Equitable bike sharing is about much more than credit cards

by April Corbin, PeopleForBikes equity writer

Soon after it became clear that U.S. bike-sharing systems were failing to serve most lower-income people, a conventional wisdom emerged: the barrier must be credit cards.

Now, a new consensus is changing that assumption.

Arlington County started off the year with a bang by announcing a one-year pilot program that allows residents to pay Capital Bikeshare membership and usage fees with cash in person, as with public transit. Operators there are the first to acknowledge that a cash payment isn’t a “silver bullet” of equity but only a step in the right direction. Still, the issue of “the unbanked” often takes center stage in media reports and public perception.

Not everyone is convinced it should.

Nice Ride Neighborhood program participants on a ride with Anthony Taylor (in red jacket) of the Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota. (Credit: Anthony Ongaro, Nice Ride Minnesota)

“People sometimes think being unbanked is the primary reason (for not using bike share),” says Anthony Taylor, a founding member of Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota. “I think the real reason is the perception that it has no value. It isn’t a solution for them.”

He points out that many unbanked people still have access to some form of plastic, such as a pre-paid debit card. A report released in October by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation found that 7.7 percent of U.S. households were unbanked; 20 percent were underbanked, meaning they have a bank account but used alternative financial services outside of the banking system.

In a particular community, 20 percent might be unbanked — certainly a barrier to bike sharing. But focusing just on their problem obscures a key fact.

“The other 80 percent are ignoring bike share, too,” Taylor said.

Source: FDIC, 2013 Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households
Taylor worries that if officials and operators focus too much on the physical barriers like payment systems, they will miss the opportunity to address underlying cultural barriers that could have a wider effect. “If you think (unbanked) is a primary reason, it limits your creative resources,” he says.

It also allows people to focus solely on data and ignore the real-life experiences and input of the people within the communities they are trying to serve.

Bill Dossett, the executive director of Nice Ride Minnesota, says when the bike share operator held focus groups, it determined that banking issues are not a primary issue for potential users. The issue of not having a bank account did not come up in focus groups commissioned by the City of Philadelphia either. (The related question of whether the rider would be held financially responsible for a damaged or lost bike did, however.)

“Some people think it’s all about credit cards, but we found it wasn’t about that,” explains Dossett. He says Nice Ride believes they see more results by making sure their community partner programs target low-income people who are most likely to integrate bike share into their daily lives. They also now focus on creating an overall culture of people who want to be on bikes.

Elsewhere, systems are choosing to address the unbanked issue head on, but only in the context of other efforts. The City of Philadelphia has publicly committed to introducing a card-free payment system for their forthcoming bike share system but is also investing heavily in outreach and station siting.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, officials are exploring the possibility of building a lost-bike liability fund that would allow Divvy to get away from mandatory credit or debit cards. But they are equally focused on other goals.

“Bike share has focused more on the unbanked, but there are a lot of issues,” says Sean Weidel, the assistant commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation. “As we are planning expansion, we are looking at stations at every half-mile, no matter what the demographic there is. We feel like that’s important. Also, focusing on economic opportunity and development. We are taking a multipronged approach.”

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 april@peopleforbikes.org