How Bike Share Systems Are Failing Us

Lower-income residents and people of color are less likely to use bike share systems in the US. Here’s why and what cities can do to make the bikes more accessible to everyone.

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Aug 22 2018, 7:59pm

A Jump bike parked on a street corner in the Bronx. The pedal-assist bikes go up to 20 miles per hour, making it easier to ride up hilly streets.

This article originally appeared on Free US.

On a muggy Saturday afternoon in August, I step outside the busy Fordham Road subway station in the Bronx and stare at my phone. I’m checking the map in the Citi Bike app to find the nearest bike and see that there’s one a few blocks away. But when I reach the the spot where it’s supposed to be, there is no bike. So I keep walking.

Finding a bike that works isn’t easy. That’s because the Bronx bike share, which launched in August, is a pilot consisting of just 400 bikes provided by Citi Bike and newcomer Jump that are scattered around a six square mile area bordering the New York Botanical Gardens to the north and the Cross Bronx Expressway to the south. Unlike the 12,000 Citi Bikes in other parts of the city, these ones are dockless—you unlock them with your phone instead of a key fob—so there’s often just one or two in any given spot. Or sometimes none.

Citi Bike's service area for its new dockless bikes in the Bronx includes Arthur Avenue and much of Fordham Road.

It takes me about ten blocks and two failed attempts before I am able to successfully locate and unlock a bike by resting the top of my phone on a spot between the handlebars. As I push the kickstand up and hop on, a woman coming out of a grocery store walks up to me and says excitedly, “You could just take these bikes now. They just leave ‘em anywhere.”

That sense of novelty—and confusion on exactly how the system works—is what I notice the most while I pedal around the Fordham and Belmont neighborhoods. During the entire afternoon, I only see two other people on the bikes, both young black guys, but several others pausing to stare at the ones parked on sidewalks. While Citi Bike launched in Manhattan and Brooklyn in 2013, it has taken more than five years to reach the city’s least affluent borough where 29 percent of residents live in poverty—more than twice the national average—and most are either latino or black.

The New York City Department of Transportation issues the permits that determine exactly when and where the bike share systems operate here. When I asked Bronx Borough Commissioner Nivardo Lopez why it took so long for bike share to reach the borough, he cited everything from initial system delays due to Hurricane Sandy to contract negotiations with bike share operators to push back from residents wary about giving up parking spots for bike docks. “As we go out of the central business district, the debate over taking away parking spaces becomes harder,” Lopez said. “It’s a process.”

Bike share’s race and income problem

The fact that New York City’s poorest and least white borough is the last to get in on bike share is no anomaly: While the systems are now in more than 100 cities across the country, riders remain mostly white and relatively affluent. “There is an inequitable distribution of bike share access among the population groups in US cities,” according to a 2016 study from Vermont’s Transportation Research Center, which found that “traditionally more disadvantaged groups had less access to bike share.” In Chicago, for example, only two percent of annual bike share members are black, although nearly a third of residents identify as such, according to 2017 census data.

Even in Philadelphia, which made a point of putting a third of its stations in low-income neighborhoods when it launched its Indego bike share program in April 2015, has had mixed results. On the plus side, more than a third of bike share passholders earn less than $25,000 in a city where a quarter of all residents live in poverty, thanks in part to a $5 monthly pass option. “We learned that a truly subsidized, reduced-rate pass is the most impactful strategy to ensure that bike share is accessible to low-income individuals,” Indego General Manager Kristin Gavin said. But many people of color remain underrepresented: While 44 percent of the city’s population is black, just 18 percent of passholders are.

Philadelphia's Indego bike share offered monthly plans and a cash option when it launched in 2015.

Citi Bike says it doesn’t collect racial or income data on its riders, but it’s clear that low-income residents in particular are underrepresented. Although a discounted membership option has been offered for New York City Housing Authority residents since the program launched, just 3,000 people currently hold the $5 a month passes, versus the 146,000 passholders who pay the regular annual membership fee of $169.

