Imagine if almost everybody who rode the Chicago Transit Authority, a public transportation system subsidized with taxpayer money, was Caucasian. Denver found itself in an analogous situation last year, when a survey revealed that, in a city where almost half of residents are people of color, 89.9 percent the people using the publicly funded Denver B-cycle system were non-Hispanic whites.
“Our demographic profile is nothing to be proud of, and we know that,” acknowledged Parry Burnap, director of Denver’s bike-share program. “We are mostly male, mostly white, mostly wealthy, mostly well educated.” That year a study found Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare is largely being used by a similarly narrow demographic of District residents.
Chicago Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Scott Kubly helped launch Capital Bikeshare along with CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein, and Kubly is helping to manage Chicago’s upcoming Divvy system. At a community input meeting for the bike-share program last November in Bronzeville, he promised attendees he’d work hard to create a system that is accessible to Chicagoans of all ethnicities and income levels. “Since we’re using public dollars, it’s important that the folks who are using the service reflect everybody in the community,” he said. “It’s a challenge but we’re going to crack it.”
There are a number of reasons why bike-share use might potentially be low in poor neighborhoods and/or communities of color. Nationally, cycling is more prevalent among non-Hispanic whites, according to a recent League of American Bicyclists report, although the study also found the fastest growth in bicycling over the last decade is among Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans. Although the annual fee for Divvy is only $75, less than a monthly CTA pass, a credit card is required, which is a barrier for unbanked individuals.
Bike-share works best in densely populated areas with many destinations like retail and job centers, but low-income communities are often isolated by physical barriers like expressways and industrial zones, and density is often lower due to economic disinvestment. This is the case in many poor neighborhoods on our city’s South and West sides. “Growing bike share will be easy in some parts of Chicago,” Kubly said last fall. “I’m really focused on building membership in parts of town where it will be hardest.”
The city released a map of planned docking station sites in May. While the coverage area is split fairly evenly between the North and South sides, most of the stations are located within three miles of the lakefront, and station density is higher on the more affluent North Side. University of Chicago grad student Moacir P. de Sá Pereira, a fan of Paris’ Vélib’ system, argued on his blog that, in their quest for density, the Divvy planners disproportionately favored wealthier parts of the city and overlooked poor neighborhoods.