It’s not a lack of interest, but a lack of information.
It’s no secret that bike-share systems across the country have an equity problem. Bike share works best in high-density, mixed-use neighborhoods—the types of places that have seen rents skyrocket and the affluent move in. Even as systems have matured and expanded, the vast majority of users have remained wealthier and whiter than the cities these programs serve.
Some humbling numbers have emerged to drive the point home: In Washington, D.C., which has a population that is about 50 percent black, only 3 percent of Capital Bikeshare members were African American in 2012. By 2016, that share had grown by only one percentage point. The same survey found that Asians and Latinos were also severely underrepresented among Capital Bikeshare members.
Income disparities and the spatial distribution of docking stations only go so far in explaining these kinds of statistics. “One of the previous expectations or assumptions about bike share was that the reason that lower-income communities of color were not using it was due to a lack of interest,” says Nathan McNeil, a researcher at Portland State University’s Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning. Academics and journalists have posited various theories to explain this lack of interest. Often, bike share and bike infrastructure are seen as harbingers of gentrification; one study found that some Latino and black survey respondents in New Jersey thought biking to work would signify they couldn’t afford a car.
But a new study by McNeil and his colleagues at Portland State suggests that these perceptions may be changing, if they ever existed at all. Instead, the study shows that residents of low-income, majority-minority neighborhoods have an overwhelmingly favorable view of bike share. What many residents of these neighborhoods lack is not a desire to ride, but information on discount programs, access to safe streets and protective gear, and reassurance about liability and hidden fees.
The study surveyed residents of three downtown adjacent neighborhoods in Philadelphia, as well as Bronzeville, Chicago, and Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, all of which have recently seen the addition of new bike-share stations.
Perhaps most notably, 73 percent of the total respondents and 74 percent of low-income people of color agreed that “bike share is useful for people like me.” Ninety-three percent of all respondents said bike share is good for the city, and 89 percent said it was good for the neighborhood. Low-income people of color agreed with these statements at a rate of 89 percent and 86 percent, respectively.
Gentrification-fueled resentment of bike share appears to be minimal, while negative cultural perceptions about biking barely even register. Only 4 percent of respondents agreed that “riding a bike is not viewed as a cool activity by my friends.” The same small number agreed that “people might think that I can’t afford a car.”
This all suggests that many people in the neighborhoods surveyed would want to use bike share. Indeed, 11 percent said they expected to become a member in the next year, while 56 percent of low-income people of color said they would like to use bike share more than they do. But for now, bike share usage in these communities remains low: Only 2 percent of low-income people of color surveyed were current bike-share members, and less than one percent said they used bike share for most trips.
So what explains the disconnect?
Across all racial and income categories, the biggest impediment to riding is safety. And that means more than just fear of getting hit by a car: Low-income people of color were far more concerned than white people about being the victim of crime or harassment while riding a bike. Many also said that access to free or discounted helmets would encourage them to ride.
Another major hurdle: lack of knowledge about discount memberships and other programs. Over two-thirds of respondents didn’t know the details about discount membership programs, which exist in all three cities. Many others didn’t know about the cash payment options available in Chicago and Philadelphia. A full quarter of low-income people of color surveyed said they “knew nothing” about their local bike-share system.
Liability and hidden fees also emerged as major concerns. Many bike-share systems require a security deposit for day passes (New York’s Citi Bike requires a deposit of $101), and looking too closely at the fine print of bike-share contracts can be downright terrifying. (Capital Bikeshare, for instance, charges $1,200 to a user’s card if a bike is not returned to a dock within 24 hours.)
A few systems are beginning to address these issues. “Some cities have eliminated fees for overage time for lower-income people, Portland for example,” McNeil says. Divvy in Chicago has set up a loss liability fund to protect people from the high charges associated with lost or stolen bikes.
Generally speaking, however, McNeil believes bike-share systems could do much more to make lower-income people of color feel comfortable joining, and to let them know what their options are. But these are surmountable obstacles, with existing solutions.
“The barrier is not that people don’t want to use bike share,” McNeil says. “We find that very encouraging as a starting place.”