Russell

Russell Meddin on a Hangzhou bike share bike earlier this year. Courtesy of R. Meddin.

Russell Meddin calls himself a “student of worldwide public use bicycling.” But “teacher” is perhaps a more apt term. Russell is a bike share guru and was one of the first individuals to heavily advocate for bike share in the United States way back in 2007. He is largely responsible for the upkeep of the “Bike Sharing World Map“–something we feature on our site and has seen well over one million page views–and knows as many details about the international bike sharing community as anyone on the planet.

Since he was first introduced to bike share, it has been his mission to obtain as much information about bike sharing as possible so that he could help the City of Philadelphia launch the best program possible. He founded Bike Share Philadelphia to have an independent voice and “give the most balanced information about how to install and create the best bike sharing system a city can.”

We had a chance to catch up with Russell and talk about the big picture of bike share and what it means for Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Matt Christensen: How did you get involved in bike share?

Russell Meddin: I became interested in bike sharing when I saw a bike sharing stand while I was in Lyon, France in December of 2006. I was visiting a friend there, got out of the train station, and the very first thing I saw was a Vélo’v bike sharing stand. I looked at it and thought, “What in the world is this?” After inspecting it a little closer, I was able to figure it out fairly quickly.

While I was in Lyon, the person who I was visiting told me about how the system changed her life and had made it so much easier for her to get to her job at the university, and saved her time from either taking the subway or driving. I started thinking that it would be great in Philadelphia because Philly and Lyon are very geographically similar.

MC: What do you think makes bike share unique compared to other forms of transportation?

RM: Bike sharing is a wonderful alternative to existing forms of transport. It emboldens people to take their mobility personally and to take advantage of being able to go from point A to point B without having to worry about if a bus is coming or if they can find a place to park their car. It really changes the way people get around and view where they’re living. And it’s a great way to get a little more exercise that you wouldn’t otherwise. And enjoy transportation–not too many people do enjoy transportation.

MC: How did the Bike Sharing World Map come about?

RM: The World Map came out of Paul DeMaio at MetroBike. He decided that it would be good to visualize the things he was writing about on his blog. So, he started putting the cities the he knew had bike sharing on this map. When I saw that map, I thought it was interesting but it didn’t have a lot of cities listed. The reason was that the map had the cities put on as they were found. And, I think my biggest contribution at the time, was to alphabetize the cities. It made it very easy for people to find the cities, and once that was done, it became a resource because people within the industry wanted to see what othersForum LogoWeb were doing.

MC: Social media has continued to play a prevalent role in the launch of Citi Bike and you’re working hard to get a bike share program to Philadelphia. What role do you think it will play in your launch and others in the future? Is there significant value in it?

RM: You know, I’m not sure. Social media is something people do and I’d imagine there’s a place for it, but it’s hard to gauge its value.

Before social media and smartphones were everywhere, each bike share station became a social point. People who were just beginning to understand what bike share could do for them would sit and chat as they checked out and returned bikes. It became a social gathering place–that central area in a city that people gather. And, to some degree, it brought people away from their technology and encouraged real social interaction. Not to be glib, but many people got dates from Vélib’.

MC: In addition to social interaction, bike share offers people the opportunity to spontaneously interact with their urban environment as well. It opens up a realm to experience your urban space in a different way; users can walk up to a station, become a member, and use the system.

RM: I totally agree. As bike sharing progresses and gets more engrained into ordinary transportation for cities, we will find that regular urban transit cards are going to be the access point for bike sharing. Suddenly, users don’t have to have a credit card or do other things in advance to use the system serendipitously. That is happening now in some cities, but it’s taking some time in North America.

MC: What do you think the biggest barriers to the one-card-accesses-all scenario?

RM: Resistance to change and perception. In North America, bike sharing systems aren’t viewed as part of public transportation, even though they should be integrated with existing transit systems. It’s happening in Europe and it has definitely happened in Asia. It will happen almost everywhere over time, and once that is the norm, transportation will totally change. People will seamlessly jump from a bike to a bus to a subway and back to a bike.

MC: In that case, how are different programs addressing the issue of having to put a deposit down on a credit card?

RM: Most systems are reporting less theft than what had initially been reported. Fewer and fewer bikes are disappearing and those that disappear are reappearing and the idea of having some kind of deposit is being diminished. There will, however, always be the need to have some sort of identity connection to the bike user so that, if there were to be a problem, there is recourse.

MC: What do you think are the key factors to success of Philadelphia’s soon-to-be bike share program?

