Yuppies on bikeshares

By Felix Salmon
June 20, 2012
skepticism that Washington's Capital Bikeshare program would have much if any success in getting the unbanked on bikes. And according to Capital Bikeshare's latest member survey, it seems that I was right:

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Last year, I expressed some skepticism that Washington’s Capital Bikeshare program would have much if any success in getting the unbanked on bikes. And according to Capital Bikeshare’s latest member survey, it seems that I was right:


Out of 5,157 bikeshare members surveyed, all of them had been to college; 95% had graduated; and more than half had graduate degrees. Assuming that most of the 5% with “some college” are current undergrads, I think it’s fair to say that this is a very well educated demographic, and very much not the poor or unbanked.

The people at Reason think this chart is grounds to stop subsidizing the bikeshare program altogether, which is silly: the government subsidy for bikeshare is basically a rounding error in the grand transportation budget, and I’m sure that the amount of government funds spent on maintaining roads in affluent suburban communities is orders of magnitude greater than the amount spent on bikes.

But it definitely seems to be true that the Capital Bikeshare scheme has done very badly at reaching the poor, the unbanked, and people of color. (Bikeshare’s membership is 79% white, in a city that’s 34% white.) Bikeshare’s most successful membership drive came from a deal at Living Social, which reportedly almost doubled Bikeshare’s membership; it’s fair to say that Living Social’s Washington email list probably skews white as well. But the deal does demonstrate, I think, that price matters: drop the membership fee, and membership rises. Which is something New York should pay attention to.

Or, to put it another way: there are surely hundreds of reasons why well-educated whites flock to bikeshares while blacks who haven’t been to college avoid them. But cost is surely very high up on the list. And so if you want your bikeshare program to be broadly adopted across social classes, it’s a really good idea to make it cheap.

Update: Thanks to WashCycle for paying more attention to the survey methodology section than I did. This member survey, it turns out, is not representative: members were solicited for their responses only via email, and the only way that you could take the survey was online. Which might well explain a lot. Also, the survey took place in November, before the scheme to enlist the unbanked went live. Apologies for missing both of those things, and well done to WashCycle for picking up on them. Let’s just say there’s no disclaimer anywhere in the survey that its results