Two Wheels Good: The Orbit Takes Healthy Ride For a Spin

Healthy Ride bicycle share station in the Bloomfield neighborhood, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Healthy Ride station in Bloomfield

Observant readers will no doubt have already absorbed Pittsburgh Orbit‘s favoritism toward all things bicycle. This blogger loves to ride a bike! He loves it so much that when it’s time for the inevitable maintenance on his own road-ravaged chopper, a dread creeps over. The depression of going even one non-pouring down day without some form of ride so dour that wheels wobble, brakes are worn to nubs, and gears slip on an over-stretched chain for months too long–all so we can defer the separation anxiety that comes from a few days in the shop.

So last year’s news that the city would be gaining a bicycle share program this Spring was triply terrific. First: we’re going to get excited about anything that puts more two-wheelers on the street and more keisters on bike seats. Second: I can take my bike to the shop any time I like and use the new temporary rentals in its stead. Third, of course, is that we can opportunistically turn the whole thing into a right proper blog post. Here, then, is The Orbit‘s early take on Pittsburgh’s brand new bike share program.

Map of Healthy Ride bicycle rental stations (Phase I)

Map of Healthy Ride bicycle rental stations (Phase I) [map: Bike Pittsburgh]

The System

The first phase of the Healthy Ride[1] deployment involves fifty self-serve rental stations and five hundred identical bicycles. All users must have an account and register with a credit card, but this can be done right there at any station. There are a variety of ways to check out a bike: using the station computer, using on-board systems on each bicycle, or with the mobile phone apps. The technology comes to us from a German company called NextBike, which has implemented bicycle sharing programs around the world. Pittsburgh is only NextBike’s second U.S. city, but they run a ton of programs throughout Europe.

Bicycles are rented in half-hour increments and the system is designed for A-to-B transit rides (and not all-day/long-term rentals). You can pay for individual rides ($2 per half-hour) or unlimited rides for month-long periods. With a “basic” rate of $12 / month (unlimited 30-minute rides) and a “deluxe” rate of $20 / month[2] (unlimited one-hour rides), the Pittsburgh system is among the cheapest in the country[3].

Phase I of the rollout is for a concentrated area focusing on downtown, The Hill District, The Strip District, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, Shadyside, and small sections of the North and South Side. I’m sure if you’ve been waiting for this and live in, say, Squirrel Hill or The West End, you’re going to feel gypped, but the tight grouping of the first batch of stations makes a lot of sense as an alternate public transit system.

Healthy Ride bicycle with vinyl records spilling out of its small cargo basket.

Design flaw: Healthy Ride bicycles are totally unfit for traveling with records.

The Bicycles

All Healthy Ride bicycles are the exact same one-size-fits-all design. They feature heavy “step-through” frames, big tires, front and rear fenders, lights, adjustable seats, a bell, and a small (maybe too small) front basket. The bikes are all seven-speeds, meaning they’ve theoretically got enough gears to climb hills and run at a good clip when you build up speed. Riders must supply their own helmets.

I found a couple challenges with the design. Namely that for this six-foot-five biker, even with the seat raised to its maximum height, I couldn’t get full leg extension. This, along with the heavy weight of the bike, made going up hills a little rough. Also, the anatomically aware will know that men and women have different shaped pelvises (pelvi?), which is why bicycle seats come in two very different basic shapes. The Healthy Ride system opted for women’s seats across-the-board–which makes sense–but presents a certain discomfort to the dudes of the species.

All that said, the bikes were all in fine condition (with one exception), will likely work great for the average rider, and they’re fun. Take one out any time soon and you’ll also get a lot of attention: I was stopped by pedestrians, drivers, cyclists, one 8 a.m. drunk, and one in-transit PAT bus driver–everybody was curious and wanted to either ask about the program or tell me what was wrong with it.

NextBike employee restarting a Healthy Ride station, Pittsburgh, Pa.

