This is the second of a two-part series on bike shares. Part 1 looked at whether the time is right to bring bike share to Halifax.
Do bike- and-scooter share programs provide a cheap way to get around town? Or do they just cater to tourists and affluent residents while ignoring the needs of people with lower incomes?
Early in 2022, municipal staff will bring a report on shared micro-mobility to Halifax council. In addition to deciding on whether Halifax should get into the bike-share or scooter-share business, councillors will also have to consider who would own and operate such a system, and what can be done to make it as accessible as possible. (Since Nova Scotia doesn’t currently have regulations on e-scooters, this story focuses on bike share, but many of the issues are the same.)
“Your classic neo-liberal public-private partnership”
“Generally, there are three players: the promoter, the provider of the equipment, and the operator. And any of these three entities can be public or private,” explained Simon Fraser University sociology and anthropology professor Nicholas Scott, who studies cycling. He has a chapter devoted to bike shares in his 2020 book, Assembling Moral Mobilities: Cycling, Cities, and the Common Good.
“The most prominent model is having a public promoter financially starting the thing, and private providers of the bikes — increasingly, highly sophisticated smart bikes — and then having a private operator as well,” Scott said in an interview. “So public promoter, private provider, and private operator. And there’s usually some kind of advertising contract/corporate promoter situation going on. So it’s your classic neo-liberal public-private partnership model. And some of them really work, and some of them don’t.”
Corporate sponsorship might take the form of advertising on bikes and at docking stations. Or it can be more integral to the system, as in Vancouver, where the bike-share is officially called “Mobi by Shaw Go.”
“We’re basically trying to figure out what model HRM should pursue,” said Dave MacIsaac, active transportation manager for Halifax. “There are different models: the dockless model, where the municipality doesn’t do a whole lot; then there’s full-on operating it like a branch of our public transit system; and then there’s the middle, where a private operator comes in and there’s a certain amount of subsidy from the municipality. Where we are at now is figuring out what will work best for HRM.”
The rise in bike shares around the world over the last decade is largely driven by technology. Riders use a smartphone to unlock their vehicle by entering a numerical code or scanning a QR code, and usually pay through an app as well. The timer stops running when the bike is returned to a dock or, in the case of dockless systems, when riders use their phone to deactivate it.
There are a couple of reasons municipalities find bike shares attractive. They can help solve transit’s “last mile” problem — getting people from a stop to their destination — and perhaps contribute to lowering greenhouse gas emissions. And, Scott argues, they are an easier sell for business.
Municipalities face backlash when they put in protected bike lanes. So, Scott argues in his book Assembling Moral Mobilities, Canadian cities increasingly started promoting bike lanes as good for business. Bike shares are an extension of that argument:
At its core the business case for cycling holds that cyclists of all types stop at local businesses with more ease and frequency than motorists, and on average spend more money when they are there. If arguments about social justice or the environmental and health benefits of cycling fall flat for businesses and suburbanites who simply associate new cycling infrastructure with a reduction in access, reconceiving the cyclist as the model consumer might help change their minds about bike lanes.
One especially profitable avenue thus far for advancing city cycling’s business case — with international corporations, market experimentation, city branding, and corporate sponsorships — is public bike share (where “public” and “share” seamlessly morph into “private” and “profit”).
Beyond affluent white males
Asked about the predominant demographic served by bike share, Scott said, “”White males, higher educated, wealthier white collar workers.”
One reason for that is simply that it’s also a core demographic for biking in general in “low-cycling nations like Canada.” But Scott said a number of factors lead to bike shares serving “kinetic elites” — highly mobile affluent people. Those factors include the areas where bikes are available, high costs, and payment systems that require credit cards.
“Inner cores, where origins and destinations cluster are a key condition for success for bike share systems — so, yeah, gentrified inner cities.” Scott said in an interview. “I like this term ‘kinetic elites.’ People who already have a lot of different transport options and might be flying in. People like you and me. That’s who’s using them.”
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
In an interview, cycling advocate Jillian Banfield, named “Bike Mayor” for Halifax by the Dutch cycling group BYCS, said, “It’s particularly important that any bike share thinks about equity as a first layer. Where are the docks and how is the payment system orchestrated? Is it going to be possible for someone without a fixed address and a phone to use it? I’m not interested in something that just makes it easier for middle-aged white dudes to get around downtown.”
While city staff are taking equity into account, according to MacIsaac, it seems like it’s not a “first layer” as Banfield put it. Action 88 of the city’s Integrated Mobility Plan calls for the city to complete “a bicycle share feasibility study by 2019.” One of the reasons it’s taken longer is that “we did a bit more work on the micro-mobility report than we thought we would,” MacIsaac said. “We added some work from an equity lens.”
There are several factors that make bike shares accessible. They include the areas they cover, ease of borrowing bikes, type of bikes available, and costs and payment systems.
Banfield wondered if a Halifax bike share would cover only downtown. “Are we talking about including Sackville and the Eastern Shore? Areas we generally underserve in terms of active transportation? Unfortunately, I think if they ignore these areas [for bike share] it will perpetuate lack of access to these modes of transportation, when it would make a lot of sense to promote bike share plus transit. So if you were in Sackville, you could take a bike share that gets you to a bus that takes you to the city.”
Former Halifax Cycling Coalition co-chair Ben Wedge said geography is a key to increasing access to shared bikes. (Wedge works for Joyride, a company that provides software for bike- and-scooter-share systems, but said he was not speaking for the company.)
“If you only build your bike share downtown, you get this perception that the rich people who have gentrified downtown are the only ones who use it,” he said.
