This nonprofit got low-income Buffalonians sharing cars — can they do it for bikes too?

by April Corbin, PeopleForBikes equity writer

A nonprofit that’s recognized as the equity leader of the car share industry is expanding their focus onto two-wheeled transportation.

Launched in 2006 as a service of the nonprofit Shared Mobility Inc., Buffalo CarShare grew to a membership of almost 900 local residents before insurance issues forced them to cease operations this summer. The car share system has been acquired and relaunched by Zipcar, which has pledged to partner with Shared Mobility Inc. and continue its commitment to serving the city’s low income and minority populations.

Operational speed bumps aside, Buffalo CarShare’s service to poorer households is unrivaled: More than 50 percent of Buffalo CarShare members are people of color, and 50 percent make a household income of less than $25,000 per year. Those are the demographics that equity-focused bike share systems—and other car share services—have only dreamt about.

“Buffalo CarShare formed an early template that people in other places like LA County are now looking toward as they work on launching car sharing,” says Rachel Heckl, project manager at Shared Mobility Inc. “They look at us for the ability to serve low income people and to be flexible around policies. It was hard, and it took us six years to build a system that did serve the population.”

That background gives Shared Mobility Inc. a unique lens as it examines the challenges of bike share. Adds Heckl, “I think one of the benefits we have is we’ve already been doing mobility from an equity standpoint.”

That past experience helped inform their decision to move forward with a Social Bicycles “smart bike” system that uses wireless technology and any bike racks instead of the “smart dock” systems that use bike share docking stations. This helped keep upfront costs down, making membership prices more affordable. The flexibility of using existing bike racks helps reach less dense areas.  In 2013 they launched a successful pilot program for students at the University of Buffalo. Then, this summer, they expanded their pilot and offered 25 bicycles in the downtown core.

“There was no shortage of people wanting them,” says Anders Gunnersen, the director of operations. “We realized we just needed more bikes.”

And soon they will get them.

Buffalo BikeShare is working on launching a permanent system. Specifics like launch date or coverage area have yet to be finalized, but Gunnersen would say that the system is prioritizing a break away from the pricing structures currently being used by most systems.

“We want to be able to say we are the most affordable in the United States,” he says, adding that this is a priority because Buffalo is a low-income city. (Last year, it was named the third poorest city in the country, behind only Cleveland and Detroit.)

Shared Mobility is also exploring the possibility of integrated memberships that give people seamless access to both car and bike share. Gunnersen says cross-promotion and integration wasn’t pushed during the Buffalo BikeShare pilot program because of the size limitations of the bike share system, but the future potential is there.

“We’ve got this great momentum,” adds Heckl. “It’s exciting to have tested bike share out and be at the point where we’re moving forward.”