UPDATED 5:35 P.M.
Behold Reason.tv’s latest look at the workings of local government here, whose headline summarizes the “free minds and free markets” point of view nicely: “Capital Bikeshare: Tax $$$ for Rich, Educated, White Riders.”
Let’s break this down. First: Are Bikeshare riders rich, educated and white? No, yes and yes. To quote the system’s newly released rider survey: “Compared to all commuters in the region, [Bikeshare users] are, on average, considerably younger, more likely to be male and Caucasian, highly educated, and slightly less affluent.” (This, mind you, was a self-selecting Web survey of registered members, meaning most folks using a short-term pass were excluded.)
Second: Does Capital Bikeshare use tax dollars? Sure does. An April U.S. News and World Report article noted that the D.C. government has incurred capital expenses of $7 million and operating expenses of about $2.5 million since its late 2010 debut. User fees and other system revenue cover nearly all of the operating costs. The capital costs — to build stations and buy bikes and so forth — have been paid for largely through federal grants.
But so what? Taxpayers subsidize every mode of transportation in some measure, whether by building sidewalks or roads or mass transit systems. Bikeshare comes at a fraction of the cost, say, of the new $300 million 11th Street Bridge project, to put things in perspective. And as its 2 million-plus rides attest, it’s filling a demand, regardless of its riders’ demographics.
Reason gets good mileage out of the fact that a portion of the funding came from a federal program meant to address the “unique transportation challenges faced by welfare recipients and low-income persons seeking to obtain and maintain employment.” Juxtaposed with the elite demographics of the Bikeshare system at large but without investigating where and how that particular money has been spent, that’s meant to paint Bikeshare as a boondoggle. Truth is, that particular grant totaled $1.3 million and was awarded to Montgomery County under the federal Job Access and Reverse Commute program. The bulk of D.C.’s funding has come from another federal program, the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program, whose aims — “to support surface transportation projects and other related efforts that contribute air quality improvements and provide congestion relief” — are pretty solidly in keeping with Bikeshare’s benefits.
So why, as Reason puts it, “are affluent, educated, and employed whites riding taxpayer-subsidized bikes?” The red-herring issue of user demographics aside, it’s an odd polemic for lovers of freedom and limited government to undertake. Compared to the bulk of government transportation spending, Bikeshare’s proven to be relatively cheap, effective and extremely popular.
Creeping socialism it ain’t.
UPDATE, 5:35 P.M.: Just to add this point — the Reason critique might hold more water if the Bikeshare program had been targeted to serve the poor/the uneducated/minorities. The MoCo grant aside, that’s not how Bikeshare’s been sold. Rather it’s been about reducing car rides, encouraging cycling more generally and giving residents another transit option. Choices are great, aren’t they?