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Bike sharing systems push to reach underrepresented groups

Bike sharing has been a huge success in many cities and received many well-deserved plaudits, but some have criticized bike sharing for not necessarily serving all segments of the population. What are bike sharing systems doing to expand their reach?

Photo by Eric Gilliland on Flickr.

Data on the demographics and socioeconomics of annual bike sharing users is only now emerging, and there are no comprehensive reviews of what bike sharing systems can do to ensure that they serve the entire community.

As a part of my graduate work at Virginia Tech's Alexandria urban planning program, I asked managers of current and planned North American bike sharing systems what they have done to increase access to bike sharing for low-income communities, and minority groups disproportionately underrepresented in bicycling.

The size and scope of measures to promote bike sharing equity vary, but all types of bike sharing systems are working to lower access barriers.Whether a large established system with significant government investment like Capital Bikeshare, a new small nonprofit system searching for funding like Kansas City B-cycle, or a for-profit system like Decobike Miami Beach, operators are expending the effort to lower access barriers. Here some highlights of how they are doing it:

Station siting: Lowering access barriers starts with placing stations where they primarily serve low-income communities. For example, systems might consciously place stations adjacent to affordable housing, or prioritize expansion to minority neighborhoods disproportionately underrepresented in bicycling.

Many systems reported doing this, including NiceRide Minnesota, which placed 30 stations (or approximately 20% of their system) in areas identified by the community as necessary for equity.

Community-specific marketing and outreach: By reaching out specifically to low-income communities, or by targeting marketing and outreach to the concerns and communications channels of minority communities underrepresented in bicycling, bike sharing systems might be able to tap into latent demand in those communities.

In Arlington County, VA, the largest low-income group is Latinos with limited English proficiency. Arlington is planning a special Spanish-language outreach program for all of the county's sustainable transportation programs, including Capital Bikeshare.

Financial assistance: Providing some variety of financial assistance was the most common way bike sharing systems promoted equity. Many lower-income people cannot afford the full cost of the annual membership at one time. To deal with that, several systems offer (or plan to offer) installment payment plans.

Bike sharing systems are also partnering with organizations to help qualified recipients obtain a bank account and debit/credit card. Capital Bikeshare introduced its partnership with Bank on DC over a year ago. This program combines a reduced membership fee with access to a credit card, and now has 90 participants.

Another measure that can relieve the financial barrier to bike sharing is not placing a temporary "hold" against a user's credit or debit limit. Many systems put a hold on the full replacement fee for a bicycle, to guard against bikes not being returned. For people with little money in their checking account, this can make it impossible for them to buy necessities. Arlington is investigating ways to allow for cash payments, which would obviate the need for a debit/credit card entirely.

Boston's Hubway provided over 550 annual memberships to qualified low-income recipients at a cost of $5 each, along with longer-than-normal free trip durations. Boston also investigated (but ultimately had to cancel) an idea dubbed "Prescribe a Bike," where medical providers would refer at-risk patients to subsidized bikesharing memberships. The Boston programs are administered and funded by an obesity prevention public health program.

Economic contribution to communities: Bikesharing potentially provides intrinsic economic benefits to all communities by reducing the personal costs of travel for users, and increasing economic activity by generating more trips overall.

But beyond this, I asked systems about ways the bike sharing operations might be directly contributing to the economic well-being of low-income communities, such as actively recruiting employees from low-income communities, locating facilities (and their associated jobs) in places easily accessible to low-income neighborhoods, and partnering and subcontracting with community-oriented nonprofit agencies.

Denver B-cycle partnered with a local Goodwill Industries nonprofit agency to recruit employees from low-income communities. Motreal's BIXI worked with a youth-service program to provide maintenance labor. Montgomery County, which is soon joining Capital Bikeshare, gave a preference for minority-owned small businesses in subcontracting procurement.

