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Bike Share Equity and Local Projects

Last Thursday, NPR ran a story about bike share accessibility issues. The reporter, Joel Rose, shared interviews with street users in DC’s Anacostia neighborhood, a bike advocate in New York City, and a researcher in Chicago. This struck me as odd because while bike equity is a nationwide problem, it’s something being addressed differently in each of those cities.

I first visited Anacostia in November for a retreat with the League’s Equity Advisory Council. We gathered at the HIVE 2.0, a co-working space in the basement of the Anacostia Arts Center on Good Hope Road, the neighborhood’s main drag. We met there because the retreat had been co-organized by Hamzat Sani, the League’s former Equity Fellow and a HIVE member. 

One of the first things we did to kick off our two-day brainstorming and planning session was to share our personal goals for the retreat. On the big sheet of butcher paper, Hamzat wrote down “show off my grant area (wards 7 and 8).” He works with the Washington Area Bicyclists’ Association (WABA), a group that has for several years developed an outreach program focused on communities “East of the River.” This covered the part of Anacostia we were meeting in, and he took us on a guided tour of the neighborhood that afternoon.

This month, I returned to the HIVE to hang out with Hamzat, and I had him take a picture of me because I was commuting on my own bike for the first time since moving to DC.


(I wish I’d taken a picture of him, because his outfit was much cooler than mine.)

After our meeting, we rode over the 11th Street Bridge and Hamzat showed me the way to the League’s office on K Street. As we rode, we discussed our experiences being bike advocates and people of color, and how those identities intersect. We were making the link between places like Anacostia and bike groups like the League and WABA with our route and our words. I want to make crossover efforts like this as visible as possible. To me, they’re the most exciting work happening in bicycling. We’re building a bridge between worlds that on their own might be content to remain apart. While I’m very glad that a major media outlet like NPR is noticing the accessibility issues that we must work through, it reminded me how important it is to highlight the work that is ongoing from inside the movement.

There’s already been some inquiry into why people in places like Anacostia might not be interested in bike share. Starting last fall, Professor Eve Bratman of American University led her students through a yearlong study on that subject. They found that low income residents in the Washington DC area commute an average of four hours more per week than their higher income counterparts living in the same neighborhoods. Among the barriers to mobility low-income people face are additional perceptions of bicycles as toys rather than legitimate transportation modes, and concerns that workplace attire and bicycling clothing are not compatible. As Dr. Bratman commented over email, “bike sharing programs are a terrific asset for avoiding short driving trips, but the realities for many poor people are that commutes take longer because affordable housing is often not located within a reasonable bicycling distance from low-wage workers’ jobs.” This would suggest that, “beyond merely building more infrastructure for bike sharing, building more bicycle lanes, or tweaking the economics of the system to make bike sharing more affordable, we need to have a conversation about the perceptions of who bicyclists are.” Dr. Bratman shared her students’ findings with WABA earlier this year.

There’s also been work that includes DC but looks at a number of cities: here are findings from a thesis that Viginia Tech planning student Darren Buck wrote about bike share equity issues. Buck solicited responses from a number of cities and bike share contractors, and came up with some great ideas. I learned about Buck’s research from a contact at Alta Planning + Design, who referred me to Alta Bicycle Share to learn more about their efforts to integrate equity into their programs. One of their clients is Capital Bikeshare. As a researcher myself, I was impressed at Buck’s success in reaching the ear of bike planners and sharing his findings with his interlocutors.

We may not have solved the bike share accessibility problem, but it’s important to recognize where people are making the connection and taking equity seriously so that we’re empowering our own colleagues to keep striving for a better movement.

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