What Cities Are Learning About Making Bike-Share More Equitable

Cities are gaining more insight about how to make bike share work for the poor. Photo: NACTO
Cities are gaining more insight into how bike-share can be more useful and accessible to low-income people. Photo: NACTO

So far, the customer base of American bike-share systems has skewed toward affluent white men. But cities have been working to make the systems more useful and accessible to a broader spectrum of people, and in a new report, the National Association of City Transportation Officials has compiled some of the lessons learned.

Here are a few key takeaways:

The appeal of monthly membership plans

Photo: NACTO
Image: NACTO

The price of a full 12-month membership can be a barrier for some people. Providing the option of monthly passes or installment plans encourages people across all income levels to try bike-share, NACTO reports.

People who have less predictable personal finances and income benefit from the flexibility of shorter-term memberships, NACTO says. Low-income people are more likely to purchase short-term transit passes, and the same reasoning applies to bike-share.

Although monthly payments can create some uncertainty for bike-share operators, that can be managed with options like auto-renewing monthly passes, NACTO reports. Monthly payments can also serve as a reminder to use the system and boost ridership.

Clearly communicating costs is incredibly important

“Absolute cost is rarely highlighted as a major barrier” in focus groups or anecdotal accounts from bike-share officials, NACTO says. What appears to play a bigger role is uncertainty over what the bike-share service will cost.

A 2012 focus group of Emerson University students found that “the cost of Hubway is not the factor that limits students from using the service, but rather the confusion and inefficient method of making the payments.”

Make payment convenient

One factor that’s often flagged about bike-share systems is making them accessible to the “unbanked” — people without credit or debit cards. About 8 percent of Americans are unbanked, though there is a great deal of variation from city to city and neighborhood to neighborhood.

To tackle this problem, Philadelphia offers cash memberships to low-income people. Interestingly, the city found that about a third of people buying cash memberships renewed with credit cards, presumably because it was easier. Still, having the option to make the initial purchase with cash is one less barrier to entry.

Advertise discount membership options on kiosks

Image: NACTO
Image: NACTO

Low-income people get most of their information about bike-share directly from the bike-share kiosks, a Philadelphia study found. So if the kiosks only offer informations about daily rates or regular annual rates — and not special discounts for qualifying groups — many people will never know those options are available.

In New York City, anecdotal accounts revealed that many low-income people thought the $9.95 daily rate was the only option and weren’t aware of the reduced price $60 annual membership.

“Improving the information presented on the kiosk — both content and graphic layout — is an important and low-cost way to increase ridership,” NACTO reports.

Provide a physical key

Providing members with a key — the way they do in Philadelphia and Austin — can serve “as a physical reminder that bike-share is available and shortens time spent getting a bike,” NACTO reports.

But if people have to wait too long to receive a key in the mail, that can be a barrier as well. Pronto Bike Share in Seattle can dispense keys for short-term use right from the kiosks.

Make it easy to qualify for membership discounts

Boston is the big national success story on bike-share equity. About 18 percent of its members are low-income, the result, NACTO says, of extensive outreach.

But Boston also makes getting a membership cheap and easy for low-income people. The reduced annual rate is just $5 and Boston does not require those members to prove they qualify for assistance. The program works on the honor system.

Even so, locals don’t think the program is being abused. A review of the program found 64 percent of people paying the discount rate are also “on public assistance,” NACTO reports.

There must be enough stations in low-income neighborhoods to make it worthwhile

If there are just a few scattered stations in low-income neighborhoods, the system won’t provide enough value to low-income people to justify the cost.

Low-income people who do have memberships may use bike-share more than other members

Once low-income people sign up for bike-share, evidence suggests they use it more than affluent subscribers. In Boston last year, low-income men with discounted memberships on average took 18 more trips than men who paid the full cost. And in Philadelphia, cash memberships represent 1 percent of total memberships but 4 percent of trips.

  • Pat

    I would say that not offering a monthly pass (at least in Chicago) would be a barrier too, and not just for low income people. For many people, one day or even one week might not be a true test of how much they would use the system. Even better if you discount the first month to try the service. Then they might be more inclined to re-up for the full year, once the see the benefits and if its the right fit for them.

    To stem abuse of that, require a text confirmation or some other identifier (similar to how Uber discourages people signing up multiple times for the free ride bonuses).

  • John D

    people with an account should be able to earn credits with “reposition rides”…turn spare time into something valuable, and balance demand at a much lower cost.

  • Jonathan R

    How many poor people have you met who have “spare time?”

  • Asher Of LA
  • Asher Of LA

    Some of the newer systems offer this; Santa Monica’s offers $1 credit for repositioning I believe. I agree, it’s a great idea because repositioning with paid employees is expensive, and a $1 credit is cheap in comparison – plus it means more people biking.

  • Asher Of LA

    Optimizing design and ease of use are great ideas. I’m concerned though that people are putting bikeshares between a rock and a hard place when it comes to pricing. On one hand, they want them to pencil out financially, and on the other, they want to ensure the poor are using them.

    Angie mentions here the poor are more inclined to buy single fares – but those are the fares that cost vastly more on a per unit basis. Those single fares are a big source of revenue too. [1]

    Take Santa Monica’s for example. It charges a pro-rated $6 an hour, but memberships work out to $0.43 an hour for residents, $0.65 for non-residents. Of course, that assumes that members will use 30 minutes every day of the year, and they won’t (the equivalent figures for the 60 minutes a day annual membership is $0.27 and $0.40). But the hourly rate is 14 times the implied hourly rate of an annual 30 minute a day resident membership ($79 a year). Even after accounting for actual use, it’s still a lot higher.

    Thus the concern that bikeshares are being asked to achieve two possibly conflicting goals – financial viability and low single fare prices to gain the patronage of the poor. Personally, I think the financial viability requirement might be worth relaxing somewhat given the benefits of bikeshare-induced reductions in auto travel and how cities already tend to subsidize auto travel far more, and that total bikeshare use, regardless of user background, should be the predominant objective.

    [1]
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2014/04/01/why-dcs-bikeshare-is-flourishing-while-new-yorks-is-financially-struggling/

  • shemtheo

    Some interesting information here. I’ve never really bought into the idea that credit/debit cards are really that big of an obstacle. Interesting that a third of people who buy a cash option membership end up renewing with a credit card. I’ve also never bought into the idea that price, in and of itself, is a barrier for low-income populations; just as I’ve never really subscribed to the same notion for public transit. The reason is because the alternative to bikeshare and public transit is usually personal car ownership and driving, which is generally significantly more expensive. In my opinion, the real issues are making bikeshare more socially acceptable/normative, making its use clearer to understand and payment easier. In other words, I think the failure of bikeshare to capture more significant proportions of low-income and female riders has more to do with marketing and outreach than anything else.

  • CalRobert

    Presumably the alternative to bikeshare is personal bike ownership? I love bike sharing systems, and used it extensively when I lived in Dublin where it was €20 a year, but now that I’m in San Diego and it’s far more expensive ($99 per year) I can’t really justify it since my own bike does the trick pretty well. Of course, it’s a folder – if I had to lock up a normal bike and worry about theft I could be convinced.

  • Still lacking from the conversation: the usually chronic absence of bike infrastructure in low-income communities. The best way to make bike share more equitable is to take the money and spend it on actual infrastructure. As noted in numerous studies and surveys, low-income individuals are already more likely to use a bike (or their feet) to get around. They don’t have to be convinced, they’re already doing it despite all odds. Putting shiny bikes out doesn’t change the hard fact that the infrastructure in the community still sucks and getting it is a long, slow, uphill battle.

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