Retrofitting Equity and Justice?

One of us was contacted recently by a wildly successful, major city bike-share program, which had been running for about two years, with the question: ‘How can we get more low income and people of color using our bike scheme’?

As we wrote in October of last year, many concerns have been raised about several equity and justice aspects of bike share systems (See Invisible Cyclist Rides Again):

“Equity and justice in the context of bike share is another popular topic. The Surly Urbanist examines the issue in “The bikes were never about them…,” a post on Surly Urbanism. Darren Buck tackles the topic in “Bikeshare Equity Framework” at bikepedantic, and John Greenfield at GRID Chicago asks “Bike share, not white share: Can Chicago’s Program Achieve Diversity?” Additional coverage on the topic comes from Axis Philly’s Julia Bergman in “Inclusivity is a big hurdle for bike-share programs,” from Jonathan Maus at in “Equity concerns take center stage as bike share funding moves forward,” and from John Greenfield at Chicago Streetsblog in “CDOT Provides an Update on Efforts to Ensure Divvy System Is Equitable.”

Given all of these thoughtful critiques, it would seem natural that we begin exploring the question of how bike share systems can be designed to get more low income and people of color using them. On the surface, this may seem like a harmless, even altruistic question.

However as we’ve consistently argued at Invisible Cyclist, it belies a deeper problem common in ‘green’ cities discourses and in many sharing economy programs. The problem is simply that most bike share schemes (and many other urban sustainability and sharing economy schemes) were never designed with equity or social justice in mind. They were designed around environmental and economic goals intended to stimulate urban renewal. Social justice, to many is simply an afterthought; it is seen as a ‘retrofit’ once the scheme is up and running successfully for the targeted demographic: the ‘usual suspect’.

Ideally, the question we should be asking is: How do we move equity and justice to the center in designing just, equitable and sustainable cities, rather than retrofitting them after our ‘real’ goals have been met?

We’d like to think that this question is being discussed. But for now, cities are tripping over one another to add new bike share programs and existing ones are expanding despite the funding challenges programs like Citi Bike have had. So what do we know about the barriers preventing people of color and low income people from using bike share? Although slightly dated, a study of the Nice Ride Minnesota bike share system in Minneapolis gives us some possible answers. Prior to the introduction of the bike share program, the authors conducted focus groups, community meetings, and interviews with residents of Near North, “a diverse, low-income area of the city,” to find out what their issues were. Following the introduction of the program, data on bike share trips and subscribers were analyzed and showed that despite positive attitudes towards the program participation was low.

What were the barriers? Some were as you’d expect: prohibitive cost, requirement of a credit card, lack of access to a computer to sign up, and the 30-minute standard use period being too short. But the authors also note three other interesting barriers:

To some, the system was confusing to sign up for and use. Streets were not perceived to be bike-friendly (even streets with bike lanes). Clients of social services organizations associated bicycle use with professional business people, whereas students and residents of low-income housing associated bicycle use with lack of success. An idea we plan on developing in a future post is that these are a type of “soft” barrier, in contrast to the “hard” barriers of infrastructure that is designed for automobiles. We can’t simply change the hardware of our cities, if you will, without also considering the software.

Note (9 July): In our original version of this post we failed to mention the League of American Bicyclists’ “Strategies for Equitable Bikeshare.” The League’s Equitable Bikeshare Workgroup’s discussion of physical and cultural barriers influenced our use of the “soft” and “hard” barriers distinction.

Whether CitiBike, Hubway, Capital Bikeshare or Bay Area Bikeshare, bike share systems are all about the hardware and all that hardware is “written” in a particular language and code. What the soft barriers suggest is that the language that the hardware speaks is somewhat foreign to people of color, perhaps especially immigrants, and other low income individuals. And it probably isn’t enough to advertise in Spanish or other languages. That’s not the point.

The point, which we’ll develop in our next post, is that we need to do a lot more (restorative) listening to those who are not using bike share. We need to know how they perceive themselves, PLUs (People Like Us who use bike-share), where they feel they fit and how they might re-imagine/remake our cities and the places that they connect in their trips. Maybe then we can spend less time retrofitting equity and justice, and more time centering them as the basis for the design of sharing programs and who knows, ultimately sharing cities?

8 thoughts on “Retrofitting Equity and Justice?

  1. I really appreciate this post. The idea of “retrofitting” equity is spot-on. I have been doing a lot of work with Nice Ride around equity, and would be happy to talk to you all about that. BUT, another thing that was going on in Minneapolis is/was the layout of North Minneapolis (where at first there were no stations and then a few popped up–fittingly called “equity stations”). North Minneapolis is extremely sprawled out and really disconnected from the rest of the city. Despite a giant bike lane, getting from downtown to North is SCARY–even for a vet bicyclist like me. You use the same road drivers do to merge onto our major freeway. It is confusing, way too wide of a road to even consider changing lanes and just straight up busy. My point is, that no matter how many stations Nice Ride would install up there, the city of Minneapolis has already made it difficult to get around up in North and swing downtown, to the South Side, etc. Many residents will claim this isolation is intentional, or at the very least, not being fixed. And like I said, a freeway runs through it. You know, a common story in lower income communities. My point is that yes all of those soft and hard barriers are true and real and serious. But, like in Portland Oregon, we also have to look at how the layout and history of a neighborhood is discouraging mobility. Of course, I know the people at Invisible Cyclist know this, I just wanted to add some more context to this great post! -Melody

    • Great point Melody and one we’d encourage you to write up for us on this Blog? It reminds me of Nate McClintock’s chapter in mine and Alison Alkon’s book Cultivating Food Justice where he argues that the West Oakland Food Desert is not some ‘market abnormality’ but part of a systematic process of racism, redlining, zoning, freeway development and previous cycles of the capital accumulation and devaluation. I think your North Minneapolis case has elements of this systematic, embedded disadvantage?

      • It’s obvious in NYC that noxious environmental conditions stemming from highways and excess traffic conditions degrade residential neighborhoods in the vicinity, however the point you make, that the systematic process of slum development has also affected the ability of locals to get around without automobiles, is not often made.

        Funny, because it seems even more obvious. If you build a large highway through original neighborhoods, spillover traffic from that highway will make it tough for anyone to get around without driving.

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