As Metro bike-share turns a year old, tips to increase its appeal for low-income riders

FILE: A rider checks out a bike share bicycle downtown.
FILE: A rider checks out a bike share bicycle downtown.
L.A. Metro/Flickr

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It's been a year since the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority launched its bright green bike-share system in downtown Los Angeles. As the agency gears up to launch two additional systems in Pasadena and San Pedro, new research has suggestions for increasing the appeal of the short-term bike rental program.

L.A. was relatively late to create a bike-share program and has had a somewhat slow start. Metro's system averages one ride per bike per day, far below the averages of other more established systems like those in New York or Washington, D.C., where ridership is double that of L.A.'s even in the dead of winter.

Previous studies of bike-share systems have shown that unlike transit riders, those who use bike-share are more likely to be white and relatively affluent. So researchers at Portland State University sought to find out what the major barriers were to bike-share ridership in low-income community of color.

They surveyed residents in areas of New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia, which had physical access to bike-share stations, and asked why they didn't use the bikes.

"Concerns about costs were pretty high among low-income residents," said lead researcher Nathan McNeil.

But it wasn't just the up-front cost that was a deterrent – many residents weren't aware of discount programs that might have been available to lower-income users. Many also objected to the need to put down a credit card, either because they didn't have one or because they feared unexpected fees if they kept the bike too long or if anything happened to the bike.

L.A. Metro does not offer discount passes to low-income users for bike-share as it does for transit, though officials said they are considering adding a program. And around the launch of the downtown L.A. bike-share system, the agency worked with community groups to distribute 30,000 free annual passes in low-income communities, which allow users to check out bikes for the same fee as a transit fare (non-members pay a higher price).

Metro is also considering fully integrating the bike-share system with transit fares, so that users could transfer from a bus or train to a bike on the same ticket within a two-hour window. However, bike-share users would still be required to register an account with a credit card.

The biggest barrier to bike-riding and bike-share use across the board in the study was concern about road safety. Other studies have found bike-share users are more than twice as likely to ride on a street with a protected bike lane.

But among low-income respondents of color, traffic safety was not the only concern while on the road – they also feared being harassed while on the bike or being the victim of crime.

"There are a lot of pieces that have to be addressed to make people feel comfortable using bike-share," said McNeil.