Build a Better Bicycle Program

Bike share program resurfaces, but concerns about equity in access remain

County Commissioner Miguel Chavez held up his flip phone, which he does not use to send or receive text messages, during the latest Metropolitan Planning Organization board meeting. He asked if his “kind of antiquated” device could be used to rent a bike through a bike share program. The answer is no.

"If you're not hooked up to the technology, and you can't text or enter information into a box, then you can't access the system?" Chavez asked in response to the proposal to launch a just such a program in Santa Fe this summer that would allow riders to rent bikes by the hour.

"Correct," said Erick Aune, MPO planner. No smartphone, text messages or credit cards means no bikes.

That barrier is expected to hit hardest for the city's poorest people, those most in need of affordable transportation options. That's why Chainbreaker Collective, an nonprofit that has dedicated thousands of hours to training bike mechanics in Santa Fe, has come out against the proposal, which recently saw support from the Bicycle and Trails Advisory Committee.

The inherent issues stem from the logistics of access. The system excludes those unable to get an ID, afford a smartphone or hold a bank account, so it will be largely unavailable to the city's poor and homeless.

"People who tend to need transit assistance are getting pushed aside," Tomás Rivera, executive director of Chainbreaker Collective, says. Outside of feeling that it's distressing to see such blatant disregard for equity, Rivera says, the program would likely take funding from more equitable transportation options.

The City of Santa Fe hasn't yet been asked to contribute financially to the pilot program that the joint city/county planning organization is considering; it would be overseen by Zagster Bike-Share Inc., a Boston-based bike share company that opened a program in Albuquerque last summer.

The bike share pilot project would put four stations with a total of 20 bikes available for rent for memberships ranging from $3 for a day to $25 per year. Rides are free for the first 90 minutes, and after that, they cost $3 per hour. Though bikes come with locks so they don't have to be ridden only from station to station, they're designed for quick trips, not ones that take all day or last overnight. The four stations currently proposed are at the South Capitol Railrunner Station, the Railyard, the County Administration Building on Grant Avenue and La Solana Center on West Alameda Street.

"I have not been a big fan of the program as introduced in the past because primarily of these social equity issues that continue to come up," Councilor Carmichael Dominguez said at the MPO meeting, referencing a 2013 effort to launch a bike share program that failed due to cost. "My biggest concern with these programs is how transportation, or in this case bikes and bike sharing, helps those folks who are in need of transportation for everyday, real kinds of reasons, and … it's not just convenience or … recreation."

But this proposal looks like it's aiming for high tourism areas and will be a service for wealthy visitors from out of town, not locals. And if Santa Fe wants a station on the Southside? The MPO says that depends on who comes forward to pay for it. The price for sponsoring a station is $10,000 for a two-year lease.

Across the country, the demographics of those using bike share programs have been woefully under-representative of the cities in which they're based, skewing instead toward young, male and wealthier than average. In Washington DC, a city that is almost half white, 84 percent of bike share users surveyed were white. Data compiled by The Atlantic's CityLab project suggests that "bike share membership has a tipping point of $50,000 in household income." In Denver, 81 percent of B-Cycle users are white, and just 21 percent have a household income of less than $50,000.

In Memphis, Tenn., a study of a recent boom in bicycling found that support of those programs marked a bias toward an elite and creative class, further gentrifying neighborhoods. Bike share programs in New York City, Denver, and Portland, Ore., have been challenged for leaving low-income neighborhoods with significant transportation and infrastructure needs unserved, instead clustering stations in affluent, predominantly white areas. That's a product of aiming for places where a density of commercial and residential activity will put enough possible riders on the street for a successful business model, bike share companies counter.

Albuquerque's bike share, BICI, launched with the Downtown ABQ Main Street Initiative and City of Albuquerque's support in May 2015 and rapidly grew to 75 bikes, with locations determined based on demand. According to Aune, Zagster reported some 823 members and 3,000 rides taken after eight months. The company has announced plans to expand to 225 bikes and 40 stations this year, including those proposed for Santa Fe.

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