Rounding up the city's abandonded bikes
A power grinder can slide through a bike lock like a hot knife through butter. It takes about 30 seconds to liberate an abandoned bike and throw it in the back of a truck.
"You can see the bikes in the back of the truck, here. Each of them is missing something," said Aaron Ritz of the Philadelphia Mayor's Office of Transportation and Utilities, watching a city streets department flatbed truck slowly filling with rusted skeletons. "Missing both wheels, flat tires, bent or damaged, handlebars broken or twisted. These have tags, so they haven't been moved in a long while."
Ritz and his intern, Bryan Barnett-Woods, have spent the summer identifying abandoned bikes in Philadelphia through word-of-mouth and resident complaints through the city's 311 information center. They tagged the bikes, gave owners a week to claim them, then pulled out the power grinder.
Between 2000 and 2009, the number of people regularly using bicycles in Philadelphia increased over 150 percent. During that time, there was no system to remove bicycles that had been abandoned.
"As we get more cyclists riding in the city, the negative side effect is more abandoned bikes," said Ritz. "We've learned as we've gone along."
Striking the middle ground
Abandoned can mean different things in different cities. In Washington, D.C., an abandoned bike is one left unattended for just 12 hours. Last year, the city removed more than 200.
New York City removed far fewer. There, "abandoned" means the bike satisfies several criteria, such as having parts missing, being bent at the frame, and being at least 75 percent rusted. The rules make removal difficult.
Philadelphia struck for the middle. For a bike to be considered abandoned here it must have been unattended for 30 days, and be damaged to the point of being unride-able.
"We strike a balance between being responsive to complaints, and also cleaning up the street as efficiently as possible," said Ritz. "Not taking somebody's property, but we are glad to be able to clean the street. That middle ground."
After two days of cutting locks, the Mayor's Office of Transportation and Utilities donated 25 bikes to Neighborhood Bike Works, which runs an after-school bicycle repair program for kids, and 40 bicycles to Resources for Human Development, a social services organization based in North Philadelphia.
The beat-up bikes have no resale value; economically, they are not worth the labor to fix them. So Resources for Human Development repairs and sells them as part of an alternative currency program called "equal dollars." Volunteer workers are paid in "equal dollars," redeemable as discounts at partnering businesses.
Business is brisk for rebuilt bikes
"People been buying them, even though they have a little rust on 'em," said Sean Thomas, who started the bike repair program a few months ago. "We clean them up, add some new parts, some used parts. Whatever it needs to get up and running."
Some of the bikes that were cut loose from sidewalk poles are bare frames stripped of all parts; some are bent out of shape with missing parts; some are perfectly good machines with just a rusted chain and flat tires.
"When there's a wheel stolen, or it's vandalized, that ticks me off," said Ritz, an amateur bike racer and former mechanic. "But when it's abandoned, it's good to get them off the street. It's pleasing to have tidy space. Like cleaning up your room."
The annual bike sweep had been conducted by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, but that nonprofit organization no longer has the resources to continue doing it.
Ritz is trying to make the removal process an institutionalized one, in coordination with the city's 311 information phone system, the streets department, and the Mayor's Office of Transportation and Utilities.
Story posted August 2, 2012 by Peter Crimmins for WHYY's NewsWorks. View the original story here.