As more cities install bike share systems to promote cycling, we should consider how accessible they are to diverse user groups. Does bike share bring the benefits of bicycling to more people? If public funding is to be secured for these systems, how can equitable systems that are designed to include a range of needs? Since March 2014, a group of researchers, advocates, and bike share stakeholders have been meeting monthly to create a set of recommendations for equitable bike share systems.
We have identified barriers to use in two basic areas:
1. Physical barriers: the size and shape of bikes do not fit all bodies; current bike models do not support biking with kids or cargo; systems require a credit card to use; siting of bike share pods
2. Cultural barriers: bike share systems might be targeted toward one cultural idea of bicycling; community-based organizations are not running the programs; people perceive bike share as something for white people and not for them
Most of the criticism of bike share systems has targeted physical barriers. For example, an NPR story from December 2013 focused on the "unbanked" problem, which is the reality that not all community members have access to debit or credit cards. The most bicycle research and planning focuses on physical interventions rather than the behaviors and attitudes. Starting in fall 2012, Professor Eve Bratman of American University led her students through a yearlong study on bicycling in DC's Wards 7 and 8. They found that low-income residents 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.”
Some systems have been experimenting with community partnerships as a model for overcoming the physical barriers. Leading the way on this front is the Community Partners Bike Library, a project of Cycles for Change in St. Paul. Click here for their report on "Best Practices for Bike Libraries." The bike library partners with community-based organizations who choose students from the groups they serve. Accessibility is key: library users get outfitted with bikes that fit their individual needs. Bike libraries include no-charge bikes, riding lessons, leadership development, and tie into advocacy. When paired with a bike share system such as Minneapolis/St. Paul's Nice Ride, bike libraries can connect more people to bike share.