Being slow, for once, may play to our advantage. Because when Philadelphia finally unveils its bike-share program next spring, it will be doing so in the shadow of 65 other American cities—and 700 across the globe—that have already launched similar public-bicycle-kiosk plans, executing them with varying degrees of success. The glass-half-full perspective: Our Johnny-come-lately status should give us a chance to learn from their mistakes and create a more efficient, more inclusive bicycling experience.
For starters, the key institutional players—the city, Bike Share Philadelphia, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and others—have publicly stated that they plan on making sure there’s enough startup cash to fund the system through the entire year. That includes the likely-slower winter months—something for which New York’s Citi Bike system didn’t plan sufficiently.
But beyond the basic premise of creating a citywide system through which users can pay to borrow a bicycle at one streetside station and return it at another, there’s a piece of Philly’s bike-share plan that’s considerably more ambitious.
One key goal is to make bike-sharing available to the city’s low-income areas via a subsidy program and community outreach—while trying not to spend an exorbitant amount of the program’s startup cash doing so—and, what’s more, according to testimony from Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia president Alex Doty, to do so “without [requiring] credit cards.”
The plan to make that happen isn’t fully worked out yet. According to architects and supporters of the upcoming system, there are a number of possible means by which it might be put into practice.
This is a major endeavor.
I bike for my daily commute. Part of my motivation is the money it saves me; each trip is a SEPTA token earned. Perhaps surprisingly, in light of the economy, this approach to transit isn’t embraced by thrift-minded Americans as a whole.
According to the Alliance for Biking and Walking’s 2014 Benchmarking Report, only 14 percent of bicycle trips in the U.S. are made by those making less than $20,000 per year. Almost half of trips made are by those earning between $20,000 and $70,000. And a higher percentage of people earning $70,000 and over (37 percent) are bicyclists than those making less than $20,000.
Part of this is because of the upfront cost of a bike. It’s the same reason poor people often ride public transit instead of a car: the expense to get started seems impossible to manage. A 2010 study conducted by a Portland, Oregon-based organization found that more than 60 percent of people expressed the cost of a bike as the main barrier to getting and riding one.
That’s where bike-sharing comes in. The cost for most programs across the U.S. is pretty low—about $60 for a yearly subscription. But according to a Federal Highway Administration survey, bike-share programs across the country have had problems reaching low-income people and people of color.
The people behind Philly’s bike share startup say they’re working on that. It was brought up at City Council; it was stressed during a Q&A session by Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. The first obvious question: What about subsidizing bike-sharing for low-income Philadelphians? The working poor spend 6.1 percent of their income on transportation, compared to 3.8 percent for everyone else. And in Philadelphia and five other cities, their cost burden for housing is also higher, according to a 2008 Brookings Institution study. Something like a subsidized, or discounted, bike ride wouldn’t just keep everyone a bit healthier, it could also create a situation in which more people have more spending money.
“There are many potential options,” Bike Share Philadelphia founder Russell Meddin says. He points to one idea that’s being used in Boston: New Balance Hubway, as their bike share program is called, actually offers a membership for $5, plus a free helmet, to qualified low-income residents, as part of a program put together by the Boston Public Health Commission. Eligibility is based upon receiving public assistance and/or living in low-income housing. New Balance also works with local community groups who serve low-income residents with specials on membership.
When Boston began the program, they initially worried they’d have to find a way to deal with members who lack credit cards—but this proved less of a problem than expected. They found about 60 percent of the people in low-income areas actually had them.
Philly is different. We’re much poorer than Boston. While statistics for credit-card ownership in low-income city neighborhoods is not yet available, it’s suspected to be significantly lower than 60 percent. Which is why the architects of the bike-sharing program are looking at ways to bring the service to certain communities without requiring a credit card.
“The challenge to having low-income people access the system is that the system needs to know each person that uses it,” Doty noted at the last city bike-share hearing. That’s unlike a SEPTA transit card, he pointed out: “SEPTA doesn’t care who you are. They want to know that you paid to get on the bus, but [SEPTA doesn’t] care whether you’re Bob or Jane. But if you have a bike that costs $1,500 to replace, we care very much who you are. The system needs to be able to trace the bike back to a person. And so far, every system [nationwide] has done that through the use of credit cards.”
Debit cards aren’t a useful alternative, either: If you don’t have a bank account, bike-share isn’t going to be the motivating factor to get one. So, according to Meddin, one of the ideas is to bring in a “backstop” organization—a local foundation or nonprofit—that’s willing to front the money for low-income people. No far, there’s no such organization lined up.
An alternate version of the idea: If you’re a low-income resident who’s a member of a local community organization or a nonprofit group, the bike-share program could allow that group to vouch for you. That way, Meddin says, “we know who that person is and how to get in touch with that person. It’s not going to be given away. There’s still going to be a connection to the person.”
As Doty noted, that organization might theoretically be the Y, a check-cashing store, a community group or a church. And once a user is vouched for, the bike-share system could reach into the relevant institution’s fund to subsidize the user.
How would all these efforts make anyone’s life better? Well, subsidized bike-sharing could potentially mean that low-income people—many of whom do not have access to a motor vehicle—would now be able to traverse the city free of cost, and no longer have to spend a high proportion of their income to hopscotch from bus to train and vice versa.
“We’re going to be focused on a portfolio of stations that meet a certain criteria in low-income neighborhoods,” Doty said. “We’re going to be recruiting station champions out of the neighborhood reach, one of those stations, organizing activities at those stations so that people can come, get familiar with it, learn how to use it, and then we can introduce them to discounted memberships and try and get them to use the system.”
For the moment, though: This is all a work in progress.
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