Arlington Offers Cash Bike-Share Memberships to the Unbanked

Washington, DC, is 50 percent black, but only 3 percent of Capital Bikeshare members are. As in many cities, the DC bike-share system’s users are disproportionately white, educated, and employed.

Arlington, Virginia, has come up with a way to allow people without credit cards to be bike-share members. But is their solution transferable to other places? Photo: ##http://www.bikearlington.com/pages/bikesharing/##Bike Arlington##
Arlington, Virginia, has come up with a way to allow people without credit cards to be bike-share members. But is their solution transferable to other places? Photo: Bike Arlington

As advocates and city officials have tried to make this economical and healthy transportation option more widely accessible, they’ve persistently come across a major obstacle: how to extend bike-share to people without bank accounts or credit cards.

Across the Potomac, Arlington is going to try something new. According to the county’s bike-share management consultant, MetroBike, “Arlington will vouch for its residents, so that they don’t need to provide a credit or debit card.”

This will be a departure from standard practice, where credit or debit cards act as insurance against stolen bikes. In the typical bike-share payment model, if a bike disappears on your watch, your credit card gets charged $1,000. The $7 monthly membership fee Arlington plans to collect in cash at its Arlington County Commuter Services “Commuter Stores” will provide no such guarantee. The county appears to be willing to trust its residents enough to take on this risk.

Arlington is an entirely different beast from DC, though. The county has a median income of $103,000. The low-income population targeted by the cash-payment measure is significantly smaller there than in DC.

DC has developed its own solution to the problem of making bike-share accessible to the unbanked, but it involves signing those people up for bank accounts, not checking out bikes on the honor system.

Arlington isn’t the only place to take on the risk of renting out bike-share bikes without a mechanism to recoup the costs of a lost or stolen bike. Boston’s Prescribe-a-Bike program lets doctors give out free bike-share memberships to patients who need more exercise, and there’s no credit card required. Denver and Minneapolis only check the person’s “credit-worthiness” to determine whether they can pay the fees but don’t require a credit or debit card to be on file.

That said, in the four-year lifespan of Capital Bikeshare, only 100 bikes have been stolen and all but 16 have been recovered. This for a system that has logged about 7 million trips.

Arlington’s cash system will inherently be more cumbersome than online payment, since it requires at least one trip to a store and potentially a trip every month. The one convenience baked into it: Cash-paying customers can get their bike-share key fob on the spot, instead of waiting a week to get it by mail.

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