The [Sad] Reality of Indego

The word about Indego is definitely out now – and that should be a good thing. The numbers would lead one to believe it is; 8,000 rides in the first week isn’t a bad number at all. However, on a system with about 60 stations – three of which are still not installed – and about 800 bikes, that leads to a supply and demand problem Indego doesn’t appear to be currently equipped to keep up with. The majority of my rides have still been fairly smooth, but the problems encountered are rapidly increasing.

The first seems to be the pricing. Personally, I think Indego’s pricing is relatively fair. The $15 I’ve spent for my first month have gotten me significantly farther than $15 on SEPTA can get you (unless you know the system extremely well.) But the pricing is what I get questions about the most while riding around, and not everyone is happy with it. The three tiers of pricing have been remarkably more difficult to explain than they should be. Both tourists and locals I’ve run in to have been less than thrilled with the $4 for half an hour. Paying with a credit card is also a very real problem. Indego did anticipate this with a cash option for a monthly membership, but cash seems to need to be an option for walk-ups as well. A day pass might work better (and arguably be easier to implement).

Hardware and software are also an issue for Indego. The screens on stations are unreadable in bright daylight. They’re nice and bright at night though. The reliability of the stations themselves has been questionable; the Art Museum is notorious for crashing. Rittenhouse was so badly hung yesterday that the system didn’t even realize it was down, although customer service knew right away if you called them about it. I had to call again after walking up to 19th and Market to get another bike out because the station still thought I had a bike out, even though customer service saw that it had been marked as returned. The entire station had to be rebooted before it would give me a bike… which ended up having a broken bell (note to self: check the bell too.)

Now, this next issue is difficult to say where the problem really is. Increasingly, the availability counts on the B Cycle app have been inaccurate. Not because of a significantly delay in data transmission, but because of bikes not docked properly. I’ve doubled the number of available bikes at a station twice now simply by checking that every bike has been fully pushed in – especially when what I see and what the app sees don’t add up. However, the app does not account for bikes that are out of service, and you wouldn’t know a bike is out of service until you try to dispense it and the red X of death appears if you’re using a key fob. While it would lead to faster battery drain for the station, that red X badly needs to stay on if a bike is out. The way things are going, I’m going to need to start carrying about a pad of sticky notes and a pen. As for the docking problem, more signage on the dock itself might help, or on the bike itself. I’d be willing to bet not all of Indego’s users follow the tips tweeted out on Twitter by Indego. It would require a dock redesign, but docks that grab and dock the bikes themselves are almost necessary.

However, sometimes the counts are right. Maybe there isn’t enough significant data yet, but there are some usage trends that are obvious. One would hope that this would lead to better distribution of bikes across the system, but the reality is balancing remains a serious issue for Indego. This past Friday, I moved about half of the bikes in the nearly full Convention Center station over to 12th and Filbert, which was empty. Those two stations are a block away from each other. Now, since I don’t have a maintenance fob, each one of those bikes were moved one at a time… and I couldn’t keep up with the rate at which people were taking them out at 12th and Filbert. Four of the bikes that were in the station at the Convention Center ended up having to be called in for maintenance: three with bad brakes, one for no seat lock at all (which would certainly lead to a slippery seat problem.) Indego’s bikes are built to be rather sturdy, but some of the bikes I’ve called in looked like they had already been through hell and back. Bikes that look like they’ve gone through a splash zone are easy enough to deal with: pick another while you wait for rain to give them a wash. Bikes with bent or broken brake handles are a bit harder: have a really awkward grip and/or risk a cut or two. Bikes with non-existent brakes – often the rear – are unusable in Philly traffic; you might be able to get away with just the front for usage on a trail, but I still wouldn’t recommend it, especially if you’re in what appears to be the majority of riders – helmet-less.

In Philly, the law concerning helmet usage only mandates it up to age 16, the minimum age for Indego. As a result, Indego doesn’t offer helmet. A 10% discount at select stores is offered if you’re a member, but you’re otherwise on your own.

Good luck.

If the potholes or uneven pavement don’t get you first, the taxis and tour busses in Philly love to try to go biker bowling. The sexy new SEPTA busses are dead silent if they’re behind you, which makes them extremely dangerous if you aren’t aware of your surroundings (Pro tip: if you see a bus stop, check for a bus behind you.) Philly’s “Sharrow”s should be called Bullshitrows. Bike lanes aren’t immune from violations either. 33rd north of Market is frequently mistaken by out-of-towners – and to be fair, even Drexel’s own Public Safety – as a two-lane street. It’s not, but from all the shit patch jobs along it, you’d never know if you miss the one bike lane sign… which faces Nesbitt instead of the street. On Pine Street, people still think it’s a lane to park in. If you’re stupid enough to be out on a major street without a helmet, I’ll be blunt: you deserve whatever you get. Yes, one will run you around what a month’s membership would (I really wish we had Melbourne’s helmet vending machines), but when it’s listed on the bike twice to wear one, you should be.

Overall, yes, Indego is still young. I’m hoping these issues are just growing pains for the system. I don’t want to see Indego fail. Philly both needs and deserves a quality bike sharing program. Indego could be it – but it needs to keep up.

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