Bike share equity has some challenges, some wins

Bike share equity remains an uphill battle in impoverished neighborhoods and communities populated primarily by low-income residents and people of color. However, neither catering to affluent, white men nor community apathy and indifference are necessarily to blame. The reasons are complicated, but progress is happening, and more inroads are on the horizon. 

Bike sharing is a communal transportation service in which bikes are made available for short-term use. Typically, the bikes are picked up at one location and returned to another. The average fee, according to ScienceDirect, can be about $4.29 for a two-hour trip, but fees vary depending on the operator, the amount of use time, and the city. A two-hour ride in Washington D.C., for example, may cost $10 or more, according to Moneycrashers

A movement is born

The fluctuating costs, variables like late turn-in fees, and the tendency for bike share systems to be located in more affluent communities or near tourist attractions, has pegged these services as a recreational amenity for the privileged. There is now an intentional movement to diversify and reframe bike share programs as a public transit service for everyone.

“It is important to be able to access essential services — to travel to a grocery store, a COVID vaccination site, school, or work. If you don’t have transportation, if you don’t have access to a reliable bus system or a car because you cannot afford it, you’re limited in your work, school or life options,” says Kiran Herbert, local program writer and content manager for PeopleforBikes, and a founding partner of Better Bike Share Partnership (BBSP)

BBSP is a collaboration that funds bike-equity initiatives in low-income and BIPOC communities. Since 2015, BBSP has funded 76 grants, totaling over $1.5 million, according to Herbert. “Bike shares allow for mobility and freedom to participate in our society, and live a life you choose,” she continued. 

Herbert was referring to making bike share systems accessible in all neighborhoods, particularly those areas where bike-share options can enhance or fill in public transit gaps. However, bike share equity exceeds operators actively placing bike share systems in underserved neighborhoods; access also includes affordability. 

Better Bike Share Partnership original team: Waffiyah Murray, Aaron Ritz, Carneisha Kwashie, Katie Monroe, and Zoe Kircos

The Detroit solution

In Detroit, the MoGo Bike Share System offers a discounted access pass for low-income riders. The access pass is an annual membership that allows riders year-long, daily bike usage. The cost for people who receive some type of childcare or public assistance is $5 for the entire year. The usual fee is $95.

“We really didn’t want the price for bike share to be a barrier for anyone who needed transportation or even just to run errands, especially in a city like Detroit where so many people don’t have access to cars or maybe cannot afford other forms of transportation,” said Adriel Thornton, MoGo’s executive director. 

Other cities, like Chicago and Philadelphia, offer similarly discounted annual passes and cash payment options in addition to credit or debit cards. 

To increase accessibility, MoGo at one time partnered with CVS, Family Dollar and 7-Eleven stores, where people who lacked credit or debit cards could pay cash to purchase annual memberships. When that option ended, MoGo began accepting cash for certain bike share services utilizing Cash App.

In 2018, MoGo collaborated with the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) to offer MoGo memberships to individuals who were already purchasing weekly, biweekly, or monthly bus passes. Ninety percent of people using the DDOTXMoGo pass were non-white and used the pass to get to and from work, and to connect to public transportation. Eighty-one percent had an income of less than $25,000 per year. MoGo hopes to expand upon this pilot by providing free transfers between bike share and transit, reducing the transportation costs for single trips.

Funding for equity

To cover the cost of equity programs, bike share operators are often helped by city and foundation funding from organizations like BBSP. Nathan McNeil, research associate at Portland State University’s Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, wonders what will happen when those funds run out.

“A lot of the equity programs depend on small pots of money here and there. They are rarely built into the long-term funding streams of the system. Bike share isn’t like transit, in that we don’t tend to have large subsidies or taxes that go toward supporting it. That needs to change if bike share is going to become a substantial part of these communities and cities in general,” McNeil said.

While McNeil’s concern may be valid, Noa Banayan, director of federal affairs for PeopleForBikes, is optimistic. “Bike share and micro-mobility are new at a federal level. That’s allowed it some flexibility in terms of how funding moves to the states, cities and towns,” Banayan said. Greater flexibility increases the categories, such as carbon reduction, transit and equity, through which bike-share programs can qualify for funding.

  “Congress is set to pass a five-year funding bill called Connecting America’s Active Transportation Act. In addition to prioritizing funding for marginalized communities, the bill — if passed — will increase support for networked bike lanes and supportive infrastructure,” Banayan continued.

