Tag Archives: DC

How to make biking for all, not just the rich or poor?

Why is it that cycling seems to be primarily for poor people in developing countries like India, rich people in developed countries with low cycling rates like the US and a middle class phenomenon in developed countries with high cycling rates like Denmark and Holland?

Most cyclists in developing countries are what is known as “captive users”. They are riding not because they want to so much as because they cannot afford other options such as busses, let alone cars.

When I was in India this summer, I learned that many of the people who are cycling are men who are delivering things, like milk or vegetables. What was really shocking was that many of these people earned so little money that they could not even afford to buy their own bicycles, even though they only cost about $50. Instead, they were renting them for about 10 cents/hour from local bicycle shops. To my knowledge, there is no one with a rent-to-own system, but it would be great to set one up if anyone is looking for a social entrepreneurship project.

Milk delivery man in Pune, India

Most anyone with any money in India will immediately start riding the bus or (in the case of delivery men) buy themselves a motor scooter. If they have a bit more money, they will buy a car and if they have even more money, they will buy a fancier car. If they really have some money, they will hire a private driver to get them around. Basically, the more money people have, the more likely they are to drive a motorized vehicle and the less likely they are to consider anything non-motorized (including walking).

There are a few crazy people in India who are wealthy but still ride bicycles. I think I spoke with all four of them while I was there. Personally, I feel that these are the people who will be able to make a push for cycling in India since they have the political and economic capital to make it happen. But this is the topic of another article to come.

I just recently came back from my home country, the USA. There are many exciting developments going on in the past few years and I truly applaud the efforts there. But one thing really struck me from my visit to DC and New York (see links for cycling maps): most of the cycling infrastructure being developed is in neighborhoods inhabited by mainly wealthy, well-educated people like Park Slope and Dupont Circle and not in poorer neighborhoods like the Bronx or Anacostia.

Innovative cycling infrastructure near Dupont Circle in DC

One could be cynical and argue that this because planners are themselves living in these neighborhoods. While there is perhaps a degree of truth in that (and I believe there are some race and class issues in the planning field that need to be discussed more), I think there is more going on.

In speaking with planners, they said that they had tried to make inroads in some of these communities, but that they had received lower adoption rates. For instance, the DC bikeshare scheme Capital Bikes has a station in Anacostia but it is not used as much as in other neighborhoods. They said that this use of the bikeshare system mirrored the cycling demographics in general.


Anacostia waterfront neighborhood in DC cycling infrastructure

I went over there and investigated that area. There was a big fancy new development near the station, but much of the rest of the neighborhood seemed a bit more lower class and black. Most people seemed to be driving around in big SUVs. I met a young white man on the train who said he liked my bike and that he had just moved to the neighborhood and wanted to get a bike but complained that there was no infrastructure.

My guess is that the neighborhood is gentrifying and that the people who are using the bikeshare there are the young, largely white and educated, professionals moving in- not the poorer, uneducated black population.

In Copenhagen, by contrast, cycling is a decisively middle class phenomenon. However, what constitutes “middle class” here would be considered quite upper class in the US or India: most people have a college degree (which the government will pay you to get), being able to afford a fur coat is practically considered a human (though not animal) right, everyone has free health care, and there are virtually no homeless people.

Middle class Danish SUV

In Copenhagen you will see ambassadors, politicians and rock stars riding bicycles next to the average Dane. What you won’t see, however, is many muslim immigrants on bikes, despite the world class cycling infrastructure. Is this a skills and training issue, or is it more about integration and culture? Is bike riding just a particularly nationalistic endeavor? Is it still something for rich, white, educated people here too and it’s just that Denmark is a more homogeneous society of rich, white, educated people?

I don’t know the answer to that question though I clearly have my suspicions. What we really need is more research, discussion and action on issues related to race, class, religion, culture and cycling. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating increasing inequities in cites under the auspices of creating a more equitable transportation infrastructure.


