The concept of bike sharing—services offering bikes for shared public use, either at no cost or for a small fee—began in the 1960s in Amsterdam, but the modern iteration didn’t really take off until the early 2000s, when bike sharing spread rapidly around Europe. The first bike share in the U.S. wasn’t launched until 2010. Alison Cohen, inspired by the city-wide system launched in Paris in 2007, led the launch of bike share systems in Washington, D.C., Boston, and New York City.
Having seen that bike sharing could work successfully in the U.S. and how transformational bike share systems could be for a city, she wanted to create something that could be based in Philadelphia. As result, Bicycle Transit Systems (or Bike Transit) was launched in 2014. The company operates bike share systems such as Indego, which was launched on Earth Day in 2015, and now has bike share programs across the U.S. in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and of course, Philly.
The transformative nature of accessible transportation
Bike share systems in large cities are launched in close partnership with those cities, which gives the average person a unique incentive to invest in these systems, whether monetarily or with their support. In addition, transportation equity is an issue in each of the cities where these programs have launched. Rather than being an afterthought, bike share systems have helped bring that issue to the forefront.
When looking to start Bike Transit, Alison and the City of Philadelphia wanted to ensure that the program helped address the equitable transit gap. The company and the City, alongside Philadelphia’s Better Bike Share Partnership, used focus groups to understand barriers in usage. As a result, all Bike Transit-managed bike share systems including the bike share station locations in Philadelphia are very intentional—and intentionally inclusive.
In Philadelphia, for example, Indego offers discounted passes to people who use SNAP benefits. “Access Pass” users enter their SNAP number to confirm eligibility. The Pass provides 30 days of unlimited 1-hour trips for just $5/month. The program overall has been very successful, but particularly so for these Access Pass users who make up about 15-20% of overall ridership. “The whole idea around creating this system is that Philadelphia is a living lab for bike share equity,” shared Cohen.
Bike Transit has implemented such programs in all their cities. This emphasis on transportation equity is a major differentiator between Bike Transit and other companies in the industry, many of which are backed by Silicon Valley.
Finding financing that could go the distance
In the last few years, due to public funding constraints, Indego shifted to a privatized system. When it came time to bid on operating the new version of Indego in 2019, Alison’s team knew the bike share operator would have to fund the capital expansion. But as a small company, it was incredibly hard to find financing.
While searching for funding options, the Bike Transit team was introduced to WSFS, who spoke with Alison about her vision and the overarching goal of the company—to provide a great service for the City. Even with some nontraditional aspects of their business model, and after being rejected by several big-name banks, Bike Transit was able to secure financing to support future expansion for Indego in 2022 and beyond.
Through her financing, Alison was able to become sole owner of Bike Transit. With control over the company, and as a woman-owned business, Alison now has the ability to offer contractual opportunities to diverse-owned businesses, bringing her vision for transportation equity full circle.
Of her partnership with WSFS, Cohen said “we’re expanding our credit line as we speak to support future expansion for Indego. It’s been great, a total life changer for the company.”
“Getting to know Bike Transit and Alison has been really inspiring,” said Daniel Gordon, Vice President, Commercial Banking, WSFS. “Helping her be in full control of her company creates a great partnership for us and for the City. It’s a real homerun for everyone involved.”
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