Build Bike Share for Equity First

By Tracey Capers

Around the world, in communities large and small, bike share has taken root as a convenient and affordable transportation alternative. United States municipalities are learning what many of their European counterparts have long recognized: bike share is an ideal means of facilitating mobility and providing connections between public transit options. At the same time, the landscape continues to evolve with dockless and pedal-assist bikes, and with for-hire vehicle companies like Lyft and Uber claiming a share.

However, when bike share first came to New York City, and to Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant — a neighborhood with more low-income residents and residents of color than any neighborhood where bike share had previously launched — I was skeptical. As a senior executive at Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation — the nation’s first community development corporation — it is my job to support the organization as it relentlessly pursues strategies to close gaps in family and community wealth, to ensure all families in Central Brooklyn are prosperous and healthy. When Citi Bike and the New York City Department of Transportation asked Restoration to encourage neighborhood adoption of bike share into Bedford-Stuyvesant, I wondered, with some doubt, how a bike could address resident displacement or economic disparity, or help build wealth. Residents felt this skepticism, too, having never asked for bike share while the program simply popped up in their backyard. Was bike share meant for them, they asked, or for the new residents moving into the neighborhood in droves?

I decided to suspend my disbelief, and with early funding made possible by the Better Bike Share Partnership and the help of Citi Bike, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the Department of Transportation, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation launched a multi-tiered engagement campaign to promote bike share in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The campaign involved promoting riders of color, weekly guided rides led by community leaders, community-wide events with helmet fittings and giveaways, discount programs and corporate subsidies to make membership more affordable, and innovative pilots providing free memberships for select patients and students.

Equity Before Ridership

Our efforts worked. In just three years, bike share membership in Bedford-Stuyvesant increased by triple digits, growing at a faster rate than it was citywide.

Yet, a year into the effort, it was clear that we had to make the measure of our success much deeper than the number of butts on bikes. We convened 50 partners for a training and workshop on racial equity with PolicyLink — a pioneering national leader in the space — that defines equity as “fair and just inclusion.” Even in an effort as seemingly basic as introducing a new transportation system like bike share, equity necessitates that efforts account for those communities that have been historically affected by disinvestment, and underlying policies and systems that have marginalized residents of color.

The moderators of that training and workshop left us some thoughtful questions to consider as we moved forward and assessed our work: Who leads? Who decides? Who benefits? And who is harmed? Our partnership gelled as we defined our mission: to develop inclusive programs and policies to promote racial equity through bike share and increase the diversity of bike share riders, in order to improve health and financial outcomes of New York City neighborhoods. Further, we would work to reduce economic and health disparities by addressing social determinants of health and acknowledging historical and current-day inequities rooted in systemic racism. It was a major shift to equity before ridership, and it has made all the difference.

Developing an Equity Model

Too often, new efforts — be they bike lanes or zoning amendments — are thrust upon communities, and residents are denied agency and voice in what impacts them. When Restoration was approached to take on the challenge of bike share’s introduction to the neighborhood, I insisted Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration would only do so if we led the partnership. From a leadership position, we could honor and lift up community voices as the authors and messengers of their fate, early on and in all phases of our efforts.

Too often, new efforts — be they bike lanes or zoning amendments — are thrust upon communities, and residents are denied agency and voice in what impacts them.

Put simply, movements must reflect the people they seek to engage. Beyond bike share companies, this means all safe streets enthusiasts from city government to private sector, from the advocacy organizations to training and educational institutions, must be prepared to offer ownership and opportunity to the communities where they seek to change transportation. Taken further, when we think job creation, we should not just be thinking of entry level ambassadors and bike mechanics, but also of opportunities for employment and advancement across management. From the street ambassador to the board member, leadership must mirror the communities served.

Economic benefits to the community should always be top of mind. In bringing bike share to Bedford-Stuyvesant, we asked how residents could be better off economically by accruing savings from their membership and how bike share could be used as an opportunity to get people banked. No doubt, transformative change to the streetscape requires a heavy lean on the organizing power of social movements. We must in turn compensate and value the leaders and organizations we lean on to usher in success.

Further, no resident of any community should have to choose between a meal and traveling across town. As safe, healthy transportation is a public benefit, advocates, employers, and public agencies must work toward making all forms of transportation accessible in price for all people. In New York City, the Better Bike Share Partnership pushed for new payment options, including monthly payment and affordability options for food-stamp recipients, as well as a cash option, given the numbers of unbanked residents in our communities. Partial and full corporate subsidies are a way employers can connect staff to the program in order to help them save money on transportation costs.

But accessibility extends beyond pricing. For bike share, for example, station placement is an accessibility issue. In neighborhoods adjacent to Bedford-Stuyvesant, such as East New York and Canarsie, residents have not tried bike share because there are no docks by them. Dockless bike share is a promising solution, and evaluation of the newest technologies is always the right step forward for determining the best way to bring bike share equitably to all communities.

Safety, too, is a conversation that has long been led without racial equity considerations. In a bike share roll-out, for example, long before stations are sited, the overall conditions of roads, bike lanes, and lighting need to be considered, as well as which neighborhoods’ street designs suffer from historic disinvestment. These conversations must involve the residents themselves, especially when determining what is needed, where, and when. And safety goes beyond infrastructure. If racial equity is our goal, then safety from police profiling must be a consideration in the improvement of any transportation system. For example, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, while pilot programs abound to get young people on bikes and pre-diabetic patients rolling, members report being pulled over for seemingly no other reason than their riding a bike and the color of their skin.

Transportation equity is a two-sided coin. We cannot expect our transportation projects to be successful if we do not consider equity in their roll-out and construction. We also cannot say that we believe in racial equity without intentionally evaluating the intended and unintended impact on residents of color, some of which may not be obvious. This is why we measure. For bike share programs, it is as important to collect data on membership and ridership by race, as it is by age or location. We must study the unintended results of enforcement policies that disproportionately impact people of color, even if that means discouraging some police traffic enforcement.

A Model for Equity in All Planning

At the end of the day, the forces behind any transportation project must remain interested in gauging how — if at all — communities and residents are better off because of their efforts. This gauge must include economic viability, health outcomes, and community cohesion in equal measure to safety. If safety is the only mark on your barometer, you are failing.

The paradigm shift we undertook at the Better Bike Share Partnership, based on lessons learned bringing bike share to Bedford-Stuyvesant, can be a model for leading all transportation projects with equity first. To build an equity framework for any transportation project, or movement working toward safe streets and livable communities, consider agency and voice, ownership and opportunity, accessibility and pricing, all types of safety, as well as how and what you will measure.

Imagine if bike share, and every local Vision Zero improvement to the streetscape, truly advanced and achieved equity. Transportation could be a vehicle for economic prosperity and racial equity; economic mobility and health would no longer be a dream but reality for underserved communities; and we would all benefit, from the private operator to the government to the residents themselves.

[This article first appeared in Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities Journal in 2018.]

A Brooklyn resident, Tracey Capers is Executive Vice President for Programs at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, responsible for overseeing economic mobility programs and initiatives focused on health disparities. Her leadership in the area of bike share equity is chronicled in various publications, including Bringing Equitable Bike Share to Bedford-Stuyvesant, a report co-authored by NACTO and Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. She recently joined the board of directors of Transportation Alternatives and is a winner of its 2017 David Gurin Award. Capers received her undergraduate degree from Yale University and Masters from the University of Pennsylvania, Fels Center of Government.