Capital Bikeshare

The Good and the Bad of the Capital Bikeshare Member Survey

Capital Bikeshare’s 2014 Member Survey indicates that even as Washington D.C.’s bikeshare service has grown by leaps and bounds, its users have become older, whiter, and wealthier.

Most company executives would be happy enough with these demographics. Wealthy customers? Yes please.

Washington’s business community, in fact, was a tough sell on this new transit option. Many businesses were initially leery of bikeshare stations located near their retail establishments. Their fears were: What kind of customers — if any — would bikeshare provide? Would they scare away my “real customers,” who drive cars?

It turns out businesses’ fears were unwarranted, of course. If anything, the evidence suggests that bikeshare stations are good for Washington’s businesses. The new survey backs this up: it found that 82 percent of respondents would either “somewhat more likely” or “much more likely” patronize a business if it is accessible by bikeshare.

The increasing income of Capital Bikeshare members also bodes well for the financial stability of the system itself, which may undergo a membership rate hike this Spring. 50 percent of respondents reported an annual household income of $100,000 or more.

Where the new survey troubles is that it portrays a Capital Bikeshare user base that’s increasingly less reflective of the region’s demographics overall. For instance, in the Washington D.C. region, 25 percent of commuters are African-American, but only 3 percent of Capital Bikeshare users are.

For the civic leaders who maintain that Capital Bikeshare is part of the transit system, this is not great news. As a public good, it’s important that bikeshare reach all segments of the community.

To be fair, this is not a problem unique to Washington D.C. Bikeshare systems across the U.S. have struggled to attract low-income and minority members in significant numbers, despite the fact that these services are widely recognized as cheaper than other forms of transit (and in many cases faster).

The barriers to adoption of bikeshare by people of color seems as much attributable to cultural factors than any other explanation put forth. If so, it will take time, perseverance and experimentation to overcome them.

One jurisdiction that’s showed commitment to bikeshare social equity is Arlington County. The county pioneered in the creation of Capital Bikeshare, and is maintaining its leadership position in experimenting with techniques to combat the inequities in the Capital Bikeshare membership.

Arlington has been steadily and deliberately building out stations in South Arlington, whose residents are not only more racially diverse than the rest of the county. South Arlington also has a higher concentration of low-income residents, and is underserved by rail transit.

Chart of Arlington

Paul DeMaio, a bikeshare consultant for Arlington, said, “We are currently at 45 to 50 percent of our coverage goal [in South Arlington].” This progress has occurred despite equipment holdups from PBSC and 8D, manufacturers of Capital Bikeshare’s stations and bikes.

Arlington was also the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to allow residents to pay for Capital Bikeshare membership and usage fees with cash. This pilot program, intended to address the “unbanked issue” believed to be a key factor preventing low-income residents from joining Capital Bikeshare, has been copied by other jurisdictions, including Philadelphia. To date, however, Arlington’s program has not resulted in a single new user.

In addition, Arlington’s public outreach for station placement, says DeMaio, is exhaustive, involving meeting with civic associations, notifying adjacent neighbors, and surveying the community to get input on station placement proposals. An online crowdsourcing map rounds out the resident-focused process, widely known at “the Arlington way.”

The solution to the bikeshare equity problem remains stubbornly elusive, but Capital Bikeshare officials say they are looking at other ways to address the problem, and to promote the system to underrepresented population segments. For instance, Capital Bikeshare marketing is more likely today to portray an African-American cyclist than it was a year ago. Stations are also more likely today to be located in less affluent neighborhoods.

Begun in 2010, Capital Bikeshare was a “proof of concept” communicating to other cities the viability of bikeshare as a mobility option. Today, Arlington and Washington continue to take the lead in efforts to address bikeshare’s equity problem.

It is important to remember the industry is still in its infancy and give jurisdictions time to iron these problems out. And give people time to adjust their preconceived ideas about bike-based transportation.

Splash photo by Eric Gilliland. Capital Bikeshare in Thomas Circle photo by the author. Arlington poverty level chart courtesy People for Bikes.

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