AP Photo/Richard Drew

New research implicates Seattle, Denver, Chicago, Boston, and New York in the troubling trend.

Earlier this month, the chairs of the Congressional Bike Caucus introduced a bipartisan bill (#faints) called the “Bikeshare Transit Act.” By designating bike-share systems as public transportation, the legislation would make them clearly eligible for federal funding—something that’s currently a gray area. U.S. cities could then use this money for equipment, station technology, and cycling facilities to make a bike-share system even better.

If the bill becomes law it would serve as welcome recognition by federal officials of an increasingly popular urban travel mode. And from a mobility standpoint it’s not a stretch to consider bike-share a complementary part of established bus and rail networks. But the designation raises some flags from an equity standpoint, because to date bike-share systems have done a pretty awful job helping the very populations that rely on transit most: the urban poor.

Existing studies have tracked income disparities among bike-share users in the Twin Cities, Salt Lake City, Toronto, and Washington, D.C. Compelling as the data have been, that’s a pretty limited sample. But some new work by Julia Ursaki and Lisa Aultman-Hall of the University of Vermont Transportation Research Center extends the social analysis to seven U.S. cities: Seattle, Denver, Chicago, Boston, New York, D.C., and Arlington, Virginia.

Unfortunately that wider net gets snagged just like the others. Every city involved in the study suffered an equity problem with regards to race, income, or education—with four showing disparities on all three metrics. Here’s Ursaki and Aultman-Hall (my emphasis):

This study provides quantitative measures that backup many recent suggestions and concerns that there are equity and access issues relation to bikeshare system design and station location. A statistically significant difference in the race, education level, and income was found [in] Chicago, Denver, Seattle and New York City. Boston did not show differences in the means of age or education, but it did show race and income disparities. Washington DC and Arlington were the most equitable among the variables and cities in this study, but did show differences in household income variables. In all cases, the traditionally more disadvantaged groups had less access to bikeshare.

The paper (presented at last week’s TRB meeting) crunches a bunch of demographic numbers on bike-share members and the general population to reach its conclusion. The easiest to digest, while still echoing the larger findings, is a simple comparison of bike-share access by key markers of race, education, and income. The term access here was defined as living within 500 meters (0.3 miles) of a bike-share station.

Let’s start with race. As the chart below shows, there’s a sizeable gap in the share of whites and blacks with bike-share access in every city except Washington, D.C. (In a separate analysis of race disparities, using different but related measures, the gaps didn’t reach statistical significance in Arlington, either.) The clearest example is Boston, where nearly 43 percent of whites live near bike-share, compared with just 7 percent of blacks.

CityLab

The education metrics show a gap across the board. In all seven cities, residents with a college degree—the measure of choice for many scholars who study gentrification—have much better bike-share access than those without out. (In the finer analysis, education-level gaps didn’t reach statistical significance in Boston, D.C., and Arlington.) In Seattle, just 6 percent of city residents without a college degree live near a bike-share station.

CityLab

Last but not least there’s income. A greater share of households earning over $100,000 a year had bike-share access than did those making under $20,000 in every city except Seattle, where the shares were basically the same. (Seattle fared well in the alternative analysis, too.) What’s striking here is how many wealthy households in D.C. and Arlington have good bike-share access: nearly a third and a quarter, respectively.

CityLab

A steady flow of federal funding to local bike-share systems might do great things for urban mobility. But it’s a stream that would come with a responsibility to steer the money toward the disadvantaged areas currently missing out on the bike-share party. If these systems don’t serve the public, then it’s hard to see why the public should pay for them—far more fair to let companies putting their brand on the bikes, or the developers charging a premium for adjacent rental units, foot the bill.

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