Indego, Inde-gone: Philly begins installing GPS after record 330 bikes go missing

Ridership is up, but the city has struggled to stop vehicles from disappearing.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Philadelphia’s Indego bike share program has proven increasingly popular during the coronavirus pandemic. Even Mayor Jim Kenney says he’s been riding out his quarantine on the blue-and-white two-wheelers.

So popular is Indego that more riders are taking out the bikes and not bringing them back — often without consequence.

The city is now installing tracking devices on some bicycles, and has taken action to limit the use of stolen credit cards on the system.

Indego confirmed to Billy Penn that a record-high 330 bikes have gone missing so far this year, out of a fleet totaling about 1,400. About a third of those were e-bikes. The rest were a mix of older two-basket bikes and the slightly newer models with front carrier baskets.

“We have seen an uptick in missing bikes since the start of the summer,” said Aaron Ritz, the program’s manager at Philly’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability.

Ritz said the city has recovered 180 bikes — more than half of those gone AWOL. That’s “generally consistent with the recovery rates over the last 5 years,” he said, acknowledging that the overall number of lost or stolen bikes is the highest it’s been since the program’s 2015 inception.

That tracks with the program’s booming popularity in 2020. Ridership numbers dipped when the pandemic hit the region in March, but recently began increasing. Monthly usage is now up as much as 13% compared to last summer, according to Indego data.

Ritz said the city has tested GPS devices from three different manufacturers. The first batch of 50 were rolled out last month — primarily on e-bikes, though an exact breakdown of installations was not provided.

“We do expect to expand the number of GPS units over the coming year, as they have proven useful in managing our operations as well as for loss reduction,” Ritz said.

Ritz also said the credit card function has been disabled on the kiosks to limit the use of illegitimate cards.

“Users can still sign up at a station by using the Indego app which offers more features and easier use than the kiosk touch screens,” Ritz said. That could mean fewer ride options for people without smartphones. The rideshare’s cash payment option is also undergoing upgrades at the moment, according to the website.

Back in January, when Indego e-bikes first began vanishing from rideshare stations in large numbers, critics wondered why the city hadn’t acted sooner to put tracking devices in place.

Looking for a fix, Indego removed all of the remaining e-bikes from the streets. The city then had the Philadelphia Police Department stop anyone riding an e-bike until they accounted for every missing vehicle. After a few weeks, “Operation Pegasus” was able to bring back about 10% of the electric rides.

At that time, Indego also invested about $500,000 to acquire another 250 e-bikes to expand the fleet once again.

Ritz noted that the bikeshare program has maintained 200 e-bikes in rotation at any given time: “They get a lot of use-about 3x as many trips as a regular bike, and so they tend to be in the shop for maintenance more often.”

In January, the Indego program will get a leadership change.

Oversight of the program will be transferred from the mayor’s transportation office to a private firm, Bicycle Transit System, which will handle maintenance and expansion under a 10-year contract.

Billy Penn reporter Michaela Winberg contributed to this article.

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