City, PSU consider bikeshare project

Local campus, Altoona may partner with San Francisco firm on endeavor

The city and Penn State Altoona are considering a partnership with a San Francisco firm that could rotate this old industrial community a few degrees toward West Coast progressivism, in keeping with economic development initiatives promoted here in recent years.

At a meeting on Monday, Mayor Matt Pacifico and campus Chancellor Lori Bechtel-Wherry proposed hiring Spin to create a “stationless” bikeshare system focused on the university’s Ivyside and downtown campuses — but with bikes that would be available for anyone to use for a fee, payable electronically.

The setup would cost the city nothing, as the company and locally hired contractors would distribute and maintain the bikes, redistributing them when necessary and collecting the charges for using them, according to Pacifico.

There seemed to be a consensus among City Council members in favor of the proposal, which calls for both parties to sign one-year memorandums of understanding with Spin.

It will take from one to three months to obtain an OK from the university, according to Bechtel-Wherry, who intends to survey her students to gauge their interest, while presenting the idea to the campus’ Sustainability Committee.

Penn State’s main campus, along with its satellite campuses in Hershey and Abington, already have bikeshare systems, Bechtel-Wherry said.

Most systems, especially in larger cities, have docking stations where users pick up and drop off bikes — not necessarily at the same station where they got them.

With the Spin stationless system, however, bikes aren’t kept in pre-established locations.

Rather, they are “neatly placed” initially on wide sidewalks and at or near public bike racks and bike corrals, so they don’t obstruct public rights of way, according to a Spin booklet provided by Pacifico.

Based on instructions the company provides to customers, the bikes continue to be placed in those kinds of locations, to avoid causing hassles for the public or businesses, the Spin booklet said.

Customers download a company app to their smartphones, register as users, find the nearest bikes with the help of the bikes’ GPS chips, pay for their rides, unlock the bikes electronically and take off, according to information provided at the meeting.

Students pay 50 cents per ride, $14 for unlimited rides for a month or $49 for unlimited rides for a year, according to the booklet.

Non-students pay $1 for a ride, unless they buy a long-term pass, Pacifico said.

A person without a smartphone or credit card can use cash at locations around town to programmed rides into an access card.

The card carries a code, which the customer texts to a dedicated company phone line to register.

After registration, the customer finds a bike and texts the bike’s number to the same dedicated line, unlocking the bike.

Spin will determine how many bikes to distribute through a formula that takes into account the student and area populations, officials indicated.

Universities that partner with Spin can arrange to have their logos on the bikes and on the app, according to the booklet.

There are also opportunities for business advertisements, according to the booklet.

Councilman Erik Cagle and others wondered whether the city is “rideable enough” for the program.

“I share the same concern,” Pacifico said.

Several years ago, the city worked with PennDOT to create a bike and walking path along Juniata Gap Road.

The city could use more such accommodations, officials agreed.

Public Works Director Nate Kissell has been planning some of those, including a bike lane on Beale Avenue in town.

Pittsburgh, which has had a station-based bikeshare program operated by a small nonprofit for the last 2.5 years, wasn’t especially conducive to bike riding, but has been laboring to improve, said that program’s executive director, David White.

The ideal for city riders is a protected lane, where a physical barrier keeps motorized traffic separate, White said.

Second best is a dedicated bike lane delineated by stripes, he said.

Third best is the “sharrow” — a thoroughfare that motorized vehicles and bicycles use together — with off-street signs and painted street logos alerting motorists to be careful.

Altoona can also use more bike racks, according to Community Development Director Lee Slusser and Councilman Bruce Kelley, who suggested pursuing business donations to cover the cost of adding them.

Spin’s bikes are orange three-speeds, with solid foam tires, V or internal disc brakes, dynamo-driven front lights, rear solar lights and no “top tubes,” according to the booklet.

The use of bikes by Penn State students who have classes downtown could help alleviate periodic downtown parking congestion, said Bechtel-Wherry, Pacifico and Patrick Miller, CEO of the Greater Altoona Economic Development Corp.

Pacifico became convinced that bikesharing could work in Altoona at a conference in November 2016, when he learned that it could be done without taxpayer contributions, he said.

The idea is a good one, according to Miller.

“It just adds to the quality of life option,” especially for students who don’t bring bikes to campus, Miller said.

Along with the development of rail-trails and other outdoor recreational opportunities, a bikeshare system could promote the impression that Altoona is progressive, helping to create a “new culture” and to attract the kind of workforce that will assist Altoona’s continued emergence from its industrial past, he said.

“I knew there was some interest in this a while ago,” Miller said. “I’m glad to see it’s getting some legs.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.