Why Isn’t Bike-Share Reaching More Low-Income People?

Earlier this week, Denver’s B-Cycle bike-share system came under fire for allegedly side-stepping low-income neighborhoods. The accuser was City Council Member Paul Lopez, and his complaint was not something that system operators necessarily deny: There aren’t many stations in low-income neighborhoods.

Denver's B-Cycle is under fire for doing a poor job serving low-income neighborhoods. Photo: ##http://www.denverpost.com/politics/ci_21663660/denver-b-cycle-program-faces-criticism-that-it##Denver Post##

The broader claim — that bike-share isn’t serving the populations that might benefit most from it — has dogged nearly every system in the country. And at its core there is some truth: American bike-share systems aren’t doing a good job reaching low-income and minority populations, according to a recent FHWA report.

Only 1 percent of Boston Hubway users are black. In Washington, DC, only 3 percent of Capital Bikeshare users are African-American, according to CaBi’s annual survey [PDF]. Denver’s B-Cycle users are 81 percent white and only 21 percent have annual household incomes of less than $50,000, according to the Denver Post.

These are statistics that bike-share cities are painfully aware of. And every locale has adopted different methods to reach disadvantaged groups. Denver and Boulder work with the local housing authorities to make memberships available to residents of public housing. Hubway offers subsidized memberships to anyone with an income less than 400 percent of the poverty rate. Minneapolis’s Nice Ride requires no deposit to be held on the user’s credit card.

But with many of these programs, success has been limited. One issue is siting — that was the point raised by Council Member Lopez in Denver. B-Cycle has only one station in west Denver, where much of the city’s Hispanic population resides. “That truly says something,” he told the Post.

But Parry Burnap, executive director of Denver Bike Sharing, explained that stations do best in densely populated, mixed-use areas with good bike paths. And that in order to stay afloat, the system has to think like a business.

“We run the system through membership and sponsorship,” she told the Post. “If we hang a station out there that is not strategically connected, we have to hire people to maintain it.”

Minneapolis faced similar criticism following its first year of operation, says Paul DeMaio, of MetroBike LLC, a consultant to Capital Bikeshare and creator of the Bike Sharing Blog. The city has since adjusted its stations to accommodate low-income neighborhoods.

But there are often additional social obstacles to bike-share for lower-income people.

“There’s a cultural issue, in many communities,” DeMaio said. “It’s not cool. No one else is riding a bike.”

For example, when a local organization donated 100 B-Cycle memberships to Denver Housing Authority residents, only 32 people took advantage, and only 23 used the bikes more than once, according to the Post.

Denver Councilman Albus Brook complained to the Post of a “cultural chasm” between neighborhoods. He reported his constituents’ response to B-Cycle was: “‘Why in the world would I pay for a bike when I can borrow my cousin’s?'”

But surely one of the biggest obstacles preventing lower-income people from benefitting from bike-share is the issue of collateral. All the modern U.S. bike-share systems require a credit or debit card to rent a bike. “Otherwise people have no incentive to return the bike,” said DeMaio.

Denver's bike sharing stations are concentrated around downtown and in wealthier neighborhoods. Image: ##http://www.denverpost.com/politics/ci_21663660/denver-b-cycle-program-faces-criticism-that-it##Denver Post##

That effectively excludes low-income people who don’t have bank accounts. About 17 million people across the U.S., or about 1 in 12 households, are “unbanked,” according to a recent report from the FDIC. And the “unbanked” are disproportionately black and Hispanic. More than 21 percent of African American households and 20 percent of Hispanic households are “unbanked,” compared to 4 percent of white households and just over 2 percent of Asian households, Bloomberg reports.

Washington, D.C. has gone farther than other cities in attempting to reach unbanked residents with a program called Bank on DC, which allows low-income people to set up no-fee, no-minimum bank accounts. Those who take part in the program are eligible for a $25 discount on an annual CaBi membership.

But Greg Billing at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association said the program has not necessarily been a game-changer.

“It has been working at the issue but isn’t the magic bullet yet,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a process to go through Bank on DC and become a Capital Bikeshare member.”

