Bicycle Sharing Rolls out at Penn


There’s little that compares to the feeling of flying along the road, your two legs powering a simple, silent, magic machine: a bicycle. Though critics scoff at the relatively small proportion (0.6 percent) of Americans riding bikes to work, Richard Florida of The Atlantic analyzed census data from the 2010 American Community Survey and found residents of towns with a high percentage of cycle commuters were “richer, fitter and more successful in many other ways.”

Compact and relatively flat, Philadelphia is a prime cycling city, but the wind-in-your-hair freedom of bike riding can be quickly earthbound by the realities of bike ownership. You’ve got to store it, maintain it and possibly hump it up stairs, all after laying down a chunk of cash for bike, helmet, lock and a nice loud bell. University of Pennsylvania junior Chris Cruz hopes to remove the obstacles that prevent fellow students and West Philly neighbors from cycling with PennCycle, a student-run bicycle sharing project going into its pilot phase this spring.

The long, narrow landscape of Penn’s urban campus inspired Cruz, a junior double majoring in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and Urban Studies. “If you look at the layout of the campus, most of the housing is near or past 40th St.,” he said. “If you have classes at the Museum [of Archaeology and Anthropology], it’s at least a 20-minute walk. For the athlete who lives on 41st St. and needs to get to the football field, track or Penn Park, it’s a tremendous walk.”

Cruz’ three years serving on the Undergraduate Assembly, Penn’s student government, likewise nurtured the PennCycle seed. “As a student government rep, it’s your responsibility to come up with ideas to improve campus life,” said Cruz. “[Penn president] Amy Gutmann and Penn have made a strong commitment to sustainability, and provides the Green Fund. You can come up with an idea and get funding – they encourage innovation.”

Cruz is quick to emphasize that though he thought up the idea for a bike share, each member of the five-person team “has different skill sets and majors, and each brings something to the table.” Madison Roberts, Alex Rattray, Jenny Xia and Lizzie Cutler have already run a financial model for the proposal, which will enter its first phase this spring at Hill House. “Spring 2012 is a testing ground,” said Cruz. “Our projected revenues are pretty high, and a previous survey of the student body showed a high demand and a good price people are willing to pay. There is tremendous potential.”

New York University’s successful campus bike-sharing program, which launched as a pilot in the summer of 2010, has provided a contender for the bicycle models the team will test. The Biria Cruiser (MSRP $549), a unisex city bike with no top bar, allows a person wearing a skirt to easily hop on and off.

The bike share proposed by the team is known as a second-generation system; faculty and students will use their Penn ID cards to rent out a key that unlocks a specified bike. Once finished with the cycle, the user will return the key to indicate the bike has been returned.

“Theft is a central issue,” wrote Cruz in an email. “The bikes will be unique in design and color, which will make them easier to locate. In addition, small GPS tracking devices are a possibility we are looking into. There will be training of PennCycle members to prevents theft, because theft of a bike is statistically more probable when the ride doesn’t understand the importance of, and how to, lock a bike.”

“We’re meeting with the risk management department and public safety this week,” adds Cruz. “We want to make sure everyone has an input and everyone at Penn feels connected…we are working with different deans in the different college houses. Some are very interested in the process of using our bikes. The long-term vision is every college house has a system, and there is a fluidity of bikes going throughout campus.”

Though Cruz and his teammates will likely be graduated if and when their bike sharing dream comes to full fruition, the process of building and testing the framework of the idea feels like an immediate success. “This is a student-run business model,” said Cruz. “But it’s really the students and administration collaborating – we’re really a partnership.


Visit PennCycle to support the students at Penn and their pilot program this Spring.

Photos via Travis Forsyth and Phil Dowsing

Posted by Felicia D'Ambrosio on January 23, 2012

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