Why low-income people bike-share less

Indego1
An Indego bike locked at a station on Berks Street in Philadelphia.

I exchanged a few emails this week with a woman who asked what was behind the tendency of low income communities to participate in bike shares at a lower rate than wealthier communities. A story this weekend focused on the efforts to attract low income people to the city's bike share, Indego, but it's worth looking a little more deeply at why the disparity exists.

I called Katie Monroe, at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, for some insight. She's been working to make Indego more accessible in low income neighborhoods since before the program launched in April. She pointed me to a Temple University study from earlier this year that looked at use and perceptions of Indego at 17 bike rental stations placed in low income neighborhoods. The study surveyed 530 people, 44 percent of whom fit the definition of low income and 27 percent of whom made less than $10,000 a year. 

Eighty-six percent of those who responded said they had never used Indego.

People working to increase bike share use noted that changing habits is key in their efforts. Looking at this table included in the study, you can see people in these low income communities simply aren't in the habit of biking.

More people reported using the bus than any other form of transportation. Walking is a close second at 61 percent. Biking. That's at 33 percent. More people reported using a car than a bike.

In response to a slightly different question, 36 percent of respondents said buses were their most used form of transportation. Cars received the second most responses with 20 percent. Ten percent of people reported using bikes as a primary means of getting around. 

The survey also sought responses about what the obstacles to using Indego were from those who weren't using the system. In this chart, also from the study, the fields highlighted red indicate areas that might be worth focusing on in outreach efforts.

The issue isn't knowledge of biking. Only a small percentage of respondents said they didn't know how to ride bikes. More likely it's the cost and the lack of information that's driving slower adoption of bike share in lower income areas.

There are plans to place more bike rental stations in lower income neighborhoods and the city created a cash payment option designed to make it easier for people without bank accounts to participate.

Monroe, of the Bicycle Coalition, is working with Indego to expand interest in bike share and in her experience group rides, which she helps organize, are a key tool to introduce people to cycling's potential. People feel safer biking in groups, she said, and it creates a sense of community. 

"It can also bring different people together," she said. "It's a little bit of an equalizer going on a bike ride with someone."

The Temple University survey was conducted in May, when Indego was less than a month old, so responses in some of those neighborhoods might be different today, but the study does offer a glimpse at some of the reasons why biking, even when it's an available, affordable transportation alternative, may take some time to catch on in low income communities.