Bike-sharing program piques Council's interest

There was consensus in a City Council hearing yesterday that a shared-bicycle program in Philadelphia would help clear traffic congestion, reduce air pollution and improve the health of the people doing the pedaling.

The question now: How to put such a program in place?

One approach is to create a nonprofit agency to buy and service the bicycles and install racks across the city where they will be stored.

That model has been used by PhillyCarShare, a nonprofit that allows members to use cars parked in designated spots.

Another approach is to strike a deal with a company that services "public furniture" - bus shelters, subway stations, public toilets and newsstands - to manage the bicycles program.

Washington, D.C., next month will launch a pilot program using that second approach, in an agreement with SmartBike DC, owned by Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings to put 120 bicycles on the road in 10 stations. Similar programs operate in more than 60 American and European cities.

SmartBike was one of three shared-bicycle companies that made presentations during yesterday's hearing.

In shared-bicycle programs, riders pay for memberships or one-time fees to use bicycles. The bicycles are removed from racks, typically for one-way trips that last less than 30 minutes, and returned to a different rack near the rider's destination.

Rina Cutler, the city's deputy mayor for transportation and utilities, said that the Nutter administration supports the concept of a shared bicycle program but needs more information. Cutler asked about who pays for the equipment and who collects the profits.

"Our concern is that under the street furniture model, the size, scale and structure of the bike sharing program ultimately hinges on the city exchanging advertising space for these goods or services," Cutler said. "There is no free lunch here."

Cutler also urged the city to consider a pilot program and said her staff would be monitoring the effort in Washington for ideas.

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who called for hearings on the subject with Councilman Curtis Jones, assured Cutler that her colleagues are committed to "slow-walking the process so that we get it right." *