Reflect, for a moment, on what we have defined as the purpose of bikeshare: enabling any user to pick up a bike in one place and return it to another, removing the complications of having to own or maintain a personal bike, yet still providing a convenient, environmentally-friendly mode for short trips. A survey distributed to cyclists and non-cyclists in New Jersey showed that purchasing and maintaining a bike would be too expensive for 28% of respondents, with people of color and low-income respondents being more likely to feel this way than their counterparts. Bikeshare offers a less-costly alternative to owning and maintaining a personal bike, especially for first time and occasional riders. So why isn’t there more diversity of races and socioeconomic statuses among bikeshare users?
Bikeshare systems, to date, have been criticized for not serving cities in an equitable way, with their initial cohort of stations often located in the downtown core and surrounding higher income neighborhoods. Additionally, few systems offered alternative payment options for users without bank accounts (often referred to as unbanked) or those without credit cards.
This approach aims to ensure the financial stability of the system—building awareness and ridership revenue in the densest areas before spreading the system to lower density neighborhoods. However, it often results in transit-underserved, low-income populations having little to no physical access to the bikeshare system, and a less tangible notion that these residents would not or should not use bikeshare anyway. Research in the US shows that the majority of bikeshare members are high income, white males, with people of color, women, low-income residents, and less-educated residents being largely underrepresented.
Various elements related to how bikeshare has typically been planned, managed and operated perpetuate this demographic divide. Often, a system’s service area does not reach less dense, lower-income communities, removing bikeshare as a convenient, point-to-point transportation option for these residents. If stations are available, the majority of systems require users to purchase passes and memberships with a credit card, which makes it difficult for unbanked residents (who tend to have lower incomes) to access the system. Large security deposits, unclear fee structures, and uncertainty around liability if a bike is damaged or stolen further dissuade usage. Dockless bikeshare companies enable riders to find, rent and lock bikes using a smartphone; in a recent study conducted in several US cities, 34% of low income people of color and 13% of low income whites reported not having a smartphone. A deeper exploration of barriers to bikeshare is included in section 5.3: Ensuring Equity by Reducing Barriers to Entry.
Many of these barriers, however, can be addressed by committing to specific equity goals for bikeshare, identifying metrics to measure progress toward those goals, and integrating equity into the major planning and management decisions for the system. Cities must recognize equity as a critical component of the success of their bikeshare system, and should measure equity and access to the system over time. Indicators such as the availability of bikes (number of bikes per 1,000 residents), the percentage of low-income populations who live and/or work within the service area, and the convenience and usability of the system (number of stations per square kilometer, number of trips per bike) are important to track. With this in mind, cities should communicate to bikeshare operators both their equity goals and the data points needed to measure progress toward those goals. Integrating bikeshare into existing citywide goals and establishing metrics to track progress toward those goals is discussed in detail in section 3.1: Identify Goals for Bikeshare.
Historically underserved communities can be wary of bikeshare or, more likely, what bikeshare has represented in other cities—gentrification. For example, gentrification fears in a historically Latino district of San Francisco led to that neighborhood refusing to approve Ford GoBike stations along a major street. Local residents did not feel included in the system. Rather, they saw bikeshare as a means of ushering in newer, wealthier residents. A bikeshare system planned around equity may lessen such concerns, and should focus on more than just siting stations in low income neighborhoods. A truly equitable system should integrate equity into its hiring practices—for system staff and vendors—as well as ensure that community outreach and promotional efforts are organized with input and/or direct involvement from champions and advocates from target communities.
Atlanta’s Relay and Philadelphia’s Indego systems have been particularly successful in empowering local champions to help introduce communities of concern and/or low income neighborhoods to bikeshare. In Canada, Hamilton, Ontario’s bikeshare system has focused directly on equity since its inception, and offers a variety of options to reduce traditional barriers to bikeshare. For example, users can pay per minute for a trip (which can be perceived as a better value because you only pay for what you use) or a per month price for unlimited 90-minute rides—reducing the potential for unpredicted usage fees that, for most systems, accrue after 30 minutes. Hamilton Bikeshare also allows users to access the system using a prepaid card, which can be easier to obtain for low-income residents, as opposed to a credit or debit card. Compared to other Canadian bikeshare systems, Hamilton’s system is the only one in which a majority of the service area is made up of highly socioeconomically deprived dissemination areas (equivalent to US Census block groups), indicating that Hamilton Bikeshare does largely serve lower-income residents. It is worth noting, however, that a high density of lower-income neighborhoods have been historically located in and around Hamilton’s downtown core, enabling the initial bikeshare service area to capture the density it needed to be financially viable while also achieving more equitable service delivery.
Implementing a more equitable bikeshare system that includes, for example, payment alternatives for people without credit cards or a local ambassador program, can present additional financial and logistical costs for the bikeshare implementing agency and operator. Cities should consider reaching out to collaborations like the Better Bikeshare Partnership, which leverages funding to address equity challenges head on, supporting activities such as targeted community outreach, as well as the creation of reduced annual membership fee programs for low-income residents. Supplemental funding for equity interventions could also be generated from fines imposed on operators that violate certain permit terms.
Approaching bikeshare planning with a genuine commitment to equity has the potential to improve access to transit, jobs, and other destinations for historically underserved populations. A bikeshare system that meets the needs of a larger, more diverse group of residents is likely to see solid ridership numbers and a membership base that more accurately represents city demographics.