Arlington County is now accepting cash payments for Capital Bikeshare

by April Corbin, PeopleForBikes equity writer

One of the biggest experiments in bike share equity recently launched in an unexpected location: one of the wealthiest counties in the United States.

Earlier this month, Bike Arlington announced a one-year pilot program that allows residents of Arlington County to pay their Capital Bikeshare membership and user fees in cash. This means that people without a credit or debit card can now utilize the popular metropolitan bike share system. Previously, all Capital Bikeshare users were required to provide a credit or debit card.

“We are curious to see how much of a barrier the issue really is,” says Henry Dunbar, the program director at Bike Arlington.

According to its 2013 member survey report, Arlington County residents make up approximately 11 percent of Capital Bikeshare users. To pay in cash, residents can visit any of the county’s fiveCommuter Stores, which sell passes to other forms of public transit, and show proof they live in the county.

Here are four things to know about the new program:

It’s not just for low-income people

The unbanked stand to gain the most from this pilot program. However, they aren’t the only potential beneficiaries. Dunbar notes that many people already frequent Commuter Stores in order to pay for other forms of public transit, and some of them pay with cash despite having some form of plastic available to them.

This distinguishes it from others’ attempts to address the unbanked issue in bike share. Launched in 2012, Bank on DC offers discounted Capital Bikeshare memberships to low-income residents, but only if they set up a no-fee, no-minimum bank account. Various subsidized membership programs setup through social service providers or doctors also exist across the country.

“We’ll be marketing it heavily in the spring to the low income people who might traditionally be unbanked, but the program is not discounted,” says Dunbar of the cash-payment program. “It’s open to anyone.”

It’s needed

Like its North American peers, the demographics of Capital Bikeshare members don’t reflect the metropolitan area overall. Past annual survey reports have acknowledged that its members are more likely to be educated, employed, affluent and Caucasian. (Case in point: Only 3 percent of members are black, compared to 50 percent of Washington DC as a whole.)

In Arlington County, 8 percent of residents live below the poverty line. That’s a smaller percentage than Virginia’s 11 percent and the United States’ 15 percent. However, Dunbar notes that certain census tracts within Arlington County have rates as high as 25.9 percent:

Map showing the percentage of Arlington’s population living below the poverty level. (Based off 2012 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.)

It’s not the only thing needed

Dunbar knows a cash-payment system isn’t a silver bullet but instead calls it a natural first step for helping more people use bike sharing. “The cash-payment option is clearing a barrier,” he says. “There are definitely other factors affecting transit that also need to be addressed.”

Station placement and density are two of them. Arlington’s low-income population is mostly concentrated in the southern part of the county. There are bike share stations there, but they represent the edge of the system. Edge stations are typically the lowest-performing within any system. Capital Bikeshare has recently expanded in and around the area, something Dunbar hopes will help increase usage.

He adds that Bike Arlington also plans to ramp up its outreach efforts in this area, particularly around two stations that are in close proximity to a day-labor camp and a community service center. “We don’t think those populations are using bike share,” he says. “The cash-payment option is just one step in our ongoing effort to increase the usage in these areas.”

It’s not just about trust

Modern bike share systems traditionally require a credit or debit card as a form of insurance. It allows them to recoup the cost of the pricey bicycle if it is lost or destroyed while checked out. (Bicycles can cost upwards of $1,000.) Arlington is forgoing that financial safety net, a decision that was not made purely out of blind love for its community.

“We are confidant it is not going to be an issue,” says Dunbar, “but we will be looking at that very closely, and that will factor into future plans.”

Capital Bikeshare has seen very low rates of lost or stolen bicycles. The Washington Post reported last summer that after four years and 7 million trips taken, only 100 bicycles went missing and all but 16 were recovered.

Bike Arlington is counting on those numbers holding steady while low-income usage goes up. Dunbar says he hopes their program is a success that can be replicated system-wide.

The Better Bike Share Partnership is a JPB Foundation-funded collaboration between the City of Philadelphia, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the PeopleForBikes Foundation to build equitable and replicable bike share systems. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or sign up for our weekly newsletter. Story tip? Write