No One Should Have to Earn $100K to Afford Bike Sharing

Bike-share programs have been growing in popularity. Now they’re hoping to improve access for low-income city dwellers who need a lift.

A row of 'Chicago blue' Divvy Bicycles, part of the large-scale bike share, sits outside the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago. (Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

Jul 16, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Ali Swenson is an editorial intern at TakePart. She is editor-in-chief of Loyola Marymount University’s news outlet, the Los Angeles Loyolan, and has worked in nonprofit media.

On the streets of Chicago on any given weekday morning, you might hear the ding-ding of Brian Bruss’ bicycle bell.

The bell is the 33-year-old native Chicagoan’s favorite part of Divvy bikes, the bright-blue two-wheelers provided by the city’s two-year-old bike-share program, Divvy. He likes the bell for its whimsical chime but also because it embodies the joy that comes with freedom of movement—something he didn’t have just a few weeks ago.

Bruss is unemployed and can’t afford regular public transit fare, much less Divvy, but a new program offering discounted bike-share memberships to low-income Chicagoans has given him transportation opportunities he never thought he would have.

The program, called Divvy for Everyone, is a city government–led attempt to make Divvy more accessible to all residents. Rather than using a credit card to spend the typical $75 for a bike-share membership, qualifying low-income and unbanked Chicagoans can now pay for their first year for $5 in cash.

For Bruss, that means he can go to his weekday career management course at Jane Addams Resource Corporation, a job-training and workforce development organization. When the weekend comes, he can pedal anywhere his heart desires—a trip to Montrose Beach wasn’t ruled out because a few dollars of fare felt too extravagant.

“It was exhilarating,” he said. “I got to go there when I normally wouldn’t have been able to justify getting on a bus…spending that bus fare.”

With its deliberate concern for low-income individuals, D4E is just one way American bike-share programs are showing a budding interest in equity and equality.

With some 50 U.S. cities launching bike-share systems in the past 15 years and more than 800 such programs giving riders wheels, data is emerging that shows that some pockets of the population are using the bikes far more than others.

“Bike share is still very much the domain of white upper-class males,” said transportation researcher Elliot Fishman, who contributed to 2014 findings that revealed members of bike-share programs skew male, wealthy, educated, and Caucasian.

A separate study of riders in Washington, D.C., offers a glimpse into these usage gaps, finding that 84 percent of bike-share users surveyed in 2014 were white, even though white people represented just half of the employees in the region. People using bike shares were also much wealthier than the national average—50 percent made at least $100,000 per year.

The reasons for these disparities could be many, according to Fishman. High-income earners may be more likely to work in central downtown areas, where cities often concentrate docking stations. Bike-share programs also tend to start out in areas where biking infrastructure is already in place, and all too often, these are predominantly white, upper-class locales.

In Chicago, a city of neighborhoods, this means Divvy is disproportionately clustered on the wealthier North Side. A recent push to install more docking stations in the south and west of the city has helped bring the program to more communities, but biking advocates say it’s not enough.

“We’d really like to see it encompass the entire city,” said Shawn Conley, chairman of cycling club Major Taylor Chicago. “I believe that the city takes the path of least resistance. In other words, if you have money and you already have bike lanes painted all over the North Side, you’ll probably put [Divvy docking stations] up there because that’s the easiest thing to do.”

Indego in Philadelphia, a bike-share program that launched this spring, is one of the first to directly focus on attracting a diverse ridership from the outset. Of the 600 bikes in its system, a third are in low-income neighborhoods.

Existing bike-share programs are making changes to combat inequity too. Pronto in Seattle has plans to cover more peripheral areas, and Bublr Bikes in Milwaukee announced an initiative last week to increase its presence in low-income neighborhoods. Discounts for public housing residents in New York attempt to make the fee more realistic for the people who need it most.

Chicago residents are already citing benefits of Divvy’s expansion and the D4E program, starting with their impact on biking popularity.

“I see a lot of activity,” said Pamela Hamerick, manager of a South Side café adjacent to a new Divvy docking station. “It’s connecting the communities in ways they haven’t been connected before.”

Other upshots of Divvy’s presence on the South Side over time could include improved physical health, community economic development, and reduced violence, according to Oboi Reed, founder of cycling equity group Slow Roll Chicago.

“Biking is a much more social experience than riding in a car—you’re much more likely to say hello to somebody because you’re not surrounded by glass and steel,” he said. “The more social cohesion we can have in a neighborhood, the more impact we can have in reducing violence.”

For hundreds of clients at job-training and support centers in Chicago, convenient and affordable bike share can be the deciding factor in securing jobs, accessing social services, or even keeping food on the table.

“We’ve had clients lose jobs or miss out on job opportunities due to an inconvenient or burdensome commute…like taking three buses to get to a job,” said Hayley Crabb, director of development and communications at JARC, where Bruss got his Divvy membership. “Divvy for Everyone helps reduce barriers to good jobs.”

Bruss, who has an associate’s degree and experience with computers and call centers but is still looking for work, says access to biking is invaluable. It’s reliable transportation that gets him to class. One day, it will get him to a stable job.

“The bus schedule is not always dependable,” he said. “Whether it’s traffic or because the buses only run to a certain time, it really is limiting. [Divvy]…gives me a level of freedom—of choice.”