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Is Camden ready for bike sharing? Residents will find out this May

The pilot program will test whether bike sharing can benefit residents in a small, low-income community like Camden.

An ofo bike is pictured in Seattle in February. The Chinese-based company will join up with Coopers Ferry Partnership to bring dockless bike sharing to Camden in May.
An ofo bike is pictured in Seattle in February. The Chinese-based company will join up with Coopers Ferry Partnership to bring dockless bike sharing to Camden in May.Read moreElaine Thompson / AP

Need to catch a PATCO train, but the walk to downtown Camden feels like a trek?

That may not be a problem come May 1, when the city deploys scores of bright-yellow, two-wheeled bicycles throughout its streets. Coopers Ferry Partnership is teaming up with Chinese-based company ofo to bring dockless bike sharing to South Jersey for a sevenmonth pilot program.

Users download the ofo app on a smartphone, search for nearby GPS-enabled bikes, and scan a QR code on the rear wheel to unlock it. Riders are charged $1 per hour of pedaling and can park the bikes anywhere using attached locks.

"It's like Uber for bicycles," said Valaria Galarza, senior project manager. "There's building going on around Camden… but we want to make sure the city is as accessible as possible."

Coopers Ferry created a project steering committee composed of community members and stakeholders to introduce the new technology to residents at events throughout the spring. Demonstrations will be held at the Camden Night Gardens Summer Festival at Coopers Poynt Waterfront on May 18.

Ofo spokeswoman Caroline Samponaro said a few hundred bikes will be deployed in Camden. An "operations team" working in a local warehouse will fix improperly stationed bicycles,  such as vehicles tied to a fire hydrant or blocking the sidewalk, and distribute them evenly throughout neighborhoods.

A bike feasibility study is being funded by the William Penn Foundation. The foundation awarded $1.8 million to Coopers Ferry Partnership last year and a portion of that is being used for the study. The city hired Rutgers University's Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center to compile residents' feedback, which will be used when judging whether to create a permanent program.

Ultimately, it will test whether bike sharing helps those living on the edges of small, low-income communities like Camden, said James Sinclair, research manager at the New Jersey Bicycle and Pedestrian Resource Center within Rutgers.

"A great benefit of bike sharing is connecting people to existing transit lines," Sinclair said. "This might help those who live in the more industrial parts of Camden who don't have a car or easy access to a close bus line."

In recent years, the county has invested more heavily in bike-friendly initiatives. In 2015, 4.3 miles of bike trails opened in the city as the first phase of the Camden Greenway project— a network of paths connecting Camden to surrounding suburbs.

Last August, Gloucester Township opened a kiosk filled with 10 bikes located along a three-mile health and fitness trail using a $19,000 open-space grant from the county. To date, more than 300 people have used the docking station, mainly for recreational purposes.

An obstacle for some: Only smartphone users can rent the bikes. But a new county initiative will make biking more accessible. Starting in May, 350 recycled or donated bicycles will be available for the taking at the Lakeland Complex in Blackwood.

"It was a learning curve for us to make sure residents know how to use the program," said Gloucester Township spokeswoman Regina Caristo.

Galarza, who leads the Get Healthy Camden initiative, hopes the program promotes active lifestyles. In Camden County, 32 percent of adults over 20 are obese, according to New Jersey State Health Assessment Data. 

"We want to get people moving," Galarza said.

She said Coopers Ferry officials don't anticipate any problems with the Camden project, but ofo and other dockless bike share companies faced backlash last year when images surfaced of "bicycle graveyards" in China— parking lots overflowing with damaged or vandalized two-wheelers. Critics also say the bikes can clutter public spaces.

A resolution passed by Camden City Council on Tuesday notes that parked bikes must comply with local laws and that ofo is responsible for ensuring bicycles do not obstruct fire hydrants, bus stop operations, traffic, crosswalks, and other public spaces.

This article has been updated to clarify the role of the William Penn Foundation.