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Biking Toward Greater Equity

By David Sandman, President and CEO, New York State Health Foundation
Published in the HuffPost on July 19, 2017

Bike-sharing programs have exploded across the United States and the globe in recent years. Fifty-five systems were in place in cities across the U.S. by 2016, up from just four in 2010.

New York City’s program, named Citi Bike, launched in mid-2013. It too has grown rapidly; it seems like there’s a new Citi Bike docking station every time I turn around. Today, the program consists of 10,000 bikes and 600 stations; it is available in 55 neighborhoods.

If you’re not familiar with it, here’s how it works: residents and tourists can rent specially-designed and sturdy bicycles in various locations throughout the city and return the bikes to a different location if they choose, making the bikes especially convenient for one-way trips. Riders can commute to work or school, do errands, meet up with friends, or just cruise around the city. The program also taps into a growing desire among many Americans to use environmentally friendly transportation options and to incorporate more physical activity into their daily routines. Citi Bike is available for use 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

Given all those pluses, I (naively) thought Citi Bike was a welcome amenity in all neighborhoods. Not so fast. Turns out that not everyone loves these bike-sharing programs. Residents often complain that the docking stations supplant neighborhood parking—a perennial challenge in a city like New York, where parking is already at a premium.

A bigger and more concerning challenge, though, in New York City and elsewhere, has been ensuring that the docking stations are distributed equitably across a diverse range of neighborhoods. Too often, bike-share programs don’t serve low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, focusing instead on more affluent areas of the cities in which they operate. In Boston, for example, one study found that nearly 43% of white residents live near a bike-share station, compared with only 7% of black residents. The same study found that bike-share programs in Chicago, New York City, Denver, and Seattle all show significant disparities in access according to residents’ race, education, and income. As one article put it plainly: “The poor bike, the rich bike-share.”

About a year ago, I saw a story in a local New York City paper about Citi Bike coming to Bedford-Stuyvesant, a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Brooklyn with high rates of poverty, unemployment, obesity, and diabetes. Residents were initially resistant to the addition of Citi Bike in the community, certain that it was a signal of gentrification. In addition, members of the community didn’t feel that the program was for people like them; “that’s for tourists,” they said, or “people like us don’t ride bikes.” And yet, Citi Bike has taken off in Bed-Stuy—where use has doubled since 2015—and in other lower-income neighborhoods, in part thanks to aggressive marketing, education, and outreach and engagement efforts in the community.

When I heard about the efforts in Bed-Stuy, I tweeted at Citi Bike, congratulating and encouraging them to expand into more low-income neighborhoods.

I was pleasantly surprised when they responded to my challenge and educated my colleagues and me about the challenges and opportunities of integrating bike-sharing programs successfully into low-income communities. Despite offering steeply discounted memberships ($5 per month compared with nearly $15 per month) to residents of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings, few of these community members were participating in or even aware of the program. In the Two Bridges neighborhood of the Lower East Side and in East Harlem, there are 28 Citi Bike stations within a five-minute walk of NYCHA campuses, yet 80% of residents were unfamiliar with the discount membership program.

Now, efforts are underway to engage residents of these neighborhoods—taking a page from the work done earlier in Bed-Stuy: getting local businesses and leaders involved in outreach and marketing efforts; installing banners highlighting the NYCHA discount; and identifying community members who are using the bike-share program to encourage their neighbors to sign up. Citi Bike and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation are also partnering with local organizations to lead neighborhood bike rides, offer safety lessons, and promote the program at community events. When residents see that their neighbors and others like them are participating in the program, they may begin to realize that bike-sharing is for them, not just for people in wealthier neighborhoods. Positive peer pressure can be powerful.

I’m encouraged by the emphasis the bike-sharing community has placed on issues related to equity. The North American Bike Share Association, for example, lists equity as a core value, with a goal to help members provide bike-sharing to riders regardless of race, gender, income, age, or immigration status. A grassroots group called Black Girls Do Bike has more than 65 chapters—and 90 woman leaders, known as “sheroes”—encouraging women of color to bicycle. And the Better Bike Share Partnership has been holding well-attended meetings focused on equity to brainstorm and share best practices, such as Philadelphia’s commitment to provide discounted bike-share memberships to all residents who qualify for food assistance. With adequate marketing and incentives, along with community champions and advocates, bike-sharing can be an asset for all city residents, not just the affluent. There is still plenty of warm weather left, so let’s strap on those helmets and get biking.

Follow David Sandman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidsandman1