Bike sharing is increasing, but along income lines

Marlena Chertock Nov 21, 2014

While bike-sharing programs are on the rise in U.S. cities, lower-income residents can find it difficult to find – and afford – a ride.

Relatively pricey memberships and “pay more the farther you go” usage fees serve as a deterrent to broader membership. Potential lower-income members often don’t have the requisite credit card or debit card required to accommodate monthly billing and overtime fees. And not enough bike-sharing stations are set up in lower-income neighborhoods.

Officials with bike-sharing programs in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Maryland say they are working on ways to expand their collective membership base.

“We do realize that our membership is not as diverse nor representative of the community as we would like it to be. So we have had some concentrated efforts to break down barriers to the system,” says Kimberly Lucas, Capital Bikeshare program manager for the District Department of Transportation. Its members tend to be young, highly educated Caucasian males, according to a 2013 member survey.

Washington residents without credit cards or debit cards can sign up for a low-fee bank account and obtain a debit card through Bank on DC, a Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking program. In turn, they receive a $25 gift card for Capital Bikeshare that pays for half of a $50 discounted annual membership. About 100 people have signed up through this program.

The annual fee to join Capital Bikeshare is $75, but members also have the option of paying $7 a month, pushing the annual fee to $84 a year. The first 30 minutes of each bike ride are included in membership but additional fees are tacked on when a bike is used longer. But extra fees can be as low as $1.50 for an additional 30 minutes.

Number of bikes per station in Washington, D.C., data from Capital Bikeshare

New York City’s popular bike-sharing program, Citi Bike, came up with a “work around” for people who don’t have a bank account or credit card but want to become members, according to Dani Simons, director of marketing and external affairs for New York City Bike Share, which operates Citi Bike.

Citi Bike encourages “people to go to the credit unions, get a bank account, get access to a debit or credit card that way,” Simons says.

In November, Citi Bike raised its annual membership fee from $95 to $149. But Citi Bike offers discounted memberships of $60 to residents of public housing and members of select community development credit unions. So far, 2,000 people have become Citi Bike members this way, according to Simons.

Citi Bike plans to double in size by the end of 2017.

“As we expand, we’ll definitely encompass more neighborhoods where we have a higher percentage of people living below the federal poverty level,” Simons says. Citi Bike already operates in a mix of high-end and low-income neighborhoods, especially on the Lower East Side in Manhattan and in parts of Brooklyn.

Number of bikes per station in New York City, data from Citi Bike

Montgomery County, Maryland, offers a Job Access and Reverse Commute program that provides free bike-share membership for one year to a limited number of low-income commuters. It also provides bike safety training, a helmet and route planning. Residents qualify based on income requirements.

About 30 people have used the program to access Capital Bikeshare, says Michelle Golden, senior marketing manager for Montgomery County Commuter Services.

Capital Bikeshare also works with Back on My Feet, a nonprofit organization that promotes running as a way for homeless and underprivileged individuals to build self-confidence. Lucas says the group provides stipends and scholarships to many members, who have used them to pay for Capital Bikeshare memberships – and then commute to jobs they couldn’t get to before.

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