NextBike employee Tom rebooting the Children’s Hospital station

The Technology

As a “technologist” by day[4], I am in awe of all the moving parts (literally!) involved in the system–50 stations, 500 bicycles, multiple payment options, onboard computers, the web site, iOS and Android apps, rental maintenance, etc. I experienced a couple of glitches along the way, but given this was only the system’s third week out of the gate, it performed admirably.

A couple times in my maiden voyage I found that bicycles parked at stations and flashing their “available” lights were, in fact, not rentable. No explanation on what was going on, but I can recommend the app feature where you look at an individual station and see which bikes it actually knows are parked there. After that first day, I didn’t see this problem again.

Another time, I arrived at the Children’s Hospital station to find NextBike employee Tom having to repeatedly reboot the system and test whether it was going to process check-outs.  This allowed me to ask a bunch of questions while we waited for the system to restart, eves-drop on his call back to Leipzig, and surreptitiously bag a photo for the blog. [Tom got me back: he filmed our band marching during the Open Streets event last Sunday.]

Another obvious issue they’ll have to work out is the distribution of bikes. I found that the station I was checking-out from (Penn & 42nd Street, by Children’s Hospital) had fewer and fewer bikes each day until on my final Friday there was only one rental and it turned out to be unridable (the rear fender was severely bent into the back wheel and I was unable to fix it; I ended up walking to Bloomfield and checked-out from the station by Crazy Mocha).

By contrast, the station I was usually returning to (Butler & 42nd Street, across from Hambone’s) was nearly always full. This is likely no accident–I have a feeling the system will regularly experience the higher-elevation bikes draining and welling up at the bottom of hills. Those seven gears are just not enough to get a lot of part-time riders up steep grades (especially after they’ve spent the evening at Hambone’s!). Stations in flatter areas (Bloomfield, Oakland) seemed to be more consistently medium-stocked.

rider posed on a Healthy Ride rental bicycle, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Not dorky at all. Some dude with a rented bike. [photo: Lee Floyd]

Final Thoughts

It’s very hard to tell, but anecdotal observation suggests that people are using the system and that its rollout has been smooth enough to claim some level of success. Pittsburgh presents a lot of challenges for experienced cyclists–steep hills, tight streets, rutty roads pockmarked with potholes, few designated bicycle lanes, much unfavorable weather–so loosing a bunch of non-riders on city streets with unfamiliar bicycles seems like it’s not going to end well for everybody. But then, neither does automotive travel.

If allowed to succeed, it seems like the program will inevitably grow interest in cycling and more awareness of bicycle needs in infrastructure planning and design, which are all good things in The Orbit‘s book.

I plan to maintain my “deluxe” subscription partially because I want to support the program (even though I own a bicycle) but also because I can imagine a ton of scenarios where I can legitimately put a short rental to use. Plus, it’s cheap. If you haven’t given it shot, we suggest you do. Happy (and healthy!) riding to you!

Footnotes

  1. “Healthy Ride” is a pretty square name, but I imagine the underwriting from Highmark and Allegheny Health Network played into the branding.
  2. Though monthly, the rates require a minimum three-month signup commitment.
  3. I started looking into comparison pricing against other bike share programs, but with each city having their own rental time windows, subscription terms, etc. this quickly became a fool’s errand. The claim that it’s “among the cheapest in the country” seems legit, though.
  4. Not a good one.

Get to the Point

Man pointing from Ohio River to Pittsburgh's highpoint

Ben points from The Point to Pittsburgh’s highpoint

Whether it’s a sport or a hobby or simply an absurd excuse for the journey is the destination, man, “highpointing” (its practitioners spell it as a single compound noun) is the pursuit of reaching the highest altitude spot in each of the U.S. states, amassing these achieved peaks like collector’s cards.  Ben Blanchard is a Pittsburgh highpointer.

