Cambridge bike-rental system won’t have branding (or MIT helmet machines)

Boston’s Hubway bike-rental system is branded for New Balance, the local maker of athletic gear. (Photo: Dravium Polcaro)

While it often seems like there are two Cambridges — the hippie and the wealthy — City Manager Robert W. Healy rode across that divide Monday in explaining why the 24 bike-rental stations coming to the city won’t be branded commercially, as they are for New Balance, the local maker of athletic gear, at the 60 rental stations in Boston.

“I guess it’s just a philosophy. I’m sort of opposed to the commercialization of municipal services,” Healy told the City Council on Monday. “I think it’s an opportunity to partner with our universities and businesses, but the outright sale of the entire name for sponsorship was something I wasn’t really interested in having the city do.”

For that, even notorious rabble-rouser, Healy critic and persistent council candidate James Williamson would find some love for the city manager. Williamson has appeared at meetings countless times to bash bus shelters that hold advertising as well as the commercialization of something officially referred to as a “bike share” program.

Healy’s reasoning, of course, had practicality as well as philosophy behind it.

“If it were to be done, I believe it would have had to have been done in a competitive process, not just with one company that might make an offer,” Healy said of branding Hubway. “If you look at the total grant funding and total of Harvard and MIT investment and commitment the city made with some of the increases … there were significant funds to embark on this at-least three-year exercise without having to go to commercialization.”

The program, called Hubway, debuted in Boston in July. It was expected to make it to Cambridge in the fall, but the rollout here and in Somerville, which is expected to get eight rental stations, was delayed to spring. On Monday, Healy said early summer was the more likely arrival for the local system’s 240 bikes and the devices dispensing them, since he was skeptical the equipment would be delivered in time for installation before June 21. The equipment comes from Alta Bicycle Share, a Portland, Ore., company also supplying systems in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Melbourne, Australia. (The uncertainty of delivery from Alta had Assistant City Manager for Community Development Brian Murphy wondering in early April if the bike-rental system would be delayed as late as August.)

When they’re finally installed, six of the stations will be paid for by Harvard University — the reason Healy was talking about Hubway on Monday was to ask the council to appropriate $124,000 from Harvard to pay two additional stations — and two by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The rest of the expense is to be paid by a mix of state, federal and local funding, with the bulk of it coming in the first year for the equipment itself.

Of course, riders will come in on New Balance-branded bikes from across the river, and it wasn’t clear New Balance intended automatically to extend its branding into stations set up in cities outside Boston. Nicole Freedman, who runs the Boston Bikes program, hasn’t returned messages seeking comment.

Helmet dispensers on hold

There’s another way Cambridge’s bike-rental system will lag behind Boston’s: no MIT-designed helmet dispensing machines, despite councillors’ hopes.

“Helmets will be made available through a variety of means,” Healy told the council April 9, but the machines won’t be a part of it because they “are not commercially available at this time.”

True enough, but they’re not commercially available in Boston, either. Boston is taking part in a test of the machines with Cambridge-based MIT, and Cambridge isn’t.

Instead, Cambridge will be looking at Boston to see how the test goes before joining it, Murphy said.

“Part of it is going to be to see what happens with Boston. Part of it is also just that Boston’s farther ahead of us,” Murphy said. “If it’s something that’s possible, I think we’re open to looking at doing it. If the prototype seems like it’s successful, I can’t imagine we’ll have any problem.”

Hubway offers memberships for $85 a year, $12 for three days and $5 for a day; members get unlimited half-hour rides, with higher fees for longer trips.

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