Day of the Dead: Susan Hicks, Uber Alles

bicycle painted completely white and decorated with flowers and lights, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost bike memorial for Susan Hicks, Oakland

Last week marked the one year anniversary of Susan Michelle Hicks death. This blogger didn’t know her personally, but Ms. Hicks was “friends of friends” who commuted–and was killed–riding her bicycle on a stretch of Forbes Avenue in Oakland where I ride all the time. Quite literally, it could have been me.

Very near the tragic spot where Ms. Hicks died, just across the street from Dippy the Dinosaur and the Carnegie Music Hall, is a so-called “ghost bike” memorial. Chained to the pole of a stout street lamp, it’s a decommissioned older bicycle, painted completely white, draped in flowers, ribbons, personal messages, and a strand of solar-powered lights. A felt-tipped pen left on the seat invites visitors to ink inscriptions to the fallen–many have done so.

The effect of seeing the Hicks ghost bike–or any other–is incredibly moving. It’s both beautiful and haunting, arresting, sombre, and reverent. It’s also encouraging that this obviously-un-sanctioned memorial has been allowed to remain intact; city works crews choosing to leave it alone–now, for over a year–in this very public, well-travelled spot instead of treating it as an act of litter or vandalism.

detail of ghost bike for Susan Hicks, Pittsburgh, PA

Statistically, Pittsburgh is among the very safest U.S. cities to be a bicycle rider/pedestrian. This is, perhaps, surprising given our severe infrastructure challenges, but according to some numbers collected by Bike PGH, the city’s rate of 1.8 fatalities per 10,000 commuters is way down the list of American cities. As comparison, the bottom of the collection contains Ft. Worth, Detroit, and Jacksonville, all with an average of 40 to 50 fatalities on the same scale.

That said, it’s sadly no surprise this particular tragedy happened in the heart of Oakland. Any Pittsburgh cyclist will tell you what a nightmare it is to navigate the neighborhood on two wheels. It’s nearly impossible to feel safe riding from, say, Neville to Atwood, or CMU to Pitt without either breaking some kind of law or going way out of your way–and this is a part of town with 40-some thousand college students! I get mad at the kids riding on sidewalks, but what alternative do they have?

Handmade sign reading "Are we the last generation who learns to drive?", Pittsburgh, PA

Anti-Uber sign, Oakland

On a recent ride home from work, I came across a batch of wooden signs nailed to telephone poles. On each was a hand-scripted message: Are we the last generation who learns to drive? read one on Craig Street, and Humans crave community, not isolation another. The messages continued in Bloomfield:  Automation smothers natural beauty and awe and Deep in your humanness, your heart longs not to be mechanized.*

If you’ve spent any time in the East End over the last half year, you know where these are coming from. Uber self-driving cars are being tested all over the city–we see them every day**. It’s a technology that’s not without controversy, but surprisingly little considering the potential societal implications. Overall, opinion has felt more like a collective ho-hum.

collage of photos of Uber self-driving cars being tested on Pittsburgh city streets

Uber self-driving cars testing in Pittsburgh [photos, clockwise from top left: P. Worthington, M. Hertzman, A. Hoff, K. Barca]

The full point of these guerrilla signs is not entirely clear, but each contains Uber’s name in a crossed-out circle. We can assume the opposition to the ride-sharing company is the anonymous sign-poster’s major thesis, but there are also messages around community, beauty, and “humanness”.

Is Uber being accused of colossal corporate takeover? Or is the issue that they’re developing self-driving technology? Assuming the latter, how does changing the way a car navigates “smother natural beauty and awe”? [We did a pretty good job of this way before Uber came along.] Plenty of people drive alone every day–why do these vehicles create any more isolation than any other solo car trip?

If we’re worried about the number of Uber (and other) human drivers who may be put out of work by this technology, that’s legit. But let’s not assume that’s the only sociological possibility for self-driving vehicles. There is the very real likelihood that autonomous cars will be much safer on the road than humans. They certainly won’t drive drunk or fall asleep at the wheel. They won’t show off to impress the girls in the back seat and won’t take their eyes off the road when their phones light up. There are a whole lot of people with disabilities who can’t wait for an alternative to Access.

Handmade sign reading "Automation smothers natural beauty and awe", Pittsburgh, PA

Anti-Uber sign, Bloomfield

Bicycle riders are not saints. There are a lot of dangerous people out there, and we come across them every day–treating sidewalks as bicycle lanes, recklessly jack-rabbiting through traffic, ignoring traffic lights, signaling, and stop signs. Cyclists who take off without a helmet or foregoing lights in the dark are just plain foolish.

These are condemnable actions that frankly burn this biker’s breeches–you guys give us all a bad name! That said, it’s nothing compared to the regular behavior we see from drivers toward cyclists. I’ve never been hit by a vehicle driven by a computer; the same can’t be said for humans. In my years (ahem, decades) on two wheels, I’ve been spit on, had trash thrown at me, yelled-at, cat-called, and aggressively hip-greased more times than I can recall. Drivers routinely drift absent-mindedly, park in bicycle lanes, and wildly swing open their parked doors without first consulting their mirrors. While driving, they eat and drink, talk on the phone, apply lipstick in the rearview mirror, and, of course, are constantly texting.

Given all this, I’ll take my chances with the robots. If they’d been deployed to Oakland last year at this time, maybe Susan Hicks would still be with us and on the road today.

bicycle painted completely white and decorated with flowers and lights, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost bike for Susan Hicks, Oakland


* If anyone has seen more of these, we’d love to know about them.
** So far, always with a human in the driver’s seat.

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.