“Absolutely crap infrastructure”
“We have absolutely crap infrastructure outside the urban core,” Wedge added. “In Halifax, there are some great trails – BLT, the Salt Marsh Trail — but they don’t connect you to the shopping malls or housing developments.” Bike lanes like the ones on the Bedford Highway or Main Street in Dartmouth — narrow bands at the side of the road demarcated only by a line of paint — don’t encourage people to cycle when they are going about their daily lives, and a bike share won’t change that.
Scott says there is “a documented pattern” in bike shares of the systems being too small or poorly located to be useful to many in their everyday lives. “It doesn’t really work if you’re not tapping into those desired lines for transport travel every day: going to work, school, getting groceries, etc.”
In addition to having a service area large enough to be useful, bike-share programs also need to pay attention to the locations of docking stations.
The US-based National Association of City Transportation Officials has produced guidelines on siting bike-share stations, and says taking income inequality into account is important:
As cities around the country grapple with issues of safety and income inequality, the role of design cannot be understated. Low-income people have a disproportionate risk of death or injury caused by drivers and poor road design. At the same time, new research shows that low-income people and people of color are the fastest growing cycling populations, more likely to ride bikes regularly for transportation, and most likely to say that introducing protected bike lanes would make them ride more. Cities can make their scarce financial resources do double duty by selecting bike share station sites that make streets safer and increase ridership.
Scott writes that poorly implemented bike shares can “reinforce new forms of gentrification by appealing to the mobility needs of… higher-income tenants… and [a] cosmopolitan condo-dwelling clientele.”
MacIsaac said Halifax staff want to avoid that problem.
“One of the issues is definitely where the stations are sited and making sure there are bikes available in parts of the city with folks more on the lower-income side of things,” he said. “When you’re working on a system with the private sector and trying to generate money, if you are only focusing on that it will probably lead you to only put bikes in more built-up places: employment destinations, universities, that kind of thing.” He added it’s “definitely” important to make sure “there is a distribution of the bike-share stations in a variety of neighbourhood types.” Another key accessibility issue, he said, is “payment options and payment structures. Some of them require you to have a credit card or some kind of plastic. You have to make sure whatever kind of payment system you have is accessible.” And then there’s the issue of pricing.
Ease of use is also important. Banfield pointed to how much trouble people have had using the parking pay stations Halifax introduced last year, with hard-to-read screens and confusing options.
Banfield, who has arthritis, uses her e-bike (and before that, her bicycle) as a mobility aid. She said bike share can be a great option for disabled people “who might want to try that as an option, but don’t necessarily want to buy a bike as a mobility aid.
Scott said that Halifax can learn from the experience of cities that are doing a good job of making bike shares accessible — notably Detroit and Philadelphia. Detroit’s MoGo is run by a non-profit, while Philadelphia’s Indego is a public program owned by the city with maintenance and operations contracted to a local company.
Like most bike-shares, MoGo primarily offers access via an app through which riders can buy passes and unlock bikes. But it also offers users the option of paying through a website by debit card, and also has options for cash payments. And for residents who qualify for Medicaid or who are receiving state assistance under various programs, an annual pass allowing for unlimited 60-minute rides costs just $5.
Vancouver’s Mobi has a low-income pass option as well, for $20 annually. Payments can be made in cash. The regular annual pass (for unlimited 60-minute rides) is $159.
Scott noted there is more to ensuring outreach than affordability. One of the things he said Detroit and Philadelphia got right was community outreach, “Using community ambassadors but also partnering up with local NGOs to try to reach underserved communities. Washington, DC is often held up as, ‘Oh, what about Black people?’ Bike share was really white there for a while. That’s a big debate in terms of their equity and their ability to reach that broader populace.”
Bike shares and transit
One way to make access easier is to integrate bike shares into the public transit system. Quebec City, for instance, rolled out its àVélo service in summer 2021, as part of the RTC transit system. Like Halifax, Quebec is a mid-sized city with a lot of hills, so the entire fleet consists of electric-assist bikes — a first in Canada. In Montreal, Bixi users can pay for bike rentals using their OPUS transit cards.
Wedge said even if a transit system directly runs a bike share, it’s still possible to build a platform that incorporates a variety of transit options in one place. He pointed to the Netherlands as an example.
“It’s totally integrated, with their national trains, regional trains, subway, bus, and bike share and it’s actually done in a way that’s flexible… You look up a trip in your trip planner, it says what bikes are available in your region, and you can filter it by bike, cargo bike, e-scooter, and so on. And it’s all paid for by whatever wallet you’ve set up. It’s all set up to work.”
Once bike shares become even more well-established, Wedge also expects to see an increase in other rentals using the same technology: strollers, scooters, tandem bikes, and kayaks. He imagines a scenario where a family visiting the province can take a bus from the airport, rent a stroller for their child and walk around downtown, rent a carshare to go to the South Shore for the day, and explore trails using a bike share — all with the same app.
“Fundamentally, the technology that underpins this industry doesn’t care what kind of vehicle it is,” Wedge said. “It unlocks the vehicle and doesn’t know what it is turning on or off. There are locking mechanisms for cable locks that can be activated using the internet — so now if you can wrap a cable around it, you can power it with the same app.”
To the argument that programs like building bike networks and bike shares cater to elites, Banfield said in her “little brain all these things are connected.”
“If you’ve built a society where you need a car to get around, you’ve built a society where housing is unaffordable. There are often conversations about bike lanes being gentrification, but they also make it easier for people to get around via modes that are not cars… It’s adding transportation options — especially for people who have fewer options than more affluent people.
“We know we have a significant population that’s precariously housed or completely unhoused, and presumably their only mode of transportation is to walk. So, if there was an e-bike share and a low barrier to entry — and by that I mean not having to use a credit card or phone — or 30 minutes free, that would allow them to use it for transportation.”