The Radical Potential of Bike Share

By Kate Fillin-Yeh

Since 2010, when the United States’ first bike share system opened in Washington, D.C., 88 million people have ridden bike share in the U.S. In 2016 alone, people took 28 million bike share trips — that’s almost as many people as took Amtrak, and 8 million more people than visited Disney World in the same year.

Equitable transportation means providing people with a variety of options for getting around, regardless of income or race. In this context, these numbers hint at bike share’s radical potential as a powerful tool for mobility and equity. More trips taken on bike share means that more people are saving time, realizing new opportunities for exercise, and finding it easier to travel in places where transit access is lacking. For people who live in bike share cities, these new opportunities can be life-changing. Data shows that economic outcomes are linked to mobility; it is hard to have a job if you can’t reach it.

Data shows that economic outcomes are linked to mobility; it is hard to have a job if you can’t reach it.

Possibility and Promise

Bike share, which can be implemented faster, and with lower capital costs, than any other form of transit, is an opportunity for cities to create these new transportation options. It also gives cities a way to reject the race- and income-based inequities that are so often baked into transportation planning and budget decisions.

Building good infrastructure that reduces traffic crashes is part of this promise. Across race and gender, fear of getting hit by a car is the number one reason why people don’t take advantage of cycling’s mobility opportunities. As cities around the U.S. adopt Vision Zero policy goals, focusing on infrastructure is paramount. In particular, enforcement is a poor substitute for street design that creates safe space for all users, and is prone to abuses along racial and socioeconomic lines.

Bike share and bike lanes go hand in hand. As the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has shown, more people ride when good bike lanes are available. High-ridership bike share systems can help create political pressure to build more lanes, generating a virtuous cycle that is reducing cycling risk and improving rider safety in cities around the country. For example, in New York, the city with the largest bike share system and the first U.S. city to commit to Vision Zero, cycling fatalities in the bike share zone have all but vanished since Citi Bike launched in 2013. Citywide, traffic fatalities have declined for the past three years, in stark contrast to national increases.

A Threat to Effectiveness

Of the 55 bike share systems currently in operation in the U.S., rides per bike per day (RBD), a metric that indicates intensity of use, range from almost seven RBD in New York City to less than one in other American cities. A closer look at the numbers shows that just three systems — New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. — generate 75% of all U.S. bike share trips. It’s no coincidence that these three systems are busiest; bigger, denser systems offer more options for places to go. In contrast, as with the recent closing of the Pronto system in Seattle, Washington, low ridership systems can be prone to collapse under the weight of political and financial pressures. Low ridership is troubling, especially as it relates to equity. The mobility and safety benefits of bike share cannot be realized if people aren’t riding.

Better Bike Share

In 2014, NACTO, in collaboration with the City of Philadelphia, PeopleForBikes, and the Greater Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition, launched the Better Bike Share Partnership. Funded by The JPB Foundation, the collaboration works to support and replicate equitable bike share systems. Through this partnership NACTO finds that what drives ridership is also what makes bike share equitable: dense coverage of bikes and stations over a large area, safe places to ride, engagement with the community, and a progressive pricing system.

First, cities must commit, politically and technically, to large contiguous systems that offer equally convenient access to a bicycle in every neighborhood served by bike share. The planning principle that underscores ridership is the distance that a person is willing to walk to find a bike: less than five minutes. In contrast, disconnected stations get limited use and rarely help anyone get anywhere.

The Bay Area, for example, has eliminated low-ridership satellite stations along the peninsula in favor of a larger, denser system concentrated in San Jose, San Francisco, and Oakland, which is slated to open in 2017. Second, bike share must be matched by safe places to ride. This requires cities to make political and financial commitments so that every neighborhood has bike lanes and safe streets. Infrastructure that increases safety for cyclists increases safety for everyone. For example, in New York City, injurious traffic crashes declined 17% and pedestrian injuries 22% on streets where protected bike lanes were installed. As the Vision Zero Network puts it, “roadway design that prioritizes safety” is the single best way save lives.

Third, concentrated engagement is necessary to bring the benefits of bike share to a wide range of people. In Brooklyn, a partnership led by the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation increased Citi Bike trips in the neighborhood by almost 200,000 trips from 2015 to 2016. In particular, the number of NYC Housing Authority residents using the system grew faster in Bedford-Stuyvesant than anywhere else in the city. Building off a system expansion, the partners, which included the bike share provider, city agencies,and community partners, strategically used Citi Bike to help address community-identified problems like obesity, lack of jobs, and limited financial services. The resulting work has started to reframe bike share as a neighborhood amenity for long-time, often lower-income, residents, not just newcomers.

Finally, progressive pricing is inextricably linked to bike share’s equitable potential. Bike share is the cheapest form of transit available but there is still the need to expand access for people at the lowest income levels. In particular, led by the City of Philadelphia, systems around the country have begun to offer monthly payment options that reduce both the upfront costs and the financial barriers to entry. Philadelphia has recently pioneered a discount membership for anyone with an EBT card, which has significantly increased the number of low-income Philadelphians riding the Indego bike share system.

Riding Forward

As transportation advocates, planners and policy makers, our goal is to make sure that everyone can get where they want to go easily, efficiently and safely. As we work to make transportation more equitable, this means that cities and advocates must be honest about where bike share is, and where it is
not, the best tool to meet those goals. For short trips, and in densely populated places, bike share is a good solution. People can get many places quickly, they have limited options for personal bike storage, and the population density allows membership revenues to form a sustainable funding source for operations and expansion.

But, in some contexts, geographic equality, especially if it means lowering station density and service quality, may not be equitable at all. In less dense places where people have to travel further distances, people may benefit more from a focus on other transportation investments, such as bike/ transit connections, bike parking at bus and rail stops, and protected bike lane and trail networks. After all, trip data from bike share and general (non-recreational) cycling alike shows that most people only want to ride for relatively short distances. As with bike share, matching bike and transit investments with equity-focused engagement and pricing policies can increase options for mobility and economic opportunity for the people who need it most.

Realizing bike share’s safety, equity, and mobility promise is dependent on creating systems that people can, and want to, use. Let’s keep striving to get it right.

[This article first appeared in Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities Journal in 2017.]

Kate Fillin-Yeh is the Director of Strategy at NACTO, working on bike share, safety, and other policy issues. She has close to a decade of experience in transportation policy and implementation at the New York City Departments of Transportation and of City Planning. At the New York City Department of Transportation, Kate designed and implemented Citi Bike, the nation’s largest and most heavily used bike share program, and was a lead author of Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero Action Plan. Recent NACTO publications include “Equitable Bike Share Means Building Better Places for People to Ride,” and the Next City op-ed, “How We’ll Know When We’re Getting Bike Equity Right.”

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