Remembering Russell Meddin

The Champion of Bikeshare

Written by: Aaron Ritz, NABSA Board Member & City of Philadelphia Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability

A longtime member of the bikeshare community, Russell Meddin passed away on April 14th, 2020 at his home in Philadelphia.  He was a constant fixture at NABSA conferences and gatherings, and he was known around the world as a generous, knowledgeable, and passionate student of bikeshare.  NABSA board member and fellow Philadelphian, Aaron Ritz has provided the following memory of Russell. We imagine that there are many other stories among his friends in bikeshare.  Please feel free to share them in the comments section below.

Remembering Russell

You usually heard his laugh before you saw him. It was unmistakable, an immodest booming cackle. The sound was immediately recognizable to anyone who has spent time in bikeshare, ringing out at every NABSA conference and scores of other gatherings over the years.  He lived in Philadelphia for more than 40 years, but you would be almost as likely to encounter Russell on bikeshare (public use bicycles, as he tended to call them) in Montreal, Paris, Dublin, London, Lisbon, Berlin, Budapest, Barcelona, Beijing or Hangzhou. If it was bikeshare, he was interested.  If he was interested, he would make it his business to know all about it.

For almost as long as people in North America were talking about bikeshare, Russell was at the heart of the conversation.   Sometimes he was the valued source of information, sometimes as the connector of people who really ought to know each other, and sometimes as simply the loudest voice in the room. As a fellow Philadelphian, I was frequently asked,

“So, what’s the deal with Russell? What does he do exactly?”

The answer was pretty straightforward.

“He does THIS. He’s a self-made bikeshare expert.”

In August of 2010, I was 4 months into my career with the City and I remember hearing my boss complain about this, “Pain in the neck Meddin guy,” who was setting up some kind of “bikeshare thing” in the park across from city hall. Russell had cajoled the team at BCycle to help him drum up support for his passion project—bringing bikeshare to Philadelphia.

Photo of Russell MeddinI walked over with my colleagues to see the demonstration in the early afternoon. As we poked and prodded the bikes and docks, the Mayor walked up with his entourage to do the same.

“Russell, you’re not causing any trouble here are you?”

“No sir, Mr. Mayor, I’m just trying to make sure Philadelphia isn’t the last city to get a bikeshare program,” was the quick reply.

In the ten years since that meeting I came to understand what a remarkable force Russell Meddin was in Philadelphia and in the world of bikeshare. It seems like a hurricane of changes when we look back but somehow he was always right in the eye of it, following every triumph and tribulation.

Russell had a famous generosity with his opinions, they were shared freely with anyone who would hear them. He was perhaps even more generous with his time. From the countless hours he spent combing through the news around the globe and updating the Bike Sharing World Map to the equally countless hours he spent on the phone with his friends across this industry, he never asked for anything other than to know what was going on.

When it came to bikeshare, he seemed to know everyone and everything. Of the first five contacts I made when planning what would be the Indego program, Russell provided four of the introductions. When we needed to see examples of research, or contracts, or equipment from elsewhere in the country or around the globe, Russell dug into his collection of information. He happily walked me through his photo albums from bikeshare in cities around the world. When there were trends and turmoil and rumors to be shared, he made sure that we met for coffee and sure that I knew what was really going on.  And when we were doing things wrong—usually too little, too slow, too cautious—he gave me a call and a piece of his mind.

I can’t say I always picked up the phone; I never worried that he wouldn’t call back.  I was sure of at least two things: he would always follow up, and he would always drop some terrible pun or rhyme into the conversation.  Memorable stinkers include:

Regarding the social aspects of bikeshare—

“Not to be glib, but many people take dates on Vélib’.”

Before a trip to the BCycle World operator conference—

“Have a nice Trek out to Madison!”

He was good to talk to, an attentive listener who could keep things confidential. This was good since he managed to pry so many secrets out of all of us over the years. Dogged persistence does a number on one’s resolve, and really, why not share with the man who only wanted bikeshare to thrive?

What I wouldn’t have predicted a few weeks ago is how much I will miss those terrible puns, or getting secrets pried out of me.  The last email I have from him was a friendly admonishment about how we should insert an icon into the Indego mobile app to show riders which bikes had been sanitized that day. All the major programs in China were doing it after all, why shouldn’t we?

I still owe Russell for the last time we had coffee at Peddler’s Café near his house (pun unintentional but appreciated). I fully expected to pay it back at our next conversation, or maybe the one after that. I’ve heard similar stories from many in our small, wonderful industry. Nobody imagined that there wouldn’t be a next conversation.

I think it’s time to take a page from Russell’s playbook and offer up some unsolicited advice: The next time we meet, we absolutely must get a coffee together, laugh a little too loud, share the latest gossip, and trade some stories about an old friend.  I’ll buy.

Photo of Russell Meddin