By Luise Yang
In the Province
August 21, 2016
As Mobi, Vancouver’s new bike-sharing program, brings hundreds of shared bicycles into the city this summer, residents are finding a green, convenient and more affordable commuting option. It’s a shame then that the low-income people who could use it most will find it beyond their reach.
Vancouver’s bike sharing is one of the highest priced in North America, at $180 per year for unlimited 30-minute rides. Bike Share Toronto’s comparable plan is half that — $90. And Montreal Bixi, Canada’s largest bike-share program, offers unlimited 45-minute rides throughout the year for $87.
More than 600 cities around the world, including four eastern Canadian cities, have bike-share programs. Mobi is the first to bring bike sharing to western Canada, with 1,500 bikes to be set up at 150 docking stations in Vancouver by the time the program is fully up and running this month.
Public bike-share programs provide a low-carbon solution to the “last mile” problem, which refers to the short distance between home and transit or transit stations and the workplace that may be too far to walk. Bike sharing is not meant to replace the use of personal vehicles; instead, it is meant to bridge the gap in transportation networks and encourage commuters to use public transportation modes.
Bike sharing’s benefits are numerous: Individuals don’t need to own an expensive commuter bike, find parking or worry about theft and vandalism. The programs also allow riders to help reduce GHGs and get fitter.
Mineta Transportation Institute’s survey of bike share programs in four major North American cities, including Toronto and Montreal, found that 60 per cent of their users are younger than 34, 80 per cent are white, and 85 per cent had a bachelor’s degree or higher, all characteristics that differ from the socioeconomic demographics of the four cities.
In theory, bike-share programs are supposed to be an affordable transportation option for people at all income levels. But it’s not just the high price that edges out low-income cyclists.
Vancouver Mobi put relatively few docking stations in low-income neighbourhoods, so it is less convenient for those potential users to find a bike nearby.
And Mobi’s monthly membership requires a credit card — but some low income people are not able to have one. Membership also requires a minimum three-month payment up front and provides no instalment option — which, again, biases against low-income people.
U.S. cities have come up with some clever ideas to address the cost barrier. According to The Atlantic’s CityLab, Arlington County vouches for a resident, so that they don’t need to provide a credit card. The program allows residents to pay cash monthly by visiting a Commuter Store, which sells transit fare passes. Applicants only need to present identification, proof of residency, and $16 in cash to get started.
Vancouver has promised a $5-million subsidy over five years, but it’s unfortunate that Mobi was unable to secure a long-term corporate sponsor to reduce the burden on taxpayers or lower prices further.
For an example, they need look no further than a nearby U.S. city, Portland. Its $10-million Biketown program involves a five-year partnership between The Portland Bureau of Transportation and Nike, whose headquarters are nearby. New York’s bike share program, Citi Bike, is privately funded by Citigroup, headquartered in New York, and requires no city subsidy.
To increase ridership in low-income populations, the program should introduce more user friendly payment options (Calgary’s recent endorsement of a sliding scale pricing for low-income transit pass holders comes into mind), seek corporate financial support and ensure that low-income areas have enough, densely placed stations.
Cities are increasingly facing congestion, accidents and pollution problems. Bike-share programs can enhance urban mobility and serve as a complement to public transit. While Vancouver Mobi is a sensible first step, the program must reconsider its accessibility and affordability for people at all income levels.
Luise Yang is a research intern at the Canada West Foundation.