How to encourage poorer residents to use bike, car, and ride sharing

by Tanya Snyder   •   December 9, 2014

Washington’s Capital Bikeshare is one of the biggest and most well-established bike-share systems in the nation. Its annual fee of just $75 buys you unlimited free half-hour trips. The system now has 2,500 bicycles at 300 stations in the District and the nearby suburbs.

Capital Bikeshare struggles to draw low-income users, despite outreach efforts, station siting in low-income areas, subsidies, and efforts to include people without bank accounts. Photo by DDOT via ITDP.

It’s an incredible money-saver, especially for the 50 percent of users who report driving less and the 60 percent who report taking fewer taxis since joining bike-share. But if it’s such a thrifty transportation choice, why are only eight percent of CaBi members low-income, compared to 45 percent who live in households that earn more than $100,000?

CaBi’s trouble attracting low-income users is not exceptional. Other transportation services based on the idea that people can economize by accessing a fleet of vehicles instead of buying their ownthink bike-share, car-share, and ride-share serviceshave failed, for the most part, to draw people who stand to gain the most by saving on transportation costs.

Transportation eats up a disproportionate amount of low-income people’s household income24 percent for people earning between $5,000 and $30,000 per year. And low-income people tend to face longer commute times than wealthier residents. Transit options between their homes, which are most often in cities, and their jobs, which have in recent years sprawled out to the distant suburbs, are often lacking.

Shared transportation options can provide solutions when transit alone is deficient. But by and large, poor people are not taking advantage of those solutions. The Institute for Transportation & Development Policy looked at the barriers to widespread adoption of these options by low-income people and some possible solutions in a new report, “Connecting Low-Income People to Opportunity with Shared Mobility.”

Here’s how some services have bucked the larger trend and provided transportation for people on a wider range of the income ladder.

Car-Share

Buffalo Car Share, operating in a city with a median household income of just over $30,000, specifically targets people with low incomes. The result: Nearly two-thirds of BCS members come from households making less than the median, and half its members report incomes of less than $25,000. (These numbers aren’t being skewed by high numbers of students, which make up just 10 percent of BCS’s membership.)

Attracting high numbers of low-income users isn’t a goal of all transportation companies, which are, in the end, searching for profit or at least financial viability. Some car-share companies, like those in Chicago and Philadelphia, lost their mission of inclusivity and access for low-income residents when they were acquired by for-profit businesses.

Philly Carshare started off as a nonprofit, with services targeted for low-income residents, but acquisition by a for-profit company ended all that. Photo by Philadelphia Reflections.

But BCS remains a nonprofit, and its mission explicitly mentions serving low-income residents. To do that, BCS locates cars on affordable housing properties and lets users pay by money order, which allows people without bank accounts to use the service.

Bike-Share

Boston has done a good job attracting low-income residents to the Hubway bike-share system. Low-income people get subsidized annual memberships of just $5, which come with a free helmet. The program has sold over 1,300 subsidized memberships, comprising more than 11 percent of its ridersfar more than most systems.

And while many systems shy away from placing stations in poor areas, fearing either low demand or high liability, Boston has put 14 percent of its Hubway stations in very low-income neighborhoods, with many more in mixed-income areas.

Partnerships with public health initiatives have borne fruit in Boston, too. The Prescribe-a-Bike program, through which doctors can prescribe a subsidized membership to low-income residents as an anti-obesity measure, is essentially a bike-share marketing tactic aimed at poor residents.

Ride-Share

In New York City, dollar vans carry 120,000 riders a day, mostly in ethnic neighborhoods. “These ride-share vans largely serve individuals of the same community, allowing them to cater to cultural preferences, such as playing music in Spanish or Mandarin,” ITDP writes. Similarly, an estimated 8 million Latinos in the U.S. use camionetas, or informal ride-share minibus companies, to get around metropolitan areas.

New York City’s dollar vans and other vanpool and ride-sharing options do a better job appealing to low-income residents, often serving specific ethnic communities. Photo by Mashable.

ITDP didn’t include Uber and Lyft in its report, noting that these are mobile-enabled taxi services, not true ride-share. Surprisingly, low-income people use taxis as much as any other segment of the populationon par with the wealthiest households and far more than middle-income households. As such, subsidies for taxi services could be helpful, along with these other shared-use transportation options.

Barriers

It’s not just cost that keeps low-income people away from these services. After all, the costs are often cheaper than owning and driving a private carand even the poorest Americans drive to work at a rate of about 76 percent. Cities are working on addressing the barriers that appear to be keeping low-income people away from shared-use transportation servicesand vice versa.

Some cities have pushed car-share companies to put cars in what Denver officials call “opportunity areas.” Denver insisted on locations in those neighborhoods, where at least 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Washington, DC, required Zipcar to set up shop in low-income neighborhoods in exchange for the privilege of using city-owned curbside parking spaces.

Internet access and access to checking accounts and credit cards also present an obstacle for many who might otherwise use services like bike-share, ride-share, or car-share. Some services allow paper applications, and some partner with local credit unions to help would-be members get checking accounts, sometimes with overdraft protection and waived fees.

Information about shared-use transportation options, especially in the appropriate language, is often unavailable in low-income communities. And I’ll add that many outreach efforts and subsidy programs are exclusively for public-housing residents, ignoring the many low-income people who live elsewhere.

Demonstrating (and encouraging) demand, providing insurance, and waiving government-imposed car-rental fees for car-share companies call all encourage companies to expand to low-income areas.

One government program that was used to subsidize transportation for low-income peopleboth transit and shared optionswas “consolidated” out of existence in 2012 when Congress eliminated the Department of Transportation’s Job Access and Reverse Commute (JARC) program. The program helped low-income commuters traveling from urban centers to suburbs or at off-peak hourssituations poorly served by transit.

Importantly, ITDP recognizes that “increased investment in mass rapid transit, paired with careful land use planning, holds the best promise for sustainable growth of transportation networks,” while adding that “shared mobility can extend the reach of public transit and provide alternate routes,” often helping solve “last-mile” problems.

Tanya Snyder is editor of Streetsblog Capitol Hill, which covers issues of national transportation policy. She previously covered Congress for Pacifica and public radio. She lives car-free in a transit-oriented and bike-friendly neighborhood of Washington, DC. This post originally appeared on Streetsblog.

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