Capital Bikeshare works to recruit minorities and low-income residents


Bikeshare cycles wait for riders in downtown Silver Spring, Md., as part of an expansion of the service into Montgomery County. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Gladys Fuentes has seen the distinctive red bicycles docked all over Silver Spring.

She could walk from her home to the Capital Bikeshare station at Georgia Avenue and Spring Street, pick up a bike and get across downtown to where she works cleaning up Montgomery County streets. But she drives the 10 minutes instead.

“It’s good to have the bikes. They are dynamic — good for tourism and recreation,” said Fuentes, 35. “Would I use them? Nah.”

Washington-area transportation officials are trying to recruit residents such as Fuentes to join Capital Bikeshare so the popular program’s user demographics more accurately reflect those of the region.

The bicycle-sharing network remains a service mostly used by young, white, well-educated professionals.

Find out how Capital Bikeshare has grown.

“Because we consider Capital Bikeshare part of our transit system, we are all concerned about the issues of equity and reaching nontraditional riders, low-income, Hispanics — any of those groups,” said Chris Hamilton, Arlington County’s chief of commuter services. “It has been a challenge for the industry.”

Capital Bikeshare, a program of the District, Alexandria and Arlington and Montgomery counties, has quickly expanded in four years to become one of the most successful bike-sharing networks in the country, with more than 300 docking stations across the four jurisdictions. Still, many residents of the area don’t know about the program or how it works.

The problem isn’t unique to Washington. Getting poor residents and communities of color to participate has been a challenge for similar programs across the country. Previous outreach efforts in the Washington region have had limited success.

In 2012, Capital Bikeshare announced a monthly payment plan that it hoped would remove any financial obstacle for potential low-income members. To help individuals without credit cards join, it partnered with Bank on D.C., a program involving the city government, financial institutions and nonprofit organizations that helps households in the region that do not have bank accounts. Bank on D.C. members qualify for discounted membership in Capital Bikeshare, but few have taken advantage of the service, officials said.

Montgomery, which joined Capital Bikeshare in the fall, is using a federal grant to cover the annual $75 membership fee for low-income residents who qualify. But of the 200 memberships available, just 20 have been awarded since September.

Federal funds also have helped pay for bike stations in Rockville and Shady Grove, areas where officials have identified pockets of low-income residents who could benefit. Those stations have the lowest usage in the county, especially compared with more-affluent areas, such as Bethesda and Chevy Chase.

Sometimes the barrier is language.

“Just making clear how Bikeshare works is difficult,” said Sandra Brecher, Montgomery’s head of commuter services. “When we go out to promote the system, we have had people say they thought we were giving out bikes.”

Brecher said the county is stepping up outreach with a campaign that includes getting county staffers out to promote Capital Bikeshare, placing ads on Ride On buses, and publishing brochures in English and Spanish to promote the system and its benefits for low-income residents.

Arlington is communicating with its Spanish-speaking residents with a pamphlet that highlights Capital Bikeshare as an easy-to-use transportation option.

“Bike-sharing agencies haven’t had to spend a lot of marketing money. It’s sort of taken off on its own,” Hamilton said. “People figured it out and joined. But for people who don’t understand it, I think you have to hold their hand a little more.”

Often, the barrier is financial.

“It’s such a big responsibility to take something that is not yours,” Fuentes said in Spanish. “It’s like when you have a car rental. What happens if you get into an accident or someone steals it? They charge your credit card.”

Even giving away memberships has been difficult, officials said. Potential members must go through an application process to prove their eligibility. At social-services agencies, where staffs have information about the program, clients are more concerned about basic needs, not joining a bike-sharing network, officials said.

Arlington recently began giving residents the option to join Capital Bikeshare at the county’s four commuter stores. This makes the process easier for those who do not have Internet access or are worried about doing business online.

Arlington is also considering allowing residents to set up Bikeshare accounts without credit cards and to pay their fees with cash.

“They can pay cash on a bus, and so we have to figure out a way how to do that for Bikeshare,” Hamilton said.

In the District, a partnership with the nonprofit group Back on My Feet has led to the distribution of some free memberships to homeless people who use the system to get to training and job interviews, said Kimberly Lucas, the Capital Bikeshare program manager with the District Department of Transportation. Fifteen memberships have been given out.

DDOT’s long-range plan for bike sharing aims to make the system more widely available to all city residents, Lucas said.

The most recent survey of Capital Bikeshare members suggests that there has been progress. For example, the gap between male and female users is narrowing, with more women now using the system compared with when it started in 2010. But the system’s users are still about 80 percent white, with about 5 percent of survey respondents Hispanic and 3 percent African American. A study by the Mineta Transportation Institute found that Washington’s numbers reflect a national trend in which bike-share users are generally young, white and well educated.

Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, gives the region’s leaders credit for making an effort to ensure that no communities are left out.

The District has 194 Capital Bikeshare stations, and although many are concentrated in the downtown area, some are in the city’s poorest wards.

“I don’t think we will see ridership of Bikeshare east of the [Anacostia River] matching the ridership west of the river,” said Farthing, whose group has worked with the city to give out more than 1,000 Bikeshare coupons in neighborhoods east of the river and has a program to promote biking in Wards 7 and 8. But making the bike racks available, he said, is the first step to getting communities to use them. Already, he said, many working residents view biking as a low-cost option for commuting.

“The reality is that there is a huge number of people biking to hourly jobs, to commute to non-9 a.m.-to-5 p.m. jobs,” Farthing said. “Across the board, across the nation, there are a huge number of people who use the bike to get around because it is the most affordable mode of transportation.”

One of the challenges is that low-income people tend to live farther away from where they work and from the city’s core and transit centers, where bicycle stations are more likely to be. Walking and biking become more challenging in the suburbs, where there are even fewer bike facilities.

Phillip Miller, 29, who is black, said he’s seen the Bikeshare bicycles around but that because they’re not available in New Carrollton, where he lives, he hasn’t been curious to find out how the program works.

On first impression, he said, it seems it would be a hassle to have to look for a docking station.

“It’s probably easier to just walk or take the bus,” Miller said as he waited for the F4 bus near the Silver Spring Metro station recently. “But it’s great if it works for some people.”

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Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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