PHILADELPHIA'S rewrite of George Orwell's mantra in

Animal Farm

- two wheels good, four wheels bad - continues to roll forward, and its good intentions will be greased with your tax money.

Mayor Nutter soon will ask City Council for $3 million in start-up costs for a bike-sharing program for Philadelphians who want to use bikes, but not buy them. The idea duplicates programs in cities such as Boston, Washington and Minneapolis.

Nutter will put the money in his capital budget early next year, but that's just for starters. Besides the $3 million, an estimated $5 million to $6 million more is needed from the state and federal governments. Up to $9 million for shared bikes?

Without breaking a sweat, I can name a half-dozen better uses for that money: decent shelter for the homeless, firefighter salaries, upgrades to an energy-efficient regional rail, training programs for ex-cons, music instruments for schools, replacements for street signs missing from far too many of our intersections.

The plan, in essence, is to scatter bike-docking stations around Center City and contiguous neighborhoods. Designed for short trips, people can grab a bike at one location and drop it at another. In this respect, it's better than car-sharing plans, such as PhillyCarShare, which require cars to be returned to the same spot from which they were taken.

The first half-hour of bike rental will be free, to encourage short-term use, I was told by Andrew Stober, chief of staff in the Mayor's Office of Transportation and Utilities.

There's a hitch, though: Besides the membership fee, $50 to $100 a year, members need a credit or debit card, but a lot of poor people - who should be big beneficiaries of the program - have neither. Stober admits that that's a problem.

A smaller issue is helmets. There's no easy way to provide them, so (despite years of bicycling advocates urging helmet use) they will be sacrificed.

The plan's proposal spouts the usual happy horse hockey about being "green," reducing pollution, increasing health benefits - all of which are marginally true, but largely insignificant. With that said, the plan is a good idea - except for the start-up costs.

In the infancy of the bike-sharing idea, some enthusiasts proposed that bicycles be free, scattered all around the city - like bread crumbs for pigeons - to be used by anyone. Portland adopted that idea and won massive acclaim from the green crowd.

The cheers turned to whispers when the program was abandoned due to theft and vandalism of the bikes. And that was in a city friendly to granola and the counter-car culture. How long will bikes last on Philly streets?

Well, "free for thee" never had traction here, and Stober says that the bike-share plan - which still doesn't have a formal name - will make it hard for thieves to steal the heavy, slow, three-gear bikes that are custom-made and cost upward of $500 each.

Smelling waste, I asked why bikes need to be custom-made.

Stober smiled. Custom parts won't fit other bikes so there's no point stealing the two-wheelers to cannibalize their pieces.

That's smart.

I like another part of the plan: The city will put up signs advising cyclists that stop lights apply to them and sidewalks are off-limits. Hallelujah! That's the song I've been singing for years.

The program has worked in other cities, and it should work here. I just wish that the city would find money other than taxpayers', and come up with a snazzy name.

I can kill two birds with one stone: Comcast Cycles.