Changing Skyline: Developer shares his liking for biking

Carl Dranoff pedals one of his bike-share bicycles up South Broad Street. The bikes are free for use by the approximately 2,000 tenants of his rental buildings.
Carl Dranoff pedals one of his bike-share bicycles up South Broad Street. The bikes are free for use by the approximately 2,000 tenants of his rental buildings. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 25, 2012

Developer Carl Dranoff came late to bicycling. Growing up in Philadelphia's Oxford Circle, no one rode bikes, he says. They walked to school and afterward hit the basketball courts for exercise.

Dranoff didn't get on a bicycle until it became a matter of pride: His young daughter was learning to ride a two-wheeler. Why couldn't daddy? He was 35 at the time.

Now 63, Dranoff still isn't exactly steady on a bicycle, even when he's pedaling one of the porker-class Dutch models that belong to his company's new bike-sharing program. Even so, he could probably teach Philadelphia a thing or two about encouraging people to tool around the city on two wheels.

Best known for glitzy apartment buildings like Symphony House and 777 South Broad, the developer has become the unlikeliest bike advocate in Philadelphia. All his buildings are outfitted with pristine bike-storage rooms, where residents are assigned individual ceiling hooks to hang their Fuji mountain bikes and Gunnar roadies. He thinks office landlords should offer the same amenity to their tenants, and predicts the smart ones will do so within the next 10 years - ideally sooner.

Two weeks ago, Dranoff struck what is perhaps his biggest blow for the cause when he initiated a complimentary bike-share program at his five rental buildings. Each address now houses a trio of brightly colored, single-speed bikes that residents can take out for a spin whenever the mood strikes.

"I went to Rome with my wife and saw bike-sharing there. I thought, 'Why not do it here?' " Dranoff told me. "There are so many bikes on the streets now, Philadelphia is starting to look like Amsterdam."

Launching the free service, which resembles the city's now-popular car-sharing programs, cost Dranoff all of $25,000, he says. Philadelphia, it's worth mentioning, has been trying to start its own bike-share program for - what - four or five years now? More on that in a moment.

Eager to show off his new baby, Dranoff invited me to try out a bike and - since he never misses an opportunity for publicity - tour his growing Philadelphia domains. He and I have had some aesthetic differences in the past, particularly over Symphony House, but we have no disagreement when it comes to promoting bike riding.

We met at 777 on Sunday morning; you couldn't requisition a more perfect fall day. Three bikes were lined up front-and-center in the lobby, each equipped with a helmet, lock, basket, and bell. Dranoff set off down Broad Street on a white Plato Dutch bike, while I trailed on a phosphorescent green one.

Like the models you see in bike-share programs around the world, these were the Galapagos turtles of the bike world, weighing more than 40 pounds and moving at the rate of a fast trot. If you're used to riding a 21-speed, lightweight racer, or even a decent three-speed, you're going to hate them. But Dranoff rightly sees the Dutch models as a gateway bike for his rental market, which includes plenty of empty nesters and transplants.

"It's intended for people who have just moved to the city, who maybe want to go out for brunch or see the neighborhood," he says. "It encourages people who wouldn't use a bike to try one."

There were some scary moments during our trip. As a latecomer to the bicycle, Dranoff admits his "balance is not the best." He's not so good at turns either, I noted. Attempting to make a left onto the Spruce Street bike lane, he sailed into some oncoming Broad Street traffic. It's one thing to write a killing review of a developer's building, and quite another to watch the same developer experience a near miss with death.

His bike-share program means anybody who rents a unit in his buildings can now go for a ride, for up to four hours. He's hardly the first to use bicycles to boost business. Google's California campus and Urban Outfitters headquarters at Philadelphia's Navy Yard provide free bikes. By the developer's estimate, his new program puts bicycles at the disposal of about 2,000 tenants.

Imagine how many Philadelphians could take advantage of a city-sponsored bike-share program. As of last spring, there were 135 bike-sharing programs in cities around the world - in big ones like London and Paris, but also town-size places like Madison, Wis., and Arlington, Va. Philadelphia's absence from the list of bike-sharing cities is notable.

In early 2010, the Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia issued a report showing a strong market existed here, but the Nutter administration remained on the fence.

The coalition argues that bike-sharing would transform the city by making bikes easily available to tourists, office workers, and residents, especially those who don't have space or can't afford a bike. Rental stations could be set up at strategic locations around the city. Users would swipe a credit card to take out a bike, and they could drop it off at any of the other rental stations around town - sort of like a bicycle version of the public library.

It looks like the Nutter administration is finally shaking off its ambivalence about bike-sharing. "We hope to have an announcement to make in the next month," Andrew Stober, the mayor's point person on bicycling, told me Sunday.

Small as Dranoff's bike-share program is, think of it as a test run of what is to come.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, isaffron@phillynews.com and on Twitter @ingasaffron.

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