RM: Density of stations. We need to have somewhere between 20 and 25 stations per square mile so that users don’t have to walk more than 300 yards before they come upon a stations. And station siting is integral–there needs to be stations where you are and where you want to go.

MC: Social equity has been at the forefront of many bike share conversations. How do you think Philly will address the issue?

RM: From a urban planning perspective, one of the ways we can help solve the so-called social equity problem is to have these bike stations available in close proximity to where people are and where they need to go. Once you see that this is an easy way to get there, you use it. The reason buses and subways are used is because they meet this demand–they get you from where you are to where you want to go.

Russell riding on his home streets in Philadelphia. Courtesy of keystoneedge.com.

Russell riding on his home streets in Philadelphia. Courtesy of keystoneedge.com.

MC: What’s next for Philadelphia?

RM: Right now, Philadelphia is moving at a pace to get bike sharing sometime in the middle of 2014. I hope that I can get them to do it a little quicker–that’s what I view as part of my job at my organization. Once the business model is released, the city will issue a RFP for equipment.

MC: Is there a place for smart-lock technologies like Social Bicycles and ViaCycle in cities like Philadelphia or do you think that station-based system is necessary?

RM: There are a lot of things that point to the need for a station. Whether the dock has an anchorage point that attaches to the bike or not–there’s nothing wrong with the lock being on the bike, but there still needs to be stations. People need to know where to go to find a bike and where to take a bike back so that other people can easily find them without having to use another device to find a bicycle. It needs to be very easy for people to use these bicycles.

Right now, Phoenix is going to be using a smart-lock model but it will be adding stations and kiosks as well. And the biggest thing that points to the station method being better than the non-station method is that, in the early 2000s, when bike sharing began in Germany, all of the systems, both Call-a-bike and Nextbike, were the non-station type. Users could pick up and drop off a bike anywhere as long as they called in and said where they returned it. These two systems, which cover virtually the entire country, have moved from the non-station plan to a station-based plan. Right now there are huge station-based Call-a-bikes in Hamburg and Berlin. Nextbike has moved to station-based in all of its newer systems. So, they learned a lesson and it took them ten years to learn that lesson. I’m hoping these new smart-lock systems in the United States learn something from what Germany learned in ten years.

MC: What are your thoughts on Citi Bike’s launch and the media backlash?

RM: The amount of media coverage on the Citi Bike program is almost incomprehensible. And there’s an old adage that goes, “I don’t care what you say about me as long as you spell my name correctly.” Whether the coverage is negative or positive, people are thinking and hearing about bike sharing. So, I think it’s great.

The interview that was recently in the Wall Street Journal with Dorothy Rabinowitz was one of the best things that could’ve happened to Citi Bike. They could not have purchased that kind of publicity.

MC: It seems like Citi Bike is having a lot of issues with the software and hardware. Do you think this is normal?

RM: Every brand new system will have some problems, whether it be a truck in the wrong place, a battery not working, or electricity not being properly supplied. But these problems will hopefully be solved quickly. As the saying goes, never buy a product the first year it comes out–always wait for another year so that they can get the glitches out. I think a lot of people hoped that, because New York followed Chattanooga by about a year, they would have all the glitches out by now.

MC: Do you think Alta is going to be able to pull off all the programs they are planning to launch in 2013 and 2014?

RM: If they’re able to hire the right people, they’ll likely be able to fulfill all the orders that they’ve been contracted for. Hopefully, there’s enough people that have experience running bike sharing that Alta can tap so that it will be able to put out the product they said they would.

MC: A few systems are going to be launched in cities with all-ages mandatory helmet laws. Do you think bike sharing can over come the helmet hurdle?

RM: No. For good reason, both Mexico City and Tel Aviv got rid of their helmet laws within days of launching. Take, for instance, Dublin and Melbourne. There are a lot of similarities between the two, including their size, yet bikes are used about once per day in Melbourne and up to fourteen times per day in Dublin. What’s the biggest difference? Melbourne has an all-ages helmet law. The idea of having to put helmets on bikes for free cannot be good for bike sharing–something that they tried in Brisbane.

I think an answer will come. If Boston puts out the HelmetHub, it’ll be interesting to how often that is used. But, again, even if users got a new helmet every time they checked out a new bike for free, the system is going to have a difficult time.

BikeShare.com would like to thank Russell Meddin for taking the time to talk with us. Check back soon for our next Nuts & Spokes interview!