Ben explains that he got into highpointing naively. Years ago, he stumbled across a road sign directing motorists to the highest point in Maine, Mount Katahdin (alt: 5,280 feet). After making his way up and down from the mountain, Ben decided it would be a fun way to let kismet be his travel agent and kept after further highpoints.

It turns out Ben is not alone and highpointing is a real thing.  Web sites like highpointers.org and peakbagger.com provide both statistics and community information. Ben has currently visited thirteen state and two city highpoints.  Next on the list is a New England swing to include New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and a return trip to Maine.

ducks on a log in river

These ducks technically started lower than us, but we didn’t see them make it to the top.

As no two states are the same, no two highpoints are either.  Highest points are as diverse as a Philadelphia suburb (Ebright Azimuth, Delaware) or the upper edge of an inclined plane (“Mount” Sunflower, Kansas) to true mountain peaks like Mt. Whitney (California) or Mt. Elbert (Colorado).  Every American highpointer’s ultimate goal is Denali (Mt. McKinley) in Alaska.

For The Orbit, I proposed scaling the highpoint for the City of Pittsburgh.  Apparently highpointers look down on city/county highpoints in favor of states/countries, but it sounded interesting to me.  I laid out a goal that we would travel from low to high, and make the journey on bicycle.

Western State Penitentiary, Pittsburgh

Along the way: Western State Penitentiary, Woods Run

Historically, Pittsburgh’s low point was Donzi’s in the Strip. But with that floating meat-rounder barge sadly no longer operating, its bass cabinets and Jello shot molds long dormant, we had to settle for river level (alt. 719 feet) as the accepted lowest altitude.  And, just to get real symbolic, we met at “The Point,” the tip of Point State Park, where the three rivers meet.

Our destination was the top of Montana Street (alt. 1345 feet), KDKA’s giant broadcasting tower standing as a (literal) beacon for us head toward.  The route would take us down the Ohio River bicycle trail, past the old Western State Penitentiary, through the neighborhood of Wood’s Run, up along the northern edge of Riverview Park, and finally up to the peak in Perry North.

View of KDKA tower from Mairdale Ave., Observatory Hill

View of KDKA tower in the distance from the steep climb up Mairdale Ave., Observatory Hill

The one block assent of Montana Street proved the most difficult cycling of the trip, it being one of those Pittsburgh hills so steep the rider is forced to lean over the handlebars just to avoid the bike flipping backwards on itself, but we made it.

I had been on one previous (city) highpoint in Washington, D.C. (Ft. Reno Park) and similar to that one, the actual peak is off-limits to the public.  Ours has a high chain-link fence surrounding a large water reservoir and processing facility.

View from Pittsburgh's highpoint showing mainly trees

“View” from the highpoint: Mt. Washington it ain’t

We were able to walk the full circumference of the facility.  There’s no benchmark to get a photo by, nor is there much of a view–you’re surrounded by trees on all sides.  But in the early Spring, we still got some nice glimpses of the observatory in Riverview Park and the top of Downtown Pittsburgh’s skyline, looking like it grew naturally out of the woodlands.

Our stats: we climbed 626 vertical feet over around 6.5 miles, about half of that along the river to get from town to Wood’s Run.  It took us around 45 minutes going up on bicycles; the return trip is very short as it is literally all down hill.  A bar called Rumerz in Wood’s Run [Ben: Have you heard anything about it? Me: Don’t believe everything you hear. Ben: What are you talk…oh.] provided few beer options, but a nice outdoor deck, built Pittsburgh grotto-style, right up against a rock wall.

Man celebrating reaching Pittsburgh's highpoint

Victory: point high for a highpoint!

A note to would-be bike-pointers: this blogger made the trip up just fine, but the rest of our party (ahem) needed to get off and push a couple times.  It’s no big deal, though, if you’re in decent shape and have a full collection of low gears.  The bigger deal (for me) was actually coming down the hill where my (under-performing) brakes were pushed pretty hard and I reached a semi terror state.  If I’d had to actually come to a full stop anywhere, it would have been ugly.