Connecting with NYC's unbanked and unbiked
I remember in 2013 when I first started noticing the shiny new blue CitiBikes popping up around the city, first when tourists started steering them up onto sidewalks in Brooklyn (dangerous! illegal!) and then when I covered a couple of lawsuits filed by building owners and residents unhappy with the large racks installed outside their doors. I ran past a few of the less-inconveniently-placed racks in Brooklyn Heights regularly and briefly considered getting a membership, but was always deterred by two things: the fact that riders are required to check in at a rack every 30-45 minutes depending on their membership, and the annual membership cost of $95 plus "overtime fees." Now, that price has risen to $149.
To be fair, a 24-hour pass is only $9.95 and a 7-day pass is $25, which seem like pretty reasonable rates for a tourist or someone just looking for a short, spontaneous ride. But as a regular transportation alternative, which is how Citi – and the city – would like New Yorkers to use it, it's a little steep for a lot of us. And if I, a 20-something in Brooklyn with a full time job that pays a salary above the poverty line – essentially the target customer – think $149 a year is too much to fork over, would it even be an option for the demographic that would arguably benefit most from easier, more accessible transportation?
The folks at American Public Media's Marketplace looked into it, and the answer is...no. Back in November, Marlena Chertock reported that in the cities where bike shares are growing the fastest, lower-income people are less able to take part. One big issue is, of course, the price. Also, accessibility. Most Citi Bike racks in New York are in Manhattan, with a few in relativley high-income Brooklyn neighborhoods. Shelling out $150 a year might seem cheaper than $112 per month on a 30-day unlimited ride Metro card, but what if your commute is very long, or dangerous? And what about the fact that a bike isn't always guaranteed to be available for you? Low-income riders can also get discounts on Metro cards, which isn't the case for a lot of bike share programs, which, according to Marketplace, tend to be used mostly by...surprise...young, highly educated white males.
Cities like New York and Washington, D.C., have attempted to respond to the price issue, as well as the related issue of many low-income riders not having credit cards or bank accounts. New York's Citi Bike started a program that offers $60 annual memberships to some lower-income riders. Right now that seems to be limited to those living in public housing and "members of select New York City Community Development Credit Unions." Dani Simons, director of marketing and external affairs for New York City Bike Share, which operates Citi Bike, told Marlena in November that as Citi Bike grows, it plans to open in more low-income neighborhoods, but it isn't clear whether that expansion will include more financial considerations.
It looks like Washington, D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare program would be a good model; riders without bank accounts there are encouraged to sign up for a low-fee account through Bank on DC, a city service for the "unbanked," and they'll receive a $25 gift card for Capital Bikeshare. That's effectively a 50 percent discount, plus access to a city-sponsored "non-bank" financial institution. In New York, all banks are required to offer "basic banking" or "Lifeline banking" services, according to the attorney general's office. Of course, that requirement extends to Citi. It could be extremely beneficial – both for city residents and for Citi Bike, which has had its share of bad publicity – for Citi to connect its basic banking services in some way with its bikeshare.
But, of course, the problem is money. As Sarah Zhang explains in Gizmodo, Citi Bike is meant to "pay for itself" with annual fees and Citi's sponsorship, while D.C.'s program used a lot of public funds to get going so it has a bit more of a "public good" mandate. Maybe in opting not to spend city funds on what seemed to many to be an indulgent and cumbersome plan, NYC has forfeited any efforts that would be so focused on including low-income folks. But if Citi wants to expand the bikeshare to double its 2014 size by 2017 and into some of the city's poorer neighborhoods, as Simons told Marketplace, it might be a good idea to make that a priority.