Safe places to ride: With the federal government investing fewer dollars for active transportation infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods, one possible barrier to using bike sharing could be the absence of safe places to ride a bicycle. I asked bike sharing systems to describe any efforts to encourage and promote installing new bicycle travel facilities near residents with lower incomes or disproportionately underrepresented in bicycling.

Kansas City B-cycle, a nonprofit bike sharing entity receiving less than half of its capital funding from government transportation funding (and among the smallest systems in the survey sample) is actively pursuing Safe Routes to School and other grants to directly institute bicycle travel facility improvements themselves.

Membership media: One way to make it easier to pay for bike sharing would be to integrate bikesharing payment media with other accounts that low-income people may already possess, including transit farecards and household utility billing accounts. A number of systems reported plans and efforts for farecard integration, but the hardware is not generally compatible, and there isn't money available to retrofit the stations.

One system to watch is the planned San Francisco system, which requested in its RFP that bidders discuss whether their systems could be compatible with the regional transit Clipper Card.

Overcoming bicycling barriers: If people have little experience bicycling or don't own helmets, it can create barriers to bicycling and bikesharing use. Several systems described programs to provide subsidized or free helmets and bicycle safety instruction workshops to communities they want to reach. They worked with bicycle shops, community colleges, and local bicycle advocacy organizations to deliver the helmets and provide the classes.

Boston's Hubway offers reduced-cost helmets in retail locations in close proximity to stations, and gives free helmets to subsidized low-income members. It also offers instructional bicycling safety classes, though one Boston official characterized attendance at these classes as "low."

For more details about the survey methodology, details on measures that each system is pursuing address access barriers, caveats, and some suggestions for further research, please take a look at the full paper (PDF). I hope that the report serves as a useful resource for existing and emerging bikesharing systems to broaden participation in this exciting new transportation mode.

Darren Buck is a graduate of the Virginia Tech Urban Affairs and Planning program and the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. He blogs at bikepedantic and works at the US Department of Transportation. All content and opinions expressed are his own, and in no way reflect the views of USDOT. 


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Well first, don't you have to put stations where low income areas? It part of a vicious circle without the financial ability to join one won't joint so the system won't put stations in those low-join areas but without more stations those that can join won't because there are no close stations.

by ET on Jan 11, 2013 10:41 am • linkreport

There needs to be more a balance between outreach to poorer neighborhoods and existing demand. The neighborhoods where demand is the highest are way under-stationed.

by Tom Coumaris on Jan 11, 2013 10:46 am • linkreport

While all the points outlined here make sense and are definitely principles to strive for, people seem excessively hard on bikeshare and biking in general. Saying that you shouldn't provide biking infrastructure because it's more likely to be used by richer, whiter people is just as absurd as saying you shouldn't provide bus service because it's used by poorer minorities. Transportation systems are holistic, or should be, and at the end of the day it needs to be about a balance of modes and options that suit the needs of everyone.

by Alan B. on Jan 11, 2013 11:45 am • linkreport

ET, you make a point that was raised by one of the responding systems. While there are scenarios where other things can be done (like subsidizing memberships for low-income service workers in a bikeshare-served CBD, to assist in last-mile travel), the paper notes a caveat that these seven categories aren't equivalent. Some can be argued to be more important or effective than others.

by darren on Jan 11, 2013 11:57 am • linkreport

station siting: the key is putting station where they are going to be used. EOTR bikeshare is still a wasteland.

outreach: that funds "outreach coordinators" but does it do anything.

financial assisantce. You've got to subdivide this.

1) Yes, putting a $100 hold for 1-2 weeks on debit card is bad. Not so bad for credit card -- the hold is gone in a day.

Moving to a montly payment rather than a yearly is also fine.

Lowering membership costs and usage for certain groups is pointless.

