In Washington, D.C., a slew of private companies are shaking up the bike scene’s status quo and drawing riders from the city's African-American community.
On a Monday afternoon in November, I spotted a teenage couple on the Georgetown waterfront in Washington, D.C., sitting on a bench overlooking the Potomac River. Chris and Anna (who declined to give me their last names), were 19 and 18 years old respectively. They were scarfing down Chipotle burritos beside a pair of dockless bikes from one of the several private companies that have sprouted up across D.C. in the last few months.
The colorful new models—from Mobike, Spin, Ofo, LimeBike, and JUMP—don’t have to be rented and returned to fixed docking stations, like those of the city’s 8-year-old Capital Bikeshare program; they’re just scattered around the city. The D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT) is currently running a seven month-long demonstration period for dockless bikes, which ends in April. In October, these companies logged a total of 56,477 trips, compared to 338,152 Capital Bikeshare trips, according to DDOT data. But among those thousands of riders, Chris and Anna stood out to me—because they’re young and black.
Since the dockless bikes arrived, I’ve been seeing more and more black Washingtonians, particularly youth, on two wheels. That has not been a common sight in the past. Among commuter cyclists, white men have been largely overrepresented across the country. And city bikeshare initiatives have suffered from even starker racial disparities: In D.C., a city that until 2015 boasted a predominantly African-American population, black riders represent a tiny fraction of bikeshare patrons. In 2016, only 4 percent of users surveyed were African American, and, as CityLab’s Benjamin Schneider reported recently, that wasn’t because they were less interested.
It took me a while to try out Capital Bikeshare because I just didn’t see many residents riding the bikes in my predominantly black neighborhood, even though there was a docking station there. It took my then-boyfriend to convince me, and when I finally started riding, neighbors would stop me constantly to ask how to use them. They just hadn’t been walked through it, which made them think bikesharing wasn’t for them.
In light of all of that, I was curious about whether dockless bikes were, in fact, doing a better job of drawing black riders like myself. Was dockless bikeshare disrupting traditional bikeshare’s diversity problem—and if so, how?
It’s hard to back that hypothesis up with numbers; private bike companies don’t collect racial demographic data on their riders. But the data they do have, in conjunction with the anecdotal observations of bike advocates and riders across the city, suggest that dockless bikes are indeed changing the face of D.C. bikers.
“There are plenty youth of color riding and lots of women riding,” said Greg Billing, executive director at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA). “I think it’s a lot more reflective of the community at large than biking in general, which is great for the city.”
One common explanation is that dockless bikes reach more people because they are dispersed more widely instead of being tethered to docking stations that tend to be concentrated in whiter, higher-density, better-off neighborhoods west of the Anacostia River.
This feature is not without controversy: D.C. residents have complained on social media, on neighborhood listservs, and even to the police about how the dockless bikes clutter the streets. Still, Billing said, “we’re seeing dockless bikeshare fill in some of those gaps as you get away from the central city.” That’s perhaps putting this model in a better position to reach a wider demographic than its predecessor.
At this point, only 32 out of Capital Bikeshare’s 265 stations in D.C. sit in Wards 7 and 8, the largely African-American neighborhoods east of the river. Following a 2015 report detailing the system’s inequities, DDOT made a plan to add more stations east of the Anacostia River—17 are slated for installation this year. They also started a program that connects low-income residents to annual memberships for $5, among other incentives. To date, 19 nonprofit organizations working with underserved communities have signed up about 800 members.
It appears, though, that dockless bikes are gaining traction in areas with higher shares of African Americans at a quicker pace. Spin placed about 7 percent of its fleet east of the Anacostia in September 2017. By November, that number had swelled to about 17 percent, thanks to riders shifting bikes to that side of town. Mobike has counted hundreds of trips per week in Wards 7 and 8. And LimeBike’s numbers show that nearly six percent of all trips start or end east of the River.
