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Portland bike share: Will it reach the poor?

COURTESY: DIVVY BIKES  - Launched in 2013, Chicago's Divvy Bikes recently started a 'Divvy for Everyone' program to boost its diversity. The program offers $5 memberships, payable in cash, with proof of residency and low-income status. Those users now make up 3.5 percent of the system's 31,000 annual members. 

When the city’s Nike-sponsored bike share program launches this summer with 1,000 orange bicycles saturating Portland’s central city core, who will ride them?

Residents and tourists alike, city leaders hope. But what sort of people?

Elsewhere around the country, bike share programs are attracting a disproportionate share of young, affluent white men. But Portland is trying to learn lessons from other cities to make sure the program here serves a broader sector of the population, including those most in need of a cheap form of transportation.

In 2010, there were just five bike-sharing programs in the United States. That’s since grown to 57 cities, plus another 13, including Portland, in the planning stage.

The health, economic and environmental benefits of bike share programs have been a big public focus. But industry experts have also been talking about the equity of bike share programs, which is now coming into the spotlight with new, alarming data. It shows that most large-city programs are having the unintended consequence of skewing toward young, white, male users who are better educated and earn higher incomes.

Steve Hoyt-McBeth, Portland Bureau of Transportation’s bike share project manager, says Portland is taking a proactive, innovative strategy to assure more equity when the program starts in mid-July.

“People have been working on equity for a long time but our results are still not very good right now,” Hoyt-McBeth says of the industry in general. “We’ve been working hard to solve this issue. There’s a lot of best practices, but still a lot of challenges we face.”

Portland’s bike share will use city resources for capital equipment and project management, but no city funds toward operation. That will be covered by sponsorships, member fees and any other funds.

Still, having an equitable bike share system is a top priority, Hoyt-McBeth says, for many reasons.

“It’s a public program,” Hoyt-McBeth says. “Portland is changing. If you’re going to have a successful transportation system, we need to make sure we’re serving the needs of all residents. If we’re just a niche transportation mode, we’re not going to be successful in the long run.”

The two major reasons for gaps along color lines, income and education levels have to do with access: both geography (placement of bike stations) and financial (affordability of the program).

Portland has a plan to address both challenges, along with another strategy for boosting equity: training and hiring a diverse bike share work force. Hoyt-McBeth isn’t aware of another bike share program that has a similar workforce equity plan, which was modeled after the city’s Clean Energy Works program.

Equity goals spelled out in contract

The two-page equity plan, called the “High Road Standards,” is embedded in the Bureau of Transportation’s 95-page bike share contract with the city’s operator, Motivate.

That contract calls for Motivate and the city to “develop a meaningful and effective approach for insuring that the economic benefits derived from the project are shared by a broad cross-section of the community.”

COURTESY: SAM KITTNER/CAPITAL BIKESHARE - Washington, D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare, launched in 2010, manages 3,000 bikes at 350 stations, and boasts 30,000 annual and 30-daymembers. To reach out to low-income residents they now offer a cash option and discounted annual membership of $50 (compared to $85). Both Divvy and Capital Bikes are operated by Motivate.
The High Road Standards obligate Motivate to:

n Hire a workforce including “historically underrepresented and economically disadvantaged” people for at least 50 percent of total bike share employment hours. Portland’s program will start with 16 jobs at Motivate, 10 or 11 of them mechanics, drivers and station technicians.

n Offer a living wage to bike share employees, at least 150 percent of the state minimum wage for part-time employees, or $15 per hour after 90 days of employment, with wage increases. Fulltime employees will be offered full benefits and healthcare coverage after 90 days of employment.

n Submit quarterly reports to document its progress in assuring workforce diversity and related goals.

n Contract with businesses owned by “historically underrepresented or underutilized people” for at least 20 percent of program elements, except for equipment.

n Work with the High Road Committee to designate a training provider(s) for bike share employment, such as WorkSource Oregon, PCC Workforce Network or Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization. Those providers will be used exclusively to hire entry level and bicycle mechanic jobs until half the slots are filled by historically underrepresented and economically disadvantaged people, with at least 30 percent of job hours represented by people of color, low-income residents, veterans, disabled individuals, immigrants, refugees and formerly incarcerated people.

n Provide up to 500 discounted annual memberships to low-income residents for $35 per year, to be purchased by the city or other organizations.