What good is a bikeshare system, anyway?

What impact does a modern bikesharing system really have on bicycling? So far, the evidence on direct benefits  seem somewhat weak at first glance. Several papers were presented at the Transportation Research Board in DC last week assessing schemes from around the world and the findings seemed remarkably similar regardless of context.

Most users are those who already rode a bicycle before with the remainder primarily taken from transit. Few are leaving their cars parked and hopping on bikes.

Most trips are commute trips, meaning the bikes wind up downtown in the morning and at the edge of town in the evening, creating a headache for distribution. The city of DC estimates spending over $1M per year, or half of its operating budget, just driving bikes around the city to keep the load balanced.

The majority of trips are around 20 minutes, which is about the same as the average trip length on any bike trip. Since most schemes give you the first 30 minutes for free to encourage high turnover, the vast majority of trips are free for users after paying a membership fee (typically around $50 a year).

With results like this, why bother with a bikeshare scheme?

First of all, even if it is existing cyclists using the system, this means that bikeshare is providing a valued service that is superior to riding your own bike for some riders. I spoke with three users of the system in DC, all of whom mentioned that their bikes had been stolen. They hadn’t gotten a new bike yet and decided that it was easier to use bikeshare than to worry about theft and storage of their own bike. In other words, it got some riders back on a bike who might have otherwise not bothered to continue riding. Of course, this also points to the need for better parking and storage for bicycles to prevent theft and to avoid the hassle of getting a bike in and out of your apartment.

Secondly, we need to focus on how bikesharing can be integrated most effectively with mass transit. Only NextBike in Germany is operating as a private business. All other systems operate as some form of public-private partnership (typically advertising financed) or are fully managed by the public sector as essentially a cheap form of mass transit. Bikeshare should work hand in hand with existing transit agencies so that the bikeshare solves the “last mile” problem. This means locating bike stations (or incentivizing floating system users) so that bikes are easily available near stations. It will also mean integrating fare collection systems and route planners so that bikeshare is connected seamlessly to transit options. Transit operators will also need to be  integrated into schemes to ensure connectivity between systems.

Systems should come down in cost and eliminate waste. There is no reason that half of operating costs should be spent on redistribution. We need experimentation in incentivizing end users to do the redistribution using innovative pricing schemes and mobile technology rather than contributing to CO2 and congestion by driving bikes around on trucks. Some of the more innovative systems in Germany like NextBike and Call-A-Bike have done away with parking stations entirely, which also brings down start-up costs and changes the game on redistribution. Given that most trips are commute trips, why move them back to the periphery after the morning rush hour when they will only be needed again in the center in the evening?

It is a dirty little secret that for $50 a year, you basically have a free bicycle while maintaining the appearance that it is a pay-per-use system is brilliant. Since the fee structures rise dramatically after 30 minutes and the system has all your identity and billing information attached to the rental, it also discourages abuse. However, some people may decide to opt out thinking that they will get stuck paying high fees if they ride longer. Also, some users do get stuck with high fees because they don’t understand the tiered pricing model and may get scared off after a big bill. Marketing should be more clear to ensure people know how little they will likely be spending. The revenue generation should be primarily elsewhere, as it mainly is now, such as advertising,  tourism and subsidies.

Perhaps the most important piece of all of this development is that bikesharing seems to lend legitimacy and visibility to bicycling. Having a fancy high-tech system of brightly colored bikes locked up on racks around the city seems to make people suddenly recognize that bikes are a real part of the transportation system, giving cycling more political power. Plus, none of these systems can truly function without good infrastructure. Once biking is institutionalized as a state run transit operation, suddenly the city seems to feel more responsible for providing safe bicycling infrastructure for all cyclists.

It is still the early days for bikesharing and we are still trying to figure out what value such systems can have. With continual innovation, we can develop a robust system that can make biking appeal to more people, garner political acceptance and support for cycling, integrate with and improve mass transit, and push for improved conditions for all cyclists.