City leaders might be tempted to roll their eyes at these kinds of conversations. But they ignore such discussions at their peril. Consider, for example, the fate of Adrian Fenty, the former mayor of Washington.
The exit polls from Washington's 2010 mayoral race showed that Fenty, an avid bike proponent in a bid for reelection, won 53 of the city's majority-white census tracts but just 10 percent of predominantly black ones after enjoying overwhelming popularity in the previous election. Among the frequently cited reasons for his loss that year was an emphasis in his first term on bike lanes—specifically, Fenty's "paint-first, ask-questions-later" approach. Longtime D.C. residents, particularly those in poorer parts of the city, felt the city's bike system had been designed without them in mind. Biking had come to be viewed as the province of the city's young, white professional class.
Fenty's electoral prospects never recovered from that perception. Yet that bike lanes and bike sharing should be the sole province of the white and wealthy doesn't make any sense empirically. A recent article in Forbes contrasting the costs of biking and driving found that the average operating cost of a bicycle is $308 per year, compared with $8,220 for the average car. At $75 per year—or $7 in monthly payments—D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare is an even better deal. So how did this most egalitarian mode of transportation come to symbolize the gentrifying class? And what's being done to change that?
A 2013 report on Washington's Capital Bikeshare program, the largest bike-sharing program in the country, underscores the problem. Compiled by LDA Consulting, the study found bike-sharers to be typically young and male. Eighty percent of them were white and 95 percent had a bachelor's degree or higher. Most striking of all: just 3 percent of the Bikeshare users were black in a city that's half black.
The bike-sharing system in D.C. and its surrounding metro areas is at least aware of the problem now. "We consider our Bikeshare system part of our transit system, so it has to be accessible to everyone, and everyone has to be able to use it on their terms, just like public transit," said Chris Hamilton, the chief of commuter services in Arlington County, Va. This summer his department held no fewer than five outreach events and recently hired a full-time Hispanic outreach coordinator. They've also worked with D.C. and surrounding areas to implement a $7 per month payment plan instead of making users foot the $75 annual membership fee up front.
In other cities, the vision is even more forward-thinking.
Next spring, the city of Philadelphia will roll out the country's newest bike-sharing program. City planners there have the benefit of learning from Washington and other early adopters. They are focusing on "hard barriers" to access, such as where stations are located, monthly versus annual payments, and the use of credit cards, which is thought to impede access to low-income users. "You will not have to have a credit card to use the bike-share system in Philadelphia," Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter promised advocates at the conference in Pittsburgh.