Young alumni bring bike sharing to a wider audience | By Harlan Spector

People who most need bike sharing, the poor, are the least likely to have access. Some Case alumni and their friends have plans to change that.

Tyler Fullington ’17 was busy on a recent evening tightening the bolts and adjusting the brakes on five purple Roadmaster bicycles lined up in the utility room of an uncommon apartment complex on Cleveland’s west side. The Commons at West Village houses people who were recently homeless.

A product design engineer and a cycling enthusiast, Fullington brought his own tools to the job. He was helping former classmates launch Mobility Inc., a bike-sharing program that they hope will be life-changing.

“We want to provide mobility to people who otherwise would not be able to afford it,” Fullington said. “We think it opens up possibilities for careers and, really, personal growth.”

Bike-sharing services have taken off in Cleveland and other major cities, offering a new transportation option to urban residents—but not to everyone. The shared bikes are typically concentrated in bustling, upscale neighborhoods like University Circle. People who most need cheap transportation, the poor, are the least likely to find a ride, the founders say.

By bringing bike sharing to low-income communities, Fullington and his teammates hope to share the mobility and change lives.

Mike Rudolph, for one, thinks it’s a spectacular idea.

Rudolph is the manager of permanent supportive housing for EDEN, the Emerald Development & Economic Network. The nonprofit operates the Commons at West Village, a 66-unit supportive housing complex in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood for formerly homeless men and women.

Many of its residents cannot afford public transportation (an RTA fare is $5 round-trip) and that makes it difficult to get to job interviews, training or social services, Rudolph says. Simply being able to bike recreationally is good for health and well-being and enhances chances of personal success, he adds.

“When Mobility approached us with the idea, we said this is so simple and so brilliant, why didn’t someone think of it before?” Rudolph chuckled. “We feel very lucky they approached us. They’re wonderful partners.”

The idea sprang from the observations of CWRU students who saw a wider world.

Justo Karell ’17 was studying engineering physics at the Case School of Engineering as bike sharing emerged in University Circle. He saw the bicycles being used casually by students and hospital workers--and sometimes neglectfully by riders who would abandon bikes far from their docks.

“Bike sharing is great, but our students have enough money to have their own bikes,” said Karell, now a data scientist for Pratt & Whitney. “The people who can afford transportation, they’re getting more. That inspired us to put them in another place.”

He teamed up with a kindred spirit, Siddhartha Sen, to build Mobility.

Karell and Sen each graduated in 2018 from the Weatherhead School of Management – Sen with an MBA and Karell with a master’s degree in operations research and supply chain management to add to his engineering degree.

As bike sharing became the fastest-growing form of shared mobility, they saw a need to address social and racial disparities

Research shows that the services are used mostly by white, higher-income residents. The Portland University Transportation Research and Education Center found people of color, lower-income and less educated people are underrepresented among bike-share users. Not only are bike stations lacking in low-income neighborhoods, but cost and lack of payment options pose a barrier. Many neighborhoods also don’t have bike lanes, which is a safety concern for potential users.

“Our goal is to help people get out, get to the jobs, or the library, for example,” Sen said. “It’s been proven that such programs benefit cities.”

Others joined the crusade, including CWRU students Leo Thuman and Alexandra Faccenda.

Sen, Justo and Thuman conducted a survey of residents of the Commons and found keen interest in bike sharing.

Karell pitched the idea last fall at Techstars Startup Weekend Cleveland, a startup competition hosted by the university and CWRU LaunchNet. His pitch attracted the attention of Paul Suchy, a young entrepreneur and the business director of BioflightVR, which develops virtual reality training for doctors and other healthcare providers. Suchy had recently moved back to Cleveland from New York City and he joined the Mobility team.

“I grew up poor as hell,” Suchy said. “I see this as one of those ideas, if we can do this the right way, it’s going to scale.”

The Techstars pitch also attracted a Student Project Fund award from Sears think[box]. The founders used the $1,620 grant to buy the Roadmasters and launch their service under an arrangement with EDEN.

“Our goal is to expand to a variety of low-income housing under a non-profit model,” Karell said. “We want to provide equal access to everyone, to get people where they need to be at the lowest cost possible.”

During the pilot phase, the bikes are free to residents of the Commons, who can sign them out between 7:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. Mobility team members plan to track mileage and collect data on how the bikes are being used. They hope to prove to the city of Cleveland -- and to potential funders -- that the Mobility concept is both feasible and necessary.

From conversations with residents, it appears the bikes are being used as one might expect. On a fall evening, residents talked of riding off to the store and to the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions. One man bicycled to the beach at Edgewater Park. Another now makes regular visits to his brother’s family.

“I’m grateful for this,” he said. “I am actually getting back into shape again.”

Karell recently moved to Hartford, Conn., for a job with Pratt & Whitney. So it falls to Fullington, Sen and Suchy to run the program in Cleveland. Karell intends to introduce the concept in Hartford.

Fullington, for one, thinks the group has introduced a concept with wheels.

“A bike is freedom,” he said. “It opens up possibilities. I think this is just the start of something.”

For information on Mobility, including how to join or support the program, contact Tyler Fullington via tyler.fullington@case.edu or Siddhartha Sen via sbs121@case.edu.