photo via @CitiBikeNYC
Spring is upon us, and with the warmer weather come more bike commuters. Luckily, Citi Bike completed Phase I of its expansion plan this winter, meaning residents of Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Long Island City will be able to zip around town on two wheels. By 2017, Phase II of the expansion will be complete, and residents of Astoria, Harlem, and the neighborhoods around Prospect Park in Brooklyn will be able to join the cycling revolution.
With this expansion, Citi Bike claims to diversify its user base. However, in looking at Citi Bike’s expansion plan, a clear pattern emerges – Citi Bike’s growth follows the migration trends of the young, affluent, and (mostly) white in the city.
Take Bed-Stuy, for example, where Citi Bike added 26 new docking stations in September 2015. In 2000, Bed-Stuy was only 1.4% white, but by 2010 the population was 10.9% white.As of 2014, the neighborhood jumped to 18.7% white. On the other hand, in the South Bronx, where Citi Bike has no current plans to expand, the population is only 1.6% white.
Rather than expanding to underserved neighborhoods throughout the city, Citi Bike is following the population flow of the upwardly mobile. Its expansion plan excludes huge swaths of the city, especially people of color living in the outer boroughs, people who would arguably benefit most from more transportation alternatives.
Mayor de Blasio has heralded Citi Bike as an extension of the city’s public transportation system, ostensibly providing New Yorkers with more options to meet their daily transit needs. But, if the city were truly to incorporate Citi Bike as part of a broader, more equitable transportation system, docking stations would be placed strategically throughout the city to better connect all residents - of all income levels and racial and ethnic demographics. For example, the expansion plan would include efforts to spread Citi Bike to Flushing, a neighborhood of mainly low-income Asian immigrants, served by a single subway stop. Instead, the bikes are concentrated in wealthier areas already with great public transportation coverage.
Bike sharing has many benefits. It is a convenient alternative when subways are running late or there are construction closings of lines or stations. It can serve as “last mile” transportation for people who live beyond the reach of subway or bus service. Carbon-free and heart-healthy, it is good for both people and the environment. It can introduce the otherwise-sedentary to a physically active lifestyle.
For all these reasons, bike sharing could be a huge boon to people in low-income neighborhoods with few public transportation options. However, Citi Bike has chosen not to put docking stations in these areas, and residents do not reap the benefits. Citi Bike cannot be used as a “last mile” alternative because there are no docking stations located at or beyond the end of any subway lines in the outer boroughs, where transit options are scarce.
Low-income residents cannot ride home when their trains are not running because there are no docking stations in their neighborhoods. When the L-train inevitably closes for repairs, people in Williamsburg will be able to hop on a Citi Bike, but residents of neighborhoods at the far Brooklyn end of the subway line, in East New York and Brownsville, will have no such option to make up for this transit shortfall.
Citi Bike’s pricing and marketing also send signals that it is only meant for certain groups of people (read: white, affluent). Citi Bike – owned and operated by Motivate, a private, for-profit company, and sponsored by Citi Bank, MasterCard, and Goldman Sachs – implicitly excludes low-income residents and people of color.
In order to buy a Citi Bike membership, users must have access to a credit card, which many low-income residents do not. Even if users do have access to credit, an annual membership costs $155, making it prohibitively expensive for many New Yorkers. There are reduced annual memberships at $60 for NYCHA residents and members of select Community Development Credit Unions, but this is still a difficult fee for people struggling to pay their rent and other bills. Citi Bikes are plastered with ads for Citi Bank and MasterCard, which screams, “These bikes are only for people who can afford these brands!”
Despite what Mayor de Blasio and Citi Bike’s owners say, neither Motivate nor the city government are trying very hard to provide Citi Bike access to all New Yorkers.
If Mayor de Blasio is going to use Citi Bike as a tool to achieve his vision of one New York City for all, the government must invest public funds in Citi Bike equity. Investing in Citi Bike will give the city more control over the system’s expansion, ensuring that all five boroughs are included. The government must sway the marketing strategy and pricing structure, making Citi Bike more inviting to people of color and the city’s low-income residents. Only when the city exercises more control over where and how Citi Bike grows can we celebrate it as an extension of our public transportation system.
If the city does not make a financial investment in Citi Bike and exert more decision-making power over the system’s expansion, it will continue to only follow the money. Instead of seeing a line cook cycling home from the end of the A-train in a couple of years, we’ll see another twenty-something riding to a new bar in “up-and-coming” Crown Heights.
Elizabeth Johnson is a Master of Public Administration candidate, studying Urban and Social Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.