Cash? sorry, that just is stupid as well. You dont' want people using the bikes ALL day -- just for the 30 minute slots. I could see starting a billing relationship and paying cash, for instance, at the Commuter Store locations, but otherwise pretty silly.

by charlie on Jan 11, 2013 12:10 pm • linkreport

By reaching out specifically to low-income communities... bike sharing systems might be able to tap into latent demand in those communities.

I think the term "latent demand" may be used incorrectly here. It usually refers to demand created by increases in supply. In this case, outreach (a euphemism for "advertising") in and of itself does not influence or create supply.

I think the correct term is "artificial demand", which basically means demand spurred by convincing a consumer that they need something.

The problem with artificial demand, as has been noted in an above comment, is that it is very inefficient.

by Scoot on Jan 11, 2013 12:16 pm • linkreport

Alan B: +1

While I generally applaud efforts to provide access, there is no need to be less capitalistic about bike sharing than about other forms of transit and transportation.

Checking on:

Out of the 12 stations EOTR, 4 have been totally unused in the last 24h. Clicking around in the rest of DC, Arlington and Alexandria, even in the corners of the system, I could not find another unused station. Several other stations have minimal use. That points to a lack of demand.

WMATA is not forced to ride empty buses or trains.
Why do we expect CaBi to run unused stations?

by Jasper on Jan 11, 2013 12:18 pm • linkreport

This article rightly points out that infrastructure is a big issue.

EOTR there are some trails for recreational riding but there is, count it, ONE MILE of on-street bike lanes. ONE. Considering that CaBi is designed as transportation first, the lack of bike infrastructure is a huge barrier. For all intents and purposes there are zero bike connections EOTR.

by MLD on Jan 11, 2013 12:29 pm • linkreport

Ok, I'll say it. Statistically, crime is higher in low-income areas. What can be done to protect the infrastructure from vandalism/theft?

by dcmike on Jan 11, 2013 12:33 pm • linkreport

That points to a lack of demand.

Of course it does. I don't think you'll find many EOTR who would've expected otherwise.

Considering that CaBi is designed as transportation first, the lack of bike infrastructure is a huge barrier. For all intents and purposes there are zero bike connections EOTR.

And to add, the lack of commercial destinations to where one might travel doesn't help. That's not to say I don't see people in w8 riding Cabi because I least once a week. I see people riding their own bikes daily.

What can be done to protect the infrastructure from vandalism/theft?

If you're speaking about Cabi...I'll respond. I assume what has be done WOTR is can be the same for EOTR. Is there a significant number of stations EOTR that have been vandalized?

by HogWash on Jan 11, 2013 1:20 pm • linkreport

I'm guessing there is also a bit of critical mass at play. If you put in two stations within say a mile of each other you'll get some ridership but it will be of limited utility. Once you add a few more the utility will increase dramatically, until at a certain point the market will be saturated and more stations wont increase usage. Without a lot of options, the benefit of not needing to secure your bike at your destination will be outweighed by the limited destinations vs the flexibility of riding your own bike.

by Alan B. on Jan 11, 2013 1:24 pm • linkreport

The fears of vandalizzation -- which/was a real problem in paris -- has not been an issue in DC.

by charlie on Jan 11, 2013 1:31 pm • linkreport

Maybe a way to increase ridership EOTR is look at the places people already go on the bus EOTR. Install bike infrastructure (lanes, cycletracks, etc) along those routes and people will use them. Right now it seems like the stations are placed specifically in places where there isn't a transit connection. But they should serve neighborhoods around high-ridership bus routes like the A's or the W4.

by MLD on Jan 11, 2013 1:34 pm • linkreport

There should by one by every metro station (in the district, Arlington, Alexandria, and Montgomery ) at least and high usage bus lines and major bus transfer points. Just looking at the map I cant believe there is no station at Friendship Heights, Takoma, Fort Totten, Rhode Island, Stadium Armory or Deanwood.