Russell Meddin is the founding member of Bike Share Philadelphia, an organization working to bring bike-share to the City of Brotherly Love. Meddin thinks it is absolutely crucial, if Philadelphia launches a bike-share system, that it serve low-income people, because of the city’s demographics. But he doesn’t think the idea of helping the unbanked get bank accounts is the right approach.

“You’re making them do something that’s out of the ordinary for them,” he said. “You need to set up something that’s ordinary for them.”

Meddin likes the idea of tying bike-share payments to cell phones, which many low-income people do have — allowing them to purchase memberships when they pay their phone bill.

Meanwhile, it remains an odd fact that, in America, private companies are able to offer low-income people without credit auto loans, cash loans, and layaway, but we can’t seem to figure out how to provide them with the financial tools to ride public bikes.

Correction: Bank on DC members are not required to make deposits and local organizations help defray the costs if a bike is stolen. 

  • Chops

    I’m a daily bikeshare user and an economist, and I’ve spent about half my adult life living in a very poor neighborhood. Now I live in a gentrifying neighborhood; the only bikeshare users are young professionals (white & black).

    Besides cultural issues – does anything look nerdier than riding a bikeshare? – is the simple understanding of what consumption niche bikeshare fills. Very few people pay for bikeshare but do not own their own bike. More often, we rent a bikeshare as a complement to (not a substitute for) a personal bike. In particular, it’s a complement to a *nice* bike.

    That usage pattern isn’t obviously the only one that could exist, but (from the data), it’s obviously correct.

    The poor, generally, do not own nice bikes. Why would they? A nice bike is a luxury good, and they have other priorities. 

    Often, the poor do own a junky bike – a beater. A beater is cheap, much cheaper than a year’s bikeshare membership. But bikeshare is a substitute for a junky bike (it’s slow, bulky, and not totally reliable). A smart poor person will forego the expensive bikeshare, buy a cheap beater at a yardsale and ride it into the ground. 

    The poor in America have enough income to have a pretty large consumption choice set; most poor families own a car. And they are just as smart with their money as they rest of us. There’s no need to paternalistically foist bikeshare onto those who don’t demand it.

  • I thought about this also while I was in DC. It’s tricky. But as far as your point of offering low-income people loans and layaway – bikeshare is completely different, unless someone wants to enter into the business of exploitative bikeshare which I can actually envision. 😮 

  • Anonymous

    Its cheaper to buy your own bike. Its bike friendly streets that I am more worried about in low income neighborhoods, which in New York are quite lacking.

  • Nobody

    In the the US bikes are viewed by most as a toy. What did most American kids want under the Christmas tree for most of the 20th Century? A new BIKE! The need to travel/commute by bike is viewed by many Americans as a failure, ie must not be able afford a car or got a DUI. In reality many commuter cyclists make the decsision to do something that is more difficult on its face, riding a bike to work or the store, because they understand that they’re paying themselves in the form of lower stress levels, better health, AND all the normal vehicular savings associated with bike commuting. 

    What most people fail to comment on is that when a one person chooses rides a bike to work even those who choose to drive a single occupant automobile benefit in the form of lower traffic congestion, more parking spaces available, less emeissions, lower healthcare cost, etc.     

  • Nobody

    What reliable bike can you buy for the cost of an average bike sharing membership($60-80 per year?) I think it might have been a while since you shopped for bikes.

  • In reply to “Nobody” because I can’t find a reply button on that post – bike share generally ends up being more costly than the initial membership. At least in DC, there are additional charges that escalate after the first 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, there is a $2 charge and it keeps going up. I found myself paying additional charges on top of my three-day membership while searching for stations. The costs can add up quite quickly. And the thing is – most low-income necessity cyclists are not necessarily riding “reliable” bikes. So I think considering it to be a good deal for people with limited resources if far-fetched. You can buy a bike for $35 at Walmart during the holidays. Lots and lots of people – no matter what their income level – consider big box bikes just fine.

