12 August 2013

Why Discounting Memberships Isn't Enough To Get Public Housing Residents To Join The Bike Share Program

Sometimes I wonder what's being taught in journalism schools--or, for that matter, in a lot of other schools--these days.

This article about New York City's Bike Share program (a.k.a. Citibike) seems to have been written by the  cut-and-paste method.  In recent years, I've seen any number of student papers--and, sadly, professional documents written by people whose credentials and pedigrees are supposedly superior to mine. 

OK.  Enough of my ranting.  The article, in spite of itself, raises some interesting and important questions about, not only the Bike Share/Citibike program, but of the nature and demographics of cycling--not to mention other social phenomena-- in the Big Apple.

According to the article, the 58,000 annual memberships sold as of mid-July include only 500 discounted memberships to residents of New York City Housing Authority apartments.  

NYCHA residents can purchase a membership for $60 instead of the normal $95 fee.

Citibike and the Department of Transportation distributing free helmets in New York City Public housing project. From The New York World

Notice that I wrote "residents" in the plural and "a membership" in the singular.  That, according to the article, is what seems to be happening:  NYCHA residents are sharing membership, which the Bike Share program forbids.

If they are indeed doing so (which I don't doubt), I can understand:  After all, NYCHA residents tend to come from lower on the household income spectrum than people in private housing.  Also, families who live in public housing are more likely to have family members or friends staying with them for a few weeks or months after arriving from out of town or the country, or during a bout of unemployment or other difficulties.  I imagine such long-term temporary residents (Is that an oxymoron?) are using their hosts' passes. 

Even if, say, five or six people are using each NYCHA Bike Share membership, residents of public housing are probably using the Bike Share program less, proportionally, than other people in New York.  

One major reason is, of course, that the shared bikes are less available to residents of public housing.  For example, the Bronx, eastern Brooklyn and southeastern Queens, which have large swaths of public housing, do not yet have any Bike Share ports.

Whether those areas of the city get ports any time soon is an open question, as they include some of the highest-crime neighborhoods (and most dangerous streets, traffic-wise) in New York.  Also, in talking with residents of those areas, some express concern or outright fear of cycling in their neighborhoods,  whether because of gang activity or other crime, or traffic, so one has to wonder whether they would ride.  

I don't know exactly which parts of which public housing projects are controlled by which gangs.  But I'm sure that significant parts are controlled by Bloods.  Their arch-rivals, the Crips wear blue:  the color of Citibikes.

Perhaps even more to the point, though, is the paradoxical resistance, and even hostility, one finds to cycling and cyclists in lower-income communities.  In Portland, people of color refer to bike lanes as "the white stripes of gentrification."  Though not articulated in quite the same way, many poor and working-class people of color--who comprise the vast majority of public housing residents--hold such attitudes.  (I know:  I've heard them.)  

So, if membership is indeed low in New York City's housing projects, I think  Bike Share/Citibike administrators will need to address the cultural as well as physical barriers to renting and riding bikes in the neighborhoods in which the projects are located.  Now, if people are sharing memberships, well, I don't know what to say.



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