If you’ve heard a bike advocate or city official talk about bike-share recently, you’ve no doubt heard it described as a form of public transit akin to light rail and bus. The word choice is part marketing spin and part aspiration, as bike-share supporters seek to cast systems like Citi Bike and Capital Bikeshare as a public good worthy of public dollars rather than private businesses for tourists.
“When cities are able to get bike-share up to scale relative to their population and have a really generous number of origin-destination combos it becomes transit,” says Nicole Freedman, North American Bikeshare Association (NABSA) president and Seattle DOT active transportation director. “People can get to work, their home, the store. It really gets embedded in the transportation infrastructure.”
But despite the fact that many bike-share projects have received federal transit funding, the U.S. Department of Transportation does not officially recognize bike-share as transit.
Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Vern Buchanan (R-FL) are hoping to change that with the Bikeshare Transit Act. The Congressional Bike Caucus co-chairs introduced the bill earlier this month to codify bike-share with an official definition as transit in federal transportation law. That, in turn, will make it easier for cities and towns to access federal funding to pay for bike-share construction and equipment.
“Different NABSA members have heard different things from their local metropolitan planning organizations about whether CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program) can be used for bike-share and how it can be used,” Freedman says. “It will help a lot of cities to have a really clear statement that bike-share is eligible.”
If the bill passes, bike-share will be listed specifically as an eligible project for CMAQ and it will make bike-share eligible for Transportation Alternatives Program funding and other money.
Caron Whitaker, League of American Bicyclists vice president of government relations, says that giving bike-share an official definition will help protect funding in the future.
“This is really a proactive bill,” Whitaker says. “Bike-share has gotten federal funding because of how the bill has been interpreted by the current U.S. DOT. There’s concern, depending on the next administration, that they could come in and interpret transportation law differently.”
Beyond that, the bill could help broaden a piece of the federal transit definition that specifies transit funding cannot be used for single occupancy vehicles.
“Currently, transit funding can pay for stations, but not the bikes … unless we provide a bunch of tandems,” Whitaker says with a laugh.
The Bikeshare Transit Act comes on the heels of another federal bill aimed at bolstering funding for bike-share. In November, Reps. Joe Crowley (D-NY) and Erik Paulsen (R-MN) reintroduced their Bike to Work Act. The bill would amend the Internal Revenue Code to allow workers to use their pre-tax commuter benefits for bike-share the same way they can for parking or commuter rail.
Whitaker isn’t holding her breath for either bill to pass anytime soon. The IRS only just raised transit commuter benefits to match the $255 per month parking benefits as of Jan. 1, 2016, so she thinks it will take a while before Congress is ready to further expand benefits.
As for the Bikeshare Transit Act, Whitaker says it will likely get attached to the next transportation package in five years. “There’s a chance it could get attached to something else, but Congress just doesn’t do little bills anymore.”
Nonetheless, she’s optimistic about its long-term prospects.
“We’ve been introducing complete streets legislation since 2006 and [FAST Act] is the first time we got something into the transportation bill,” Whitaker says. “It often takes several goes. This is a building year for the Bikeshare Transit Act.”
Whether the bill moves forward or not, it’s clear some people in the federal government are starting to think about bike-share the way advocates, city transportation agencies and bike-share companies do.
“Even if the bill doesn’t pass, if we get a good number of co-sponsors then when the new administration comes in, we can use it as an education tool to show that there is support for bike-share,” says Whitaker.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.