

While any bike share system will likely fill many community needs simultaneously, Ritz and Ferrentino say having a strategic mission led by a commitment to bike share as a form of equitable public transit took a lot of the guesswork out of their planning process.

“It made a lot of the decisions for us,” says Ferrentino. “We knew we’d trade slam-dunk, we-know-bike-share-will-work-here areas for lower density, lower income.”

Because of this, the city planners don’t expect to reach the operator-set goal of bikes per ride within the first year. But that’s okay, they say, because it’s aligned with their longer-term strategic goals.

Select the right strategic partners

Ferrentino says that at the Indego launch event, someone commented to her how nice it was to see a bike share launch that featured people beyond “the bike crowd.” Dozens of local groups were there, representing workforce development programs, community recreation centers, religious groups and health initiatives.

“It felt authentically Philadelphia,” says Ferrentino. And that’s by design.

Ferrentino says one of the things she is most grateful for is that the city raised funding to pay for formalized, strategic partnerships. Two such partners are the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, which is heading outreach efforts by managing the street team and ambassadors, and Temple University, which conducted a focus group with low-income people on their opinions on the proposed system.

“Here we were thinking transit, transit, transit. Then, you hear from focus groups: fun, health, family…” says Ritz. That type of insight is instrumental, he adds, and that feedback is more apt to come from their partner’s channels than their own.

“There are some things cities aren’t the best at,” says Ferrentino. “We all play different roles.”

On a less formal basis, the city has reached out to or formed working connections with dozens of local organizations to get them involved at the ground level.

“People appreciate being involved from the beginning,” says Ferrentino. “That goes a long way.”

Members of the Indego Street Team pose for a photo

‘You can’t talk to everyone, but you should try to anyway’

Input is important, but the reality of planning is that you will never get enough in advance, so the feedback process must constantly evolve. Ferrentino says that prior to installing stations the city did its best to identify neighborhood organizations that best represent the opinions and desires of their communities, but they came up short in a few areas, particularly in North Philly.

“People define their communities differently,” says Ritz.

Sometimes people don’t associate with a neighborhood as defined by a census tract or map of the city. Sometimes passion and engagement is concentrated on a person’s specific block or just within their housing development. Sometimes there are competing groups with vastly different interests and ideas about what their neighborhood could be. Sometimes the key network of people isn’t a formal group at all.

Whatever the cause, this presents a challenge when asking for input on things like station placement.

In these cases, the transportation team chose sites and made assumptions the best they could, knowing they might have to adjust them after the fact once a clearer consensus emerged from the surrounding neighborhood.

“We try to be nimble and flexible,” says Ferrentino. “We’ve learned that you can’t talk to everyone, but you should try to anyway.”

Don’t be afraid to take the scenic route

During the launch event, Mayor Michael Nutter joked that the question “Where’s my bike share?” has been asked a lot—usually with a not-press-conference-friendly expletive thrown in for good measure.

Now that the shiny blue bikes are here, the benefits of not being the first North American city to launch are obvious. Nearly everyone involved with the system seems to have uttered the phrase, “We’ve learned from other cities.” Indego marks the largest-ever launch for B-Cycle, as well as the system with the country’s most concentrated focus on equity.

While Ritz says that while there are some decisions he wishes they’d made faster, he hopes their attention to detail and process will pay off in the long run as the system continues to grow.

The Better Bike Share Partnership is a JPB Foundation-funded collaboration between the City of Philadelphia, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the PeopleForBikes Foundation to build equitable and replicable bike share systems. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or sign up for our weekly newsletter. Story tip? Write