"During a storm back in August, we left a few crates of the racks out in the rain," said Howard Blake, CEO of HeatRack, which he started in February 2013. "It was totally our bad, and we're addressing the problem. I apologize to the city and all the cyclists this unfortunate situation affects, and for waiting so long to mention the delay. I was nervous about how to bring the bad news up during our weekly conference calls. We'll be installing by mid-October. I promise."
Blake went on to explain that the rain damaged some wiring and "prematurely jump started the oxidation process" on racks not yet sealed with anti-rust paint. The crates were not discovered for another two weeks and the damage was already done. The heated rack program has been controversial from the beginning, and the installation hold up has only added fuel to those opposed to the project.
In March, the City of Brotherly Love, which has the largest bicycle commute mode share among the nation's most populous cities, introduced this "revolutionary idea" with the hopes to extend the cycling season well into the frigid, snowy winter months. It will be the first city in the world to have the heated racks, made possible mostly through grants from the Human Propelled Foundation.
By late 2014, when the the program is complete, over 400 heated bicycle racks--mostly new with some existing racks to be retrofitted--will dot the miles of sidewalks in Center City with hopes to combat the annual precipitous drop in cycling numbers when the weather begins to change in November and December.
"We want people to ride all year, really, we do," said Megan Jean DeStefanini, the City's assistant to the traveling bicycle parking commissioner. "Heated bike parking will unquestionably extend the cycling season. It's very simple math."
Simple math? Okay, so how exactly will the new heated racks accomplish its intended goal? "Just the fact that they're heated will inspire folks to ride further into the winter months," said Jake Duncannon, interim assistant manager of bicycle infrastructure.
The racks will be too hot for human flesh to touch without suffering first- or second-degree burns and bicycles should not lean on the rack for more than 30 minutes. HeatRack refused to answer specific questions about exact operating temperatures, but the company has dedicated several pages of their website to warn users "do not touch heated racks...ever."
"Oh, no way," said Duncannon emphatically when asked if the heated racks were intended to warm a cyclists cold hands on a frosty February morning. "Nah, it's more to say that we're the first in the country to offer such a unique amenity. Now, can bikers hold their hands above the rack a safe distance and warm up? Sure, I don't see why not. Actually, that's not a bad idea, I'm going to write that down."
If HeatRack holds to the new installation schedule, workers will soon begin tapping pedestrian and vehicular streetlights as electricity sources for the new parking. The racks will only be heated from December through March, which will save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars. PECO, the local power supplier, estimates a "slight bump" in electricity bills for the city.
"The cost to heat the racks per year, assuming about 400 to 500 racks total, will be about $300,000 annually. City residents concerned about this cost should take into consideration that if the racks were heated all year round the cost would be triple this. So..." said one PECO official who provided the figure on condition of anonymity.
Opponents of the project cite this high operating cost as the main reason not to move forward with installation. "You're taking something that is very low-cost, very simple and making it extremely complicated and more costly. Bicycle parking should be made as simple and as cheap as possible just like biking itself. When we complicate things you scare away potential and existing cyclists and those that make the decisions to fund and install bicycle infrastructure," said Robert Berkshire, a bicycle parking consultant with Berkshire, Berkshire, and Nettle, LLC.
"Will these heated racks make me ride all year? To be honest, I don't know," said Bethany Phillips, a bicycle commuter from Fairmount. "I usually bring my bike into work with me. It's an interesting concept, but you have to ask whether a better hat and a good pair of gloves would be more inclined to encourage cold-weather riding?"
"I think some people are missing the purpose of the heated racks, which is fine. We knew from the start it would be controversial. But, we expect this initiative to attract new riders, not deter them, to encourage riding when the temperature begins to plunge," said Duncannon. "We think people will say, 'Oh, heated bike racks? That's a really cool and original idea. Well, sure I'll ride my bike through the winter months.'"