Racial and socioeconomic equity is bike-share’s elephant in the room. Though bike-share systems have gone from rarity to something close to commonplace in U.S. cities over the last seven years, academic research and ridership surveys have consistently found that a majority of bike-share users are white and financially comfortable. This can be blamed in part on station locations (if stations are in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods, riders are going to be whiter and wealthier), but that’s not the only factor at play.
PeopleForBikes, the City of Philadelphia, Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) launched the Better Bike Share Partnership (BBSP) in 2014 in an attempt to make bike-sharing more equitable. The group put up $900,000 in grant funding for outreach, education and subsidized membership programs in several cities. BBSP also helped fund Portland State University transportation researchers who looked at barriers to bike-sharing for low-income residents and residents of color and the efficacy of equity outreach efforts.
Today, Portland State University’s Transportation Research and Education Center released “Breaking Barriers to Bike Share: Insights from Residents of Traditionally Underserved Neighborhoods.” It analyzes data from several Philadelphia, Chicago and Brooklyn neighborhoods with bike-share stations that are majority-minority (79 to 94 percent people of color) and predominantly low-income (36 to 61 percent of households under 150 percent of the poverty level). Some of the neighborhoods surveyed were also targeted by BBSP outreach programs. Of the 1,885 respondents, 42 percent are lower-income (defined as 300 percent of poverty level or below) people of color, 27 percent are higher-income people of color, 6 percent are lower-income and white, non-Hispanic, and 25 percent are higher-income and white.
“As efforts to locate stations in lower-income and communities of color have increased, there’s been some mounting evidence that people in those communities are not picking up on using bike-share to the same level as higher-income and white residents. We’re aiming to get a better understanding of factors at play,” explains Nathan McNeil, the report’s lead researcher.
Whereas most bike-share research has focused on data collected about existing bike-share users, McNeil’s colleague Joe Broach says, “to our knowledge there hasn’t been a large-scale study of residents that just live near the bike-share system, regardless of whether they’re engaged with bike-share.”
Of the people who responded, just 4 percent had bike-share memberships. More respondents had used bike-share in their city however: 9 percent of lower-income people of color, 18 percent of higher-income people of color, 13 percent of lower-income white residents, and 29 percent of higher-income white residents.
It turns out the biggest barrier to bike-share use is also one of the most common barriers to bicycling in general: traffic safety. Nearly half of respondents said that traffic safety was a barrier to bike riding in their neighborhood.
For people of color who were surveyed, sense of personal safety is a barrier too: 22 percent of lower-income respondents of color said that they were concerned that riding a bike could lead to being harassed or a victim of crime; 17 percent of higher-income people of color and 7 percent of higher-income white residents said the same. Additionally, 11 percent of lower-income respondents of color voiced concerns that police might target them for bicycling.
Bike-share is well-suited to address another significant set of barriers highlighted by respondents: gear, storage and mechanical skills. Among lower-income people of color, 47 percent said not having a bike or related gear was a barrier; 36 percent said they didn’t have a safe place to park a bike where they needed to go, and 32 percent said they didn’t have a safe place to store the bike at home; 20 percent raised concerns about not being able to fix a bike if something went wrong.
A lack of knowledge about how bike-share works also plays a big role. Thirty-four percent of lower-income respondents of color said that, “not knowing enough about how to use bike-share was a big barrier to using it,” compared to 19 percent of higher-income respondents of color and 7 percent of higher-income white residents.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, lower-income respondents were concerned about being on the hook for replacing the bike-share bike if something goes wrong. Philadelphia’s Indego bike-share user agreement, for example, says if the bike “is lost or damaged beyond repair, regardless of fault or cause, Rider agrees to pay BTS the full replacement value of the equipment ($1,000.00).”
McNeil says Chicago’s Divvy is experimenting with a program that doesn’t require low-income users to pay the full replacement cost of a damaged or lost bike and Indego doesn’t require low-income riders to use a credit card, but, “a lot of people don’t know about [it]. Cities need to increase education efforts so people better understand cost programs and liability.”
In general, the researchers found that more and better outreach and education will be key for reducing some of the barriers to bike-sharing.
“Residents we surveyed who’d interacted with a bike-share system in some sort of more personal way were more likely to say they intended to try riding a bike-share bike,” says McNeil. “It could be talking to someone who worked for the bike-share system or they heard about it through a local community organization.” In Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, a community development organization’s efforts to broadcast personal stories of Citi Bike users has showed promise in increasing ridership.
Respondents who’d learned about bike-share through more passive means such as bus and radio advertisements or just seeing a bike-share station in their neighborhood were less likely to say they would try bike-share.
“That’s encouraging for a type of outreach that’s taking place through BBSP, on one hand,” says McNeil. “But it’s challenging to have that kind of personal interaction at a larger scale.”
In the bicycle equity conversation, people often cite social stigma about bicycle riding as a major barrier for people of color and low-income people. The researchers found little evidence of that among respondents. Just 4 percent of all respondents said that they were concerned that people would think they could not afford a car. Among lower-income respondents of color, the number increases to 10 percent who cite it as a barrier. But a significant majority of respondents — 73 percent across the board — said, “a bike-share system is useful for people like me,” and 74 percent of lower-income respondents of color agreed with that statement.
The researchers didn’t find a magic solution for increasing the racial and socioeconomic diversity of bike-share riders. After all, some of the biggest and most intractable barriers cited — a lack of safe bike infrastructure, concerns about crime, and racist policing — are issues far beyond the scope of bike-share.
But, McNeil says, it’s important that cities understand they can make an impact by, “getting information out in front of people and doing it in a way that’s personal and through sources people trust.”
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.