Capital Bikeshare program manager Kim Lucas said she “doesn’t want to speculate” whether the dockless bikes are creating a more diverse ecosystem, but acknowledges that the new models have the potential to reach neighborhoods where bike stations have not yet been placed. “Our hope is that these will be very complementary systems—more bikes on the streets means more people riding bikes and that’s the goal of the bike planners here at DDOT,” Lucas said.
Besides flexibility, dockless bikes have other features that appeal to this clientele. Anna, who rode to the Georgetown waterfront, said she prefers riding dockless because the bikes are easier to rent than those of Capital Bikeshare. Users download an app, scan the bike code or type in a four-digit PIN on their phones, and unlock the bikes.
Capital Bikeshare also has a higher initial barrier to entry—an annual membership of $85, or a variety of shorter-term options. Non-members who just want to sign out a bike for an hour have to sign up using a kiosk at a station. “Young people, in general, are more used to using their phones than this archaic parking machine to access a bike,” said Emiko Atherton, director of the Complete Streets program at Smarter Growth America. “Even I don’t like to do it.”
Atherton said she’s noticed more young black riders on dockless bikes in her Northwest community of Columbia Heights, too. “I remember walking down 14th Street and thinking there was an event, but it was just a group of young black men on dockless bikes,” she said. “It was really cool and it wasn’t something that I’d ever seen before.”
Atherton also points out that prospective riders would be hard pressed to find a Capital Bikeshare bike on a weekday after 10 a.m. in Columbia Heights—most of them are already taken by people who bike to work. That could be a disadvantage for youths who don’t work during traditional 9-to-5 hours.
This is not generally a problem with the dockless bikes. Seventeen-year-old Brianna Tarnell-White occasionally snags one near Georgetown after school, for example, and rides it to a Metro station to catch the train to her home in Ward 7. “I like how it’s convenient—you just pick it up wherever it is and you drop it off wherever, whereas you have to find where Capital Bikeshare is and put it back in the correct spot,” she said.
The pricing plans for dockless bikes tend to be more accessible to younger users, as well: They typically cost $1 per every half hour, compared to the $2 that Capital Bikeshare charges for a one-way 30-minute rental. “Capital Bikeshare’s $85 annual pass is by far a better deal, but that requires people to front that money,” said Billing, of WABA. “And experience would show that’s not the way members of communities with financial hardship make investment decisions. You may have a dollar or two dollars for that trip at a time, but you may not have $80 to invest for a year.”
Some dockless companies are offering special pricing plans for D.C.’s youth. Kyle Whitehead is the communications and marketing manager at Covenant House Washington, a nonprofit serving 18 to 24 year olds, 98 percent of whom are black. He reached out to Mobike for a partnership when program participants began complaining about Metro and bus fare hikes in June 2017. The organization estimates that youth need to earn $15.30 at a full-time job to be stable in an expensive city like D.C.; since so many don’t reach that mark, they have to skimp on what they’re spending to get to work. During National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week in November, Mobike donated one free trip to Covenant House participants for every Mobike ride taken in the D.C. area.
Jonathan Aparicio, a bike ambassador for the electric bike company JUMP, points out that his company’s e-boosted bikes cost the same per trip as Capital Bikeshare’s, but JUMP doesn’t employ the $101 security hold that Day Pass users on Capital Bikeshare were once charged. (JUMP’s rental agreement does say that users are responsible for up to $1,600 in replacement fees for a damaged or lost bike.) Plus, he adds, his employer’s rides are just cooler. “Everyone is living the great life on Instagram and Snapchat—I feel like being a part of this electric bike program sets the bar because people want to one-up their friends,” said Aparicio, a 32-year-old black D.C. native.
Aparicio wasn’t an avid rider before joining the JUMP team, he said, but now he’s a bike advocate, partly because his image of what a cyclist looks like has changed—he sees more people that look like him riding these bikes.
“I was under the assumption that the majority of the bicyclists in D.C. are white… but I was looking at people who dress the part in Spandex and messenger bags and have super-cool bikes,” Aparicio said. “I [wasn’t] thinking about Donte who has on New Balance or boots. Just because he doesn’t wear all this bike gear and Chrome apparel doesn’t mean he’s not part of this community.”