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Advancing Equity in Bike Sharing Systems

Cap bikeshareWhile he didn’t ride up to Capitol Hill, President Barack Obama showcased the city’s bicycle-friendly facilities during the inauguration last week, giving millions of Americans a glimpse of the bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue. When not occupied by a presidential motorcade or thousands of cheering supporters, those lanes are a steady stream of bicyclists, including many using Capital Bikeshare.

With so many people converging on D.C. to celebrate what some consider “a win for a more multiracial America,” I wondered: how are those facilities and the bike sharing system serving our multiracial cycling community?

To help answer that question, Darren Buck of Bikepedantic recently published his analysis on “Encouraging Equitable Access to Public Bikesharing Systems.” The 107-page report delves into how 20 bike-share programs across the country, including D.C., are working to ensure access to public bike sharing systems in low-income and communities of color.

While bike share systems are becoming a popular idea in many urban areas nationwide, where bike-share programs currently exist there is a persistent truth that they often don’t serve the populations that could benefit the most. Benefits associated with bike-share include:

  • Greater transportation mode shift. (Fewer cars, more bikes)
  • Neighborhoods w/ less greenhouse emissions. (Cleaner air)
  • Lower household transportation expenditures. (Spend less to get to work)
  • Increased accessibility to public transit. (Greater mobility without a car)
  • Increase in physical activity. (Fewer shouting matches with your scale)

So who benefits from all this bike-sharing goodness? Well, it turns out its mostly well-educated, white users 34 years old and younger.

CapBikeShareWhy is this happening? Are low-income and minority populations too cool for bike-share? According to the report, there are some clear barriers that make the demographic of bike-share users more homogeneous than we’d like. There are both barriers to bicycling in general and barriers to bike-share use as well.

  • Lack of access to bike facilities.
  • Counties with high poverty and low educational attainment were less likely to have dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects.
  • African Americans bike less but feel more threatened while cycling.
  • Low-income households have lower rates of access to a bicycle.

There are several other barriers that make access to bike-share a difficulty for low-income users and people of color. One popular example from Capital BikeShare is the system’s requirement that riders pay with a credit card. This limits accessibility to low-income users that may not have credit cards or bank cards. Capital BikeShare responded with a Bank on DC campaign, which provided discounted membership via a partnership with local banks to make the service more affordable.

Another barrier is the location of bike share stations and how far they are from other stations and public transit. In an article from Grid Chicago concerning Chicago’s plans to unveil a bike-share system soon, Eboni Hawkins from Red, Bike and Green – Chicago noted, “In many black and Latino communities on the South and West Sides, destinations are farther apart than in dense North Side neighborhoods, which makes bike commuting more challenging.”

Outside of highlighting just how one sided bike-share user demographics might be, Buck’s report also hinted at some potential ways to address the imbalances. Just a few of the suggestions included:

  • creating financial assistance programs directly targeting low-income users
  • tapping bike-share users as advocates for bike facilities in underserved communities
  • linking bike-share cards and fobs with public transit farecards
  • providing user information in more than one language
  • hiring diverse staff representative of the city’s population
  • hosting workshops for low-income residents to learn how to use bike-share
  • creating incentives for late-shift workers to use bikeshare due to a lack of public transit

Bike share systems are making a huge difference in getting more people out riding. But, if the benefits are confined to a limited group of users its appearance in urban centers will continue to beg questions like this: “If it is truly about behavioral change, make it available where it is really needed or where it will have impact,” said Councilman Paul Lopez in Denver, Colorado. “Is this truly about the issues and behavioral change or is this just for looks?”

Click here to read the full equity in bike sharing report.


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