Infrastructure improvements needed

While affordability has been one challenge for underserved communities, the physical condition of city infrastructure in disinvested neighborhoods is another. Streets and sidewalks may be in disrepair, bike lanes and signage may not be available, and some neighborhoods are often sandwiched between major roads and highways, which present challenges for residents who want to ride, but fear for their safety.

“There are things that have been unequitable about transportation that bleed into bike share,” says Hebert. “We build highways through a lot of these neighborhoods, which make it really hard to put in bike lanes and [make it] dangerous to bike at all. . . . We know that traffic violence is also higher in those neighborhoods, so all those factors have kind of made it so that bike shares are concentrated in areas with those who already have the most privilege,” Herbert said.

Yalinette Rivera works as a team leader for Chicago-based Northwest Side Housing Center (NWSHC), which services the middle-to-working class, predominantly Latino Belmont-Cragin neighborhood. She agrees traffic violence can dissuade people from biking. 

“I actually got into an incident where I was riding between a moving car on one side, and a parked car on the other. When the driver unexpectedly merged where I was riding, I collided with the parked car. I’ll just be upfront, I haven’t had a good experience biking in the area since then,” Rivera said. 

She says she  primarily takes buses now, but looks forward to the addition of bike lanes in her community sometime in July. “I see a lot of youth and elderly people using bikes as transportation. They need to be able to move around safely,” Rivera said.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), 843 bicyclists were killed in car crashes with motor vehicles in 2019. To prevent traffic violence or accidents, marginalized communities need bike-friendly and traffic-calming infrastructure, like updated signage, decreased speed limits, narrower car lanes, curb extensions, and networked bike lanes and circuits that connect riders to transit depots, schools, stores, and other routine destinations — sometimes without ever having to share the road with cars.

The City of Philadelphia currently has 200 miles of bike lanes and 360 miles of circuit trails for urban and suburban bike transit, and is developing a citywide network of bike-friendly streets as a part of a comprehensive, $3.7 million federally funded program. The linked lanes and circuits will also promote safer passages for bicyclists. One-third of the city’s bike share systems are in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, according to McNeil.

What the numbers tell us

In 2017, McNeil surveyed communities of color in Chicago’s Bronzeville and New York City’s Bed Stuy neighborhoods to gauge their interest in bike share programs. Bike shares had been negatively associated with neighborhood gentrification, inability to afford cars, and other inaccuracies. The survey showed 73 percent of the respondents were not concerned about those things at all and saw a need for bike share programs. 

To combat misinformation, bike-share equity programs often utilize bike-share ambassadors — people who mirror their constituents — to make others aware of what bike shares are and how to use them. Working with bike-share operators, these programs often set up bike rides so first-time riders can experience the service firsthand, often free of charge. 

As for Chicago’s Belmont-Cragin neighborhood, where over 27,000 young people under the age of 18 reside, they welcome bike-share programs.

“We have no El station in our community. The El doesn’t go west enough, so we are a 15-minute bus ride from the El to Belmont-Cragin. We’re left without transit options for our young folks. Biking and scooters have become the primary mode of transit,” says NWSHC executive director James Rudyk. 

In 2018, the NWSHC surveyed area youth to identify issues affecting the neighborhood. 

Lack of public transportation options and biking infrastructure were major concerns. The community currently has no bike-share systems, but as a result of a youth-led advocacy, they have worked with the Chicago Department of Transportation, Active Transportation Alliance (a nonprofit that advocates for bike safety), various city aldermen, Divvy Bike Share System, and BBSP to achieve some major transportation goals.

Equitable outcomes

By the end of July, the city plans to add five miles of bike lanes. Through BBSP’s Living Lab funding initiative, NWSHC will also purchase 100 Divvy for Everyone, $5-discounted annual membership passes, so residents will be able to afford to participate in the bike share when the bike stations are available. 

NWSHC has also been pegged by Divvy to pilot a program that streamlines a stringent verification process from detailed paperwork and online submissions, to signing a waiver and purchasing the pass, according to Jose Cuebas, a NWSHC youth organizer. 

Regarding local access to Chicago’s Divvy Bike Share System, Cuebas said, “I don’t know why they didn’t put Divvys on the northwest side or the south side until last year. Maybe they don’t see the ridership among people [there], but that’s simply not true. We see people riding bikes every day. We see kids riding their bikes and others riding to work or riding to school, so we need options as well.”

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