“We certainly have more outreach to do for communities for whom biking hasn’t been an option or there isn’t as much biking,” Citi Bike spokesperson Julie Wood said when asked about the disparity. “We need to do more to make clear that Citi Bike is a good option.”

Why bike share isn’t working for underserved communities

Solving bike share’s equity problem hasn’t been easy. “There’s a fair amount of evidence that even when you have bikes in lower income and minority neighborhoods, they still don’t use it as much,” said Jennifer Dill, a Portland State University researcher who has studied bike share. “There are a number of barriers. It’s not just one thing.”­

In the Bronx, the reason was pretty obvious: bike share simply didn’t exist there until now. What’s more, the current pilot has such a sparse supply of bikes that one observer, Rutgers University transportation researcher Charles Brown, says, “It is doomed to fail from the start.” While dockless systems are cheaper for operators to implement, the bikes may have a higher theft rate since “people don’t see the bikes as having a home,” Brown added. And because the bikes are only available in a small service area, they can’t be used for longer rides or even as a reliable means of transportation outside the zone.

Jump's pedal-assist bikes come with a U-lock that riders can use to secure the bike at the end of their ride.

Safety concerns are another big reason why people avoid bike shares. Many city streets weren’t designed with bike riders in mind, which can make pedaling along them scary or even impossible in some cases. The Bronx pilot area only has one protected bike lane (on Grand Concourse). A recent bike fatality by an onramp to the Cross Bronx Expressway underscores the need for more. “If you build the bike lanes, the riders will come,” said Amery Hamer, the Bronx organizer for Transportation Alternatives, an independent group that advocates for safer streets throughout New York City.

Bike shares also need to do a better job of letting people know about discounted membership options. It wasn’t until this summer, more than five years after Citi Bike launched in New York, that discounted memberships were expanded to the 1.6 million New Yorkers who receive food assistance. But there’s still no cash payment option, and the new dockless bikes require a phone to unlock. Jump, whose “pedal-assist” bikes with electric motors go up to 20 miles per hour, offered its $5 a month plan at launch, but it still has a “gotcha” fee of $25 for parking outside its small service areas in the Bronx and Staten Island.

Giving bike share an image makeover

Perhaps the toughest hurdle to overcome is one of perception: some people believe that biking isn’t for them, no matter what the price. “There are some cultural boundaries and stigma attached to bicycling,” said Aronté Bennett, a Villanova University business professor who has studied bike share programs. “Most bike share audiences were white male and affluent. Each bike share organization has to reverse that image,” Bennett added.

“The bike share industry can do more to be more inclusive,” said Ryan Rzepecki, CEO of Jump, which Uber bought earlier this year. While putting more bikes in low-income neighborhoods, improving street safety, and making pricing more affordable are a good start, often what’s needed is more community outreach to teach residents how to use the bikes or in some cases even how to ride one.

Bronx resident Peter Rosario models with a dockless Citi Bike for the Bronx launch.

“Too often when we are talking about barriers to people of color the argument quickly turns to an economic solution,” when it’s more about seeing other people who look like you, added Brown. “They’re having trouble connecting with people,” he said of the bike share programs.

To broaden bike share’s appeal, cities like Philadelphia have put up advertisements featuring people of color and sent ambassadors out to neighborhoods to explain how the system works. The Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn has organized a series of group rides to drum up interest and teach residents how to ride the bikes.

For 26-year-old Bronx resident Peter Rosario, who modeled for photos used in Citi Bike’s Bronx launch, what’s most appealing to him is simply being able to ride a bike closer to home. “Instead of going to Manhattan just to ride around I can just stay in the Bronx,” he said. If more riders like him do just that, then the pilot just might stand a chance of becoming a permanent fixture in a borough that desperately needs more affordable transit options.

Follow Anita Hamilton on Twitter.