A group of cyclists prepares to take an inaugural ride on new rental bikes Monday, Oct. 13, 2014, in Seattle. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Several cities are trying out new ways of encouraging low-income residents to sign up.

The past few years have seen a surge in new options for urban transportation, from car-sharing in its various manifestations—Zipcar, Car2Go—to ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, to the bike-share systems that have sprung up in cities across North America. Almost universally, the way these systems ensure that such vehicles can be "shared" or rented is through credit cards or debit cards issued by banks. Don’t have a credit card or a bank account? You probably can’t participate.

In the case of car-sharing or ride-hailing, this doesn’t seem too odd, given the for-profit nature of those private businesses. But in the case of bike-share, which is often sponsored in part or in full by municipal transportation departments, the problem of equitable access for the unbanked becomes more urgent. Even where cities don’t commit public funds to bike-share—New York’s system, for instance, is entirely privately funded—elected and appointed officials frequently tout the benefits of bike-share and refer to it as an extension of existing public transit options, giving it the imprimatur of the public sector. Yet a wide income gap in bike-share membership remains stubbornly real across North America, as Eric Jaffe reported last fall.

Arlington County, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., is trying something different to address the problem of allowing the unbanked access to bike-share. Under a new program, the county itself will vouch for residents who want to join and use the multi-jurisdictional Capital Bikeshare program, allowing them to pay cash for monthly memberships by visiting one of the city’s five “commuter stores,” which already sell transit passes. Applicants need only present proof of identification and residency and $16 in cash to get started; after their identity is verified, they are free to use the system. “When a customer's account goes below $2, the County will contact the individual to add more money to their account,” according to the blog of MetroBike, LLC, a consultancy that works with the system. “At $0, their account will be closed until more money is added, with any month's missed membership fee paid for as well.”

The Arlington initiative is just one of many attempts to address equitable access to bike-share. In New York, for instance, residents of public housing are eligible for discounted memberships, although the management company Motivate hasn’t released figures on how many have signed up. In Chicago, equity efforts extend to the labor side, with Divvy Bike workers being employed year-round through a partnership with The Gap, regardless of the winter slowdown. And just across the Potomac in the District of Columbia, the city offers a program called Bank on DC, which gives D.C. residents the opportunity to open a real bank account with no minimum balance and get a $25 credit toward an annual Capital Bikeshare membership at the same time.

None of these jurisdictions, however, pretends to have the silver-bullet answer to bike-share equity. In an effort to keep pushing for better solutions, PeopleForBikes has just announced a partnership with the city of Philadelphia, which is launching bike-share in the spring, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, and the National Association of City Transportation Officials. The initiative, the Better Bike Share Partnership, will allocate $900,000 “to collect and disseminate best practices on bike share, including equity strategies.” Participants will be looking at where stations are located, how systems are marketed, and pricing and membership plans.

Already, Philadelphia has conducted outreach and focus groups to explore the equity problem, finding that access for the unbanked is a relative small part of the picture, says Martha Roskowski, PeopleForBikes Vice President of Local Innovation. “We have concluded the issue of the unbanked is a problem, but it’s not the big problem,” says Roskowski, who emphasizes the complexity of the challenges involved. She says that Philadelphia is going to be working to address other key issues that have come up in focus groups, among them putting stations in underserved neighborhoods and getting community input about which exact locations are perceived as safest and most convenient.

Funding structures have been behind some of the siting inequities to date, she says. Where sponsorships have provided most or all of the funding for a system, market forces have driven station placement and marketing efforts. When cities commit municipal funds, things can look different. “As public money comes into the systems, there is more thoughtful analysis of how does the system serve different populations,” Roskowski says.

Adonia Lugo, the equity initiative manager at the League of American Bicyclists, says that the question of just how public bike-share is lies at the heart of its equity problem. “What’s interesting to me is the central tension between, is bike-share an amenity or is it a public transportation option?” says Lugo. “A lot of advocates think of it as the latter, and if it is that, we have all kinds of federal regulations that stipulate that there’s not going to be barriers to access to public resources for certain groups. But at the other end, if bike-share is not public transportation—if it’s just kind of a cool thing that people can access—things are different. I kind of think the bike-share operators haven’t really decided which way they’re going.”

For Lugo, the dichotomy between public transportation and private amenity illuminates deeper questions as well, including fair compensation of bike-share workers and the historic disparity of how government resources have been allocated to different neighborhoods.

“Bike share enters into this existing complicated landscape of transportation choices illustrating class and race,” she says. As with bicycling in general, Lugo adds, the discussion about bike share can open the door to more substantive conversations. “How do we use the bike thing as an entry point,” she asks, “to understand these much bigger issues?”

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