It's Time to Treat Bike-Share as Mass Transit

Five reasons cities must do a better job integrating bikes into the larger transportation system.

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Late last month, the Internal Revenue Service released a letter explaining to a taxpayer that bike-share fees don't count as a commuter fringe benefit [PDF], despite the fact that some employers already consider it such. While workers are generally eligible for a tax break on mass transit costs, the IRS said bike-share commuters don't qualify for the perk under the current tax code. "A bike share program is not a mass transit facility," the IRS official wrote.

The IRS position on bike-share may not seem fair, but it's not exactly unusual. American cities tend to define public transportation rather narrowly — anything on rails, plus the bus. Bike-share (not to mention car-share) programs, meanwhile, usually operate outside the larger transit network. A 2005 federal report noted that few U.S. transit agencies had "incorporated bicycle services into their performance measures."

In a recent issue of the Journal of Public Transportation, UCLA planning scholars Rui Wang and Chen Liu make a strong case that U.S. cities should do a better job integrating bikes into metro transit systems. Here are five big reasons why.

1. Rising travel share. Sure, bicycle travel is a tiny share of overall transport mode — a category dominated by the single-occupancy car — but it's not such a tiny share compared to traditional forms of transit. In that context, it actually holds up quite well. Wang and Liu analyzed national household travel data at five points in time going back to 1983 and found that bike riding was on the rise in relation to other transit modes, a gap that will no doubt decrease further as bike-share expands:

2. Missed opportunities. At the same time, bike riding in general and bike-share in particular should be complementing transit instead of competing with it. More than half of all Americans live within two miles of the closest transit facility, a very feasible bike ride. But when a bike network exists is isolated from a transit system — through lack of parking, for instance, or poor bike-share station placement — many potential bike-to-transit trips become car trips out of convenience.

3. Rail isn't necessary. Wang and Liu examined U.S. travel data from 2001 and 2009 and found that no transit mode had more than a 7 percent bike transfer share. That's not a great thing, because it underscores how few people are making the bike-to-transit connection, but it's also not a terrible thing, because it means that rail isn't necessary to improve those connections. Smaller metros with mostly (or only) bus transit can attract bike riders onto transit, too.

4. Low-income interest. Bike-share has been criticized as an upper-class urban amenity, but Wang and Liu report that bike-to-transit connections made a significant rise from 2001 to 2009 among low-income groups (below $25,000). That shows some great promise for increasing bike-to-transit ridership, especially among so-called "captive" transit riders who have little or no access to a car:

5. Density matters. The most obvious trend that Wang and Liu found is also the most comforting. The bulk of bike-transit connections were concentrated in dense urban areas, and there was a significant increase in these connections from 2001 to 2009 in the densest areas (more than 10,000 people per square mile). That's probably the result of more transit trips being made in such areas in general, but it does show that people take advantage of bike-transit integration where and when it exists.

Wang and Liu conclude:

It is a mistake for policy makers and researchers to focus their attention on transit as the only important alternative mode to the automobile. Bicycle use and, as this paper suggests, the marriage between bicycle and transit, should be emphasized much more.

Some progressive policymakers and researchers have already embraced this advice. At the recent CityLab conference, Chicago transportation commissioner Gabe Klein said that "you shouldn't count out bike-share as mass transit." As for the IRS, the agency says it can't count in bike-share as mass transit until Congress changes the tax code. The more constituents who change their own mindset, the sooner that day will come.

Top image: Bikeworldtravel/Shutterstock.com

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