Philly bike share is growing, but will it attract the city’s poor?

Cassie Owens Features, Issue 4 0 Comments

As far as new beginnings go, bike share in Philadelphia has had a promising half-year. After its late April launch, Indego netted 100,000 rides in only two months, outpacing numbers logged in Denver, Boston and Washington, D.C. By November, users had taken another 270,000 rides. And in September, the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities (MOTU) announced that it had secured grant funding for 24 new stations slated to open next spring.

Backed by a $1.5 million grant from the William Penn Foundation, these new stations will ostensibly target locations close to rivers and public parks. Another aim, according to a MOTU press release, is to make sure the expanded system reaches underserved neighborhoods “specifically.”

A common critique of Indego so far has been that while the system launched with a third of its stations in low-income neighborhoods, it still seemed to only serve well-off populations living in gentrifying areas. As part of the system’s larger spring 2016 expansion, the new grant-funded stations will seek to fix this problem. The plan, says Cara Ferrentino, manager of strategic initiatives at MOTU, is to “expand incrementally at our perimeter.” By this time next year, Indego’s projected service area could stretch as far north as Lehigh Avenue, as far west as 52nd Street, and cover nearly all of South Philadelphia, even The Navy Yard.

As of press time Indego had a total of 73 stations, with the most recent installation at 3rd Street and Girard Avenue. Its pace of growth, as well as the size of the upcoming spring expansion, depends on future rounds of funding. To reach the eventual goal of a 185-station system, the remaining 112 stations would cost a total of at least $6.7 million — or more, should equipment prices escalate. Ferrentino can’t yet disclose where the spring installations will be, but hints that there will be something close to Fairmount Park.

“We can’t suddenly put a station way up in the Wissahickon, for example, but we can kind of push the boundaries as much as possible,” Ferrentino says. “We are trying to grow as fast as possible, but we have to keep in mind operational efficiency and reliability for customers. We want the system to work.”

The possibility that up to two dozen new Indego stations will reach low-income cyclists where they live aligns with the system’s touted values. Yet as reported previously in SPOKE, every bike share program on the continent has had trouble attracting users across demographics. MOTU declined to share data on the race and income breakdowns of current Indego users. A spokesperson says the department is still waiting on “results from surveys of our members and walk-up users,” likely to come out at the end of the year.

Demographic data was shared, however, with Temple University researchers about one month after the system launched for a study of existing stations in “underserved areas.” While the numbers may have improved since, the results didn’t look great for MOTU’s diversity goals.

A month in, Indego’s membership breakdown looked like this: 62 percent white and 12 percent Asian, but only 10 percent black and 5 percent Latino. (Non-Hispanic whites make up 36 percent of the city’s population, while Asians make up 7 percent, blacks make up 44 percent, and Latinos make up 14 percent.) Twenty-one percent of members reported earning less than $35,000 per year, a figure that includes 40 percent of full-time workers in Philadelphia. Furthermore, 12 percent of respondents called the system cost prohibitive.

MOTU disclosed further statistics for an October story in the Philadelphia Inquirer. According to reporter Jason Laughlin, officials admitted that Indego continues to struggle with diversity and that out of 7,250 monthly memberships, only 50 were paid for with cash.

According to figures obtained by SPOKE on Indego’s use by zip code, the popularity of the cash option reflects, geographically, the popularity of the system itself. Bike share membership rates are highest in the 19147 and 19146 zip codes (both comprising areas in South Philly and southern Center City), followed by 19130 (Fairmount and Francisville) and 19104 (West Philly). The latter zip code, which covers University City as well as the significantly poorer neighborhoods of Powelton Village, Mantua, Belmont and Parkside, had the most cash-based memberships — although these only added up to 33, compared to 809 memberships in 19104 overall.

In a phone interview, Ferrentino reiterates that bike share is for “all Philadelphians within the service area,” something that city officials and Indego outreach reps have stated since before the system launched. She adds, “Neighborhood change is obviously an incredibly important factor that we don’t at the bike share program have a lot of control over. Our goal is that existing residents see bike share for them and not just [for] newcomers.”

Ferrentino mentions that MOTU has been talking with community leaders in Strawberry Mansion and other high-poverty neighborhoods. “Station siting — it’s a really important issue,” she says, taking her time to articulate its challenges. She eventually confirms that MOTU has not adjusted its criteria or introduced any new internal requirements for what it considers “underserved.” At launch, MOTU’s criteria for a lower-income service zone was one in which, as then-chief of staff Andrew Stober told SPOKE in April, “at least 50 percent of the households live at or below 150 percent of the poverty level, or 80 percent of the households are at or below the Philadelphia household median income.”

What exactly does that mean? For a family of four, 150 percent of the poverty line comes out to $36,375. This isn’t too far from Philly’s median household income of $37,192, per 2013 Census data, which raises the question of whether Indego’s criteria is narrow enough. More than 26 percent of Philadelphians live in poverty. Philadelphia continues to have the highest deep poverty rate of any major U.S. city, with about 185,000 residents living at half the poverty line or below.

City officials, while planning bike share, emphasized the cash-pay option as a way to ensure the system’s accessibility to unbanked and underbanked Philadelphians. According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, 7 percent of Philly metro area residents don’t have a bank account, while an assessment of 2009 data by the Corporation for Enterprise Development put that number at 14 percent for the city proper — one in seven Philadelphians.

The following map shows Philadelphia neighborhoods with a median income below $31,870. Each dot represents a station in the existing Indego system. While density is key in planning any bike share program, Indego clearly has a lot of ground to cover before reaching the lion’s share of low-income Philadelphians.

Many of the initial bike share stations opened in parts of town where the median household income exceeds $31,870. These higher-income zip codes are not represented on the map.

De’Wayne Drummond, president of the Mantua Civic Association, is pleased that Mantua can claim two stations already. He speaks highly of outreach efforts happening in his neighborhood, where more than half of residents live below the poverty line.

Akeem Dixon, corridor manager for the 52nd Street Initiative at the Enterprise Center, also praises MOTU’s outreach. “Indego has done an excellent job of interacting with the community and offering discounts to make first-time riders comfortable giving the service a try,” Dixon, who is working to get an Indego station on West Philly’s 52nd Street corridor, writes in an email.

By all accounts, MOTU has made a concerted effort to coordinate bike share with some of the city’s poorest communities. That less than 1 percent of Indego’s monthly members used cash payment is an early disappointment. Drummond, who believes efforts could go further, recommends a family fee, that way four- or five-person households won’t have to rely on one bike at a time. Dixon, too, has concerns about the accessibility of the system, but ultimately remains optimistic.

“Continuing to offer free ride vouchers will help,” he writes. “Patience will be key. Trying something new takes time.”

Photo by Justin Durner

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