Also, I would think you'd want to put them at major intersections near bridges (crossing the Anacostia, Potomac, and Rock Creek)as those are usually particularly unpleasant walking trips if they are even pedestrian accessible at all.

by Alan B. on Jan 11, 2013 2:00 pm • linkreport

There are a lot of considerations to make when placing a station, like who owns the land, available sun light (for electrical power), existing bike infrastructure, population density, political forces, distance between stations and so forth.

by Scoot on Jan 11, 2013 2:18 pm • linkreport

@Alan B.

The one connection between all of those places is that they are on the edges of the district. Fship Heights, Takoma, and Fort Totten are coming, to link up with the MoCo system that is planned. In the meantime, better to slowly expand outward from the core. No sense having a station at Fship Heights if the nearest station is two miles away.

Slowly expand, like they are into Petworth. The rest of those places will get stations in time.

by Kyle-W on Jan 11, 2013 2:48 pm • linkreport

I totally get that Kyle-W. I guess having lived in northwest NW, I just know how painful it is to get around without a car. Friendship heights is one of the main commercial areas and this would make it maybe a 10, 15 minute ride from AU vs a 40 minute walk or having to wait forever for a bus. McLean Gardens and the other apts in the area are in the same boat and completely at the mercy of Metrobus. Between Friendship Heights and Georgetown, Wisconsin alone needs another 3 or 4 stations to be useful.

by Alan B. on Jan 11, 2013 3:59 pm • linkreport

@Alan B. If you look at the map of stations in the next wave of expansions (, you'll see two earmarked for this round (green) and two more for the future (yellow), in addition to some corresponding stations on Connecticut Ave.

To the earlier point of EOTR stations, one key factor, as it is in most of the rest of the system, is station density. Even without accounting for the hills and lack of bike infrastructure, many of the EOTR stations are among the most isolated in the entire system, with only 1-2 other stations within a mile radius. The EOTR stations that are getting the most use are the ones near Anacostia, which feature not only a critical mass of nearby stations, but also two potential routes for access to WOTR locations.

The next round of expansion should provide a clearer sense of how much usage EOTR stations can expect, since it seems to be based on two factors:
1. Increasing mini-networks among neighborhood stations, such as the two near the existing Congress Heights station, and;
2. Building Bikeshare Corridors, such as Minnesota Ave and Alabama Ave, which will offer multiple potential trips of varying lengths.

The latter strategy seems to be a big focus in this round of expansion, as seen by 4 planned stations along Rhode Island Ave (for a total of 10)*, 3 along Wisconsin Ave NW (8), 2 along Connecticut Ave (9), and 3 along 14th Street NW (16).

While some neighborhoods might be better served in the short-term by creating hub-and-spoke networks, DDOT seems to be using the corridor approach in part to knit various neighborhoods together.

*Along indicates roughly within a block of that street.

by Jacques on Jan 11, 2013 5:32 pm • linkreport

As some have already mentioned, these stations cannot function in isolation. Placing a station at every metro station or dropping one into an undeserved neighborhood will do absolutely no good if there are no other stations nearby. These bikes can only be locked up at official docking stations (unless you bring your own bike lock).

The story about American bike share is "Go Big or Go Home." This applies equally when expanding into other neighborhoods.

I've wondered if a corridor-based approach might work for a limited station system. Imagine a commercial street cycle track with stations all up and down the corridor. Bike-share users couldn't venture out of the designated path, but assuming it's the main destination in the area, that is probably where they want to be.

by Nick on Jan 15, 2013 1:48 pm • linkreport

Great overview of the issues. However, it's disappointing to see that you didn't mention that the whole reason Rockville is getting bikeshare is through a Job Access and Reverse Commute grant from the Department of Transportation specifically to serve low-income individuals. Once the stations are installed this spring, we'll be providing scholarships, as well as placing bikeshare stations in employment-specific areas. I live in one of the lower income neighborhoods (yes, they do exist in the suburbs!) and hope that this program will get even more people on bikes.

by Shannon on Feb 1, 2013 1:06 pm • linkreport

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