BY JOHN LIGHT
Portland Oregon got its first bike share in 1994, followed in recent years by Denver, Minneapolis and Washington DC. Last year, Boston got a bike share. And this summer, the popular program comes to New York.
All it takes is a credit card and any New Yorker will be able to use any of 10,000 bikes that will be available around the city. But New York is not just the latest but also the most diverse city to try bike sharing.
A professor at Virginia Tech named Ralph Buehler had his students interview people who used Washington DC’s bike share. Overwhelmingly, the short term users– bikers who rent a bike for just one ride– were white were young, they were male, and they were very highly educated — 43% had masters degrees. Dr. Buehler thought these statistics might be a reflection of bikers in America overall, not just bike share users.
“I think some of the things that we pick up here are probably what we pick up, not just in bike sharing, but in general in cycling in the US,” he said. “It may not be a problem or an inequitable issue within bike sharing but within bicycling in the US at the moment.”
Aware of these findings, the New York Department of Transportation has been trying to be inclusive as they plan their bike share. Part of this effort includes holding evening meetings in the neighborhoods that will get bikes.
Last Tuesday, the DOT hosted one at Hunter College’s 25th street campus, on the East River. True to Dr. Buehler’s study, the people at the meeting are mostly young and white. But the DOT says it does recognize that others may want to get involved.
Seth Solomonow, a spokesperson for the DOT, suggested that the bike share could be a cheap way for people living in New York’s lower income, nonwhite communities to get around.
“One of the key elements of bike share is that it is really so affordable,” he said. “We were talking about the cost of a metro card being about $95 for a month. That’s what we’re talking about for membership for an entire year. And you could have unlimited free trips of basically from half an hour to 45 minutes for an entire year for that investment.”
Nine different nonprofits on the Lower East side have formed an organization, called Local Spokes, that focuses on biking. The organization has surveyed over a thousand Lower East Side residents. Douglas Le, one of the groups leaders, said that issues of access are associated with income level, but that other factors like race were less important.
“We did find that lower income folks face different challenges than higher income folks,” said Le. “We didn’t see as much of any kind of destinction between, you know, Asian, versus latino, versus black or white, or the surveys that were done in Chinese or Spanish versus English.”
The neighborhoods that Local Spokes works in are at the nexus of the new bike sharing system. But Le is concerned that some of the lower income residents of his neighborhood may not be able to use the bike sharing system that they live within. One of the issues, he says, is credit cards. Most bike share systems require a credit card for payment and to establish the for identity of the user. Jon Orcutt, the Director of Policy for the DOT says the city program is working on it.
“We don’t want lack of a credit card to be a barrier for New Yorkers accessing the system. So we’re looking for a variety of ways to do that,” he said. “We’re talking with the housing authority about how housing authority tenants could participate, since the authority knows who their tenants are.”
Another issue that both the DOT and Local Spokes are looking into is the price tag. Le says that it would be easier for many New Yorker’s to pay in installments.
“Though $100 is affordable for most families in the city, it may not be affordable up front,” said Le. “So can they pay it throughout the year?”
And even if those issues are figured out, the bike share only reaches so far. DOT eventually hopes to expand the program east into Brooklyn and north into Harlem and the Bronx, but Jon Orcutt, the DOT’s director of policy, said it could be years before that happens. The first priority was the city’s business district.
Still, Le said it’s nice to see that the department is making an effort to communicate their plans to residents. They’ve held information sessions in Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese. The sessions haven’t been well attended, but Seth Solomonow said there are more foreign language sessions in the works.
“I think in a place like New York you can’t make everyone happy, and they know that more than anyone,” said Le. “But I do want to acknowledge that DOT has made an effort in terms of being transparent about their process.”
The DOT has yet to set an exact date for the opening of the program this summer. Until then, it will be holding information sessions and gathering input on their website. Whether New York’s bike share will turn out to be any more accessible than any other cities remains to be seen.