Hoyt-McBeth says he’d like to explore ways to bring that $35 cost down further.

The city and Motivate also will explore providing a cash-only fare option for bike share users, as done in Philadelphia’s Indego system to reach more low-income users.

“We’re really trying to crack this nut,” Hoyt-McBeth says of the cash option.

The Indego system allows users to sign up for a bike share pass online, show the barcode at a 7-Eleven or dollar store and make a cash payment. Their key is sent in the mail and they can then start riding a bike.

About 300 people use the cash option in Philadelphia, and most renew their membership by credit card.

“I think perception is a very powerful thing we’re working to overcome,” Hoyt-McBeth says. If people don’t think a system is for them, they won’t use it. We want to be like a cell phone — people just see the inherent value to use it, and they use it.”

Hubway, the program in Boston, is also considered a model because it offers $5 annual memberships to those who need it. In 2014, about 18 percent of its membership received the subsidy, which is offered by the honor system.

Billing schemes vary

Portland’s High Road Standards aside, placement of bike stations and membership accessiblity are two huge issues that crop up again and again in cities’ case studies.

In a September report called “Can monthly passes improve bike share equity?” the National Association of City Transportation Officials identifies fee structures as the single biggest barrier.

“At pennies per day, bike share in the U.S. is the cheapest form of transit other than walking,” the researchers cite. “However, low-income people are less likely to purchase annual memberships than people in higher-income brackets.”

Faced with this reality, bike share programs have been adjusting their membership options and taken other steps to reach a broader audience.

COURTESY: PRONTO CYCLE SHARE  - Seattle's Pronto Cycle Share launched in 2014 and has been looking to expand their 500 bikes due to low ridership, especially during the winter. The city recently looked to federal funds for expansion, but was denied. For instance, Motivate has recently led these efforts:

n Public housing residents in New York may now purchase Citi Bike membership for $5 per month, which is promoted through social media, tenant newsletters, signs and community events.

n Chicago’s “Divvy for Everyone” initiative allows low-income residents to access $5 Divvy memberships, backed by a grant from the nonprofit People for Bikes.

n Boston’s “Prescribe a Bike” program allows doctors to prescribe $5 memberships for low-income residents.

Portland’s NikeBike program will offer a single 30-minute ride at the same cost as a TriMet ticket, $2.50.

Portland will also let users pay monthly costs of $10 to $15 for an annual membership.

East Portland getting snubbed

The University of Vermont Transportation Research Center’s study found a large disparity in the share of whites and blacks with access to bike share programs in six of the seven U.S. cities surveyed — Chicago, Denver, Seattle, New York City, Boston and Philadelphia.

Only Washington, D.C., didn’t show a large racial gap. But D.C.’s Capital Bikes did see a huge income disparity — half of the survey respondents reported earning six figures.

Researchers found that bike share stations tend not to be sited in areas with high concentrations of low-income people.

In Portland, the system is set to start with bikes across the central city and inner eastside. But in its first phase it will not reach East Portland — following a long history of inequitable distribution of city resources.

While there’s need in East Portland, there’s also high concentrations of low-income people in the central city and parts of Northeast Portland that will be served, Hoyt-McBeth says.

“Like any kind of transit service, it needs a certain density to function,” he adds. “We hope to expand into all parts of the city once we find the funding to do so.”

@jenmomanderson

There are many unanswered questions about Portland’s BikeTown program, such as:

n What will happen during the Naked Bike Ride? Boston’s bike share operator urged riders last summer to “please wear clothes.” PBOT bike share project manager Steve Hoyt-McBeth laughs. “Someone from New York sent me seat covers,” he says. “We will certainly ask people to wear clothes.” Portland will have a year to figure it out: the World Naked Bike Ride is set for June 25 this year, a few weeks before bike share hits the streets.

n How long until a BikeTown bike ends up on a cross-country road trip, racking up a hefty fee? A New Yorker made headlines this week for riding his Citi Bike to California after quitting his job, calling it “convenient, sturdy and hassle-free.” He’s trying to figure out how to get it back.

n How safe will Portland’s bike share users be on city streets? While there’s no clearinghouse for bike share fatalities, an Aug. 2014 report showed that after 23 million bike share rides nationally, there were no fatalities since the first system launched in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2007.

n Will Portland’s bike share workers unionize? Five cities’ bike share employees have already moved to do so.

— Jennifer Anderson