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Bike-Share Is (Still) Struggling to Reach Poor People Across North America

Charting the equity problem in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

Michal / Flickr

The rise of bike-share as a popular mode of city transportation has been swift and impressive. A new report on the state of North American bike-share, which gives new meaning to the word "comprehensive," puts the total number of users at more than 1.1 million as of 2012. And that's before the launch of new systems in major cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. Bike-share is not only here to stay—it's still getting here.

Unfortunately, it's been especially slow to arrive for poor residents. Bike-share has struggled to reach low-income riders despite considerable (and continuing) efforts by leading systems—Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C., Hubway in Boston, and B-Cycle in Denver notable among them—and these struggles persist. Until bike-share resolves these income disparities, its development from niche amenity into legitimate form of public transit can't be complete.

Data in the new bike-share report underscore just how systemic the equity problem is. Let's take a look first at numbers in the Twin Cities. Nice Ride is among the most successful bike-share system in the United States, and it's certainly tried to reach poorer residents. But it still has room for improvement as far as equity goes. As our chart shows, low-income bike-share members are under-represented in the population, while high-income members are over-represented:

(CityLab)

Charting the figures Salt Lake City, we find the same trend to an even greater degree:

(CityLab)

And it's not just an American problem. Here's the income skew for Toronto:

(CityLab)

Taken together, these numbers suggest that bike-share membership has a tipping point of roughly $50,000 in household income. The currency changes when we head to Mexico City, but the same general trend applies. Relatively speaking, people with money have been joining the system, and people without it haven't. (As a frame of reference, 4000 pesos is roughly $300.):

(CityLab)

Lots of reasons have been given for bike-share's equity problem. Credit-card ownership, required by some systems, is a non-starter for many low-income city residents. A lack of bike infrastructure in poorer areas certainly doesn't help. There's strong evidence that poor people don't view cycling as favorably as some might expect, which could explain why financial-aid and membership-subsidy programs haven't eliminated the income gap. Cultural barriers may exist above and beyond any money factors.

The new report points to a more basic problem: Many systems don't make much of an effort to place bike-share stations in low-income neighborhoods. Only nine of 21 selected systems interviewed by the report authors said equity factored into station location. The business end of bike-share potentially plays a major role here: Tourist locations tend to generate the most membership and the most revenue, according to one survey in the new report. And tourist locations aren't low-income locations.

A new system set to launch next spring in Philadelphia should go a long way toward establishing whether or not station access is the primary barrier to low-income bike-share usage. The city is making a point to locate stations in poor areas; one local advocate recently reported that 24 stations (there will be 60 in all) have been proposed in places where half of the households either make less than median income or live well below the poverty line. If this placement holds and the equity gap disappears in Philly, other cities may need to redraw their station maps.

Concerning as bike-share's ongoing equity problem might be, the youth of these systems shouldn't be forgotten. In a very short time, bike-share has integrated itself quite effectively into city transit networks, and made those networks better as a result. Besides, achieving equity is no unfamiliar challenge for transit; even veteran systems routinely struggle to serve high-ridership corridors while offering access to all. It's not too early for bike-share to recognize the problem, but until these systems arrive in full, it is too soon to say they can't overcome it.

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