  • Anonymous

    In Boston you need a credit card or a debit card with enough money to put down a $100 deposit. I’m not even “low income” and I don’t want to let the city of Boston borrow a hundred bucks from me for however long it takes them to decide to deposit it back in my account (up to 10 days). I’m not really sure who would want to use it, I guess it’d be OK if I were a tourist.

  • boston guy

    I’m sorry to be so blunt, but in Boston it is also because the bikes are not located near where low-income people live. When a low-income person travels to where the bikes are located (substantially downtown) they are likely already on transit and the system has very wide coverage in downtown making bike share kind of redundant.  Unlike other metro areas, where the bikes are stationed in Boston there really isn’t a last mile problem.  The last mile problem most likely exists where low-income folks live. I’m actually surprised this passed the EJ/Title VI smell test since Boston’s system was partially funded by FTA.  While I’m not a bike share user, I am a huge supporter, but am highly concerned about what this article has asked.  I think the people that could benefit the most from bike share are being excluded in Boston.  It seems there has been some slight progress on located the stations more fairly this year with a slight expansion but not good enough in my opinion.   

  • Anonymous

    Looking strictly at Boston, they’re slowly growing, and finally somewhat of a circular shape.  Last year, exclusion of Cambridge meant you had this strange crescent carved out of the north side of the coverage area, due to the meander of the Charles.  To what end?  Long distances between stations East to West.  People on that North side had a disincentive to stop and spend their tourist dollars.  Such is the fate of a new system just getting going.  

    Now it’s about – perhaps over – 100 stations.  Expansion next year will indeed be a big test of the system, because it can’t expand much more – as an even radius – without penetrating int some poorer neighborhoods.  

    As stated more eloquently here by others – while something like this needs to serve the poor, it also needs to be built out in a sustainable way.  You can’t simply put a kiosk into any neighborhood, it would be an island… there needs to be interconnecting stations about 1/4 mile away.  

    Boston’s test will come next year, as the stations are nearing that 1/4 mile from poor neighborhoods border.  They’ll either expand into the poor neighborhoods, or not – and the map will show that. 

  • poncho

    I would like to see more minorities use bikeshare, but many choose not to, this is a system available equally to everyone no matter what race someone is and is located in the most central part of their respective cities which is the greatest crossroads of all people. Using this system or anything is a personal choice. I dont get why if something has a particular demographic despite being available equally to all that many jump up and scream that it must be ‘discrimination’ and a civil rights violation.

    In an ideal world I would also like to see bikeshare be free but unfortunately a system of communal bikes valued at $2000+ each does not work if you, personally, are not held accountable for their return. I or anyone operating any rental system of any kind, be it a rental bike, rental car, rental furniture, etc cant think of any other way to share something with someone without a credit card or large deposit to incentivize its return.

    It comes down to values, people choose to spend money on certain items and not on other items.

  • Emily Y.

    I have used both the bike share in D.C. and in Boston. I love them! However, I live in NYC and the bike share has yet to be implemented there. When I went to see the map of bike share stations, I was shocked, they were only located in places where only white people live (in the most diverse city of the world).

  • Emily Y.

    Also, I would disagree with Poncho, in my neighborhood in Corona, Queens. We actually  have many minorities using bicycles already. But they are mostly hispanic men.

  • Tom

    Bikeshare is a powerful transit and economic tool, but it needs to be rethought.  Importation of the Velib model is missing a huge opportunity.  A better bikeshare program would:
    1. be built on full service (robust bike rental – it works).2. consider using “smart locks” versus “smart docks” (“smart locks” 10% the cost/bike – massive saving).3. implement a “second life bike” strategy where the bikeshare company donates the old bikes to local non profits. Velib clunkers don’t have much of a resale or reuse value.

  • deeeeep

    Why would low income people want to be involved in bike sharing! It still cost money and bike sharing stations are usually not set up in low income neighborhoods. If they were then they would probably be vandalized anyway.  Low income people would rather steal a bike then pay for the temporary use of one.

  • Paul

    Let’s say you live at or near the poverty line in DC.  Capitol Bikeshare is $75 per annum, not including user agreement liabilities.  Why would you pay $75 every year when you can buy a used bike at the Salvation Army, Goodwill, Thrift Store, or from your cousin for less than that amount?

    Bike shares make sense for folks who would otherwise spend $500+ on a bike and prefer not to have the hassle of hauling it up the stairwell and storing it in the apartment entryway. 

  • Anonymous

    “There’s a cultural issue, in many communities,” DeMaio said. “It’s not cool. No one else is riding a bike.”

    I actually think this is one of the biggest issues. Many urban cultures (as well as many other demographics!) think riding a bike is dorky and silly. All demographics of America worship the car from rural people who love their big pickups to inner city people with their pimped out cars to rich people with their expensive sports car. So I look at the issue the other way: what makes some demographics break free from this culture that worships the car and treats it as a status symbol and instead become comfortable on a bike, something that they know many people think is silly?

    I also don’t buy the monetary argument. Most low-income people don’t walk or ride the bike to work but rely on public transit (and many relay on a car). Public transit in most cities costs at least ~$1000/year. Even if somehow you only pay half that for public transit, how can you argue that bike share memberships that cost an order of magnitude less than that are not a better deal? Even if you have to put down a $100 deposit, this is still a deal. However, I do agree that not having a credit card could be a problem for some.

    So at the end of the day, if you’re looking to save money, there is no good way to argue a bikeshare is not a good deal (excepting the issue of not having a credit card).

  • voltairesmistress

    I find getting anyone I know — friend, relative, young, old, colleague — to ride any bike for practical tasks really difficult.  I have elucidated how economical it is.  To no avail.  I don’t know what triggers a person to try riding their own bike or a bikeshare.  Maybe that’s the research question to ask bikeshare adopters or new bike commuters generally.

  • I would like to see more minorities use bikeshare, but many choose not to, this is a system available equally to everyone no matter what race someone is and is located in the most central part of their respective cities which is the greatest crossroads of all people. 

  • Because riding a bike is fashionable primarily for prosperous young white people. 

  • Anonymous

    @ea1809617b00430091318d0e92a6ef00:disqus  Bikes work well for virtually every demographic: they’re easy to use and
    maintain, and cost about the same as three months of
    transit. They are vital transportation for a significant percentage of low-income wage workers and homeless people.

    If all you see are prosperous young white people on bikes, you aren’t hanging out in the neighborhoods where necessities are not walking distance, transit is absent or expensive, and a bike is a dirt cheap alternative to a car.

  • Simon Rellins

    I agree, Rob Anderson. I think bikes are fine for recreation or exercise, as long as they’re kept on bike paths and off roads and sidewalks where they don’t belong. But this endless parade of ‘Newsflash: White Yuppie Hipsters Ride Bikes’ articles isn’t convincing anyone in middle America that they’re a viable alternative to driving. White, young, affluent urban bike hipsters are essentially making a fashion statement that doesn’t translate to other communities (hispanics, blacks, suburbanites, older people, etc.).
    Other groups have to be more practical with their money and time and recognize the bike for what it is…a toy. Try taking your kids to the grocery store, doctor, or football practice on bikes when you live where most Americans do (hint: not in cities or Agenda 21 “new urbanist” communities). Oh wait, I forget, most of these people don’t have kids.

    Most people in minority and immigrant communities work hard to a). get a car and b). move the hell out into the city into the ‘burbs so they can have their own home, privacy, fresh air, and safety. Not having a car doesn’t make you cool outside the yuppie biker community…it makes you a loser.Bike advocates don’t realize the US isn’t some north European micro-nation where everyone lives 2 or 3 miles (oh sorry, kilometers) from work.

  • cheltun

    In most of the major cities, bike sharing programs were preceded by pedicabs. The pedicabs do not cost the government anything whereas the cost per bike of bike sharing programs typically costs thousands per bike. The number of pedicabs which are allowed to operate are capped in most major cities. Why doesn’t the government try to subsidize pedicabs instead of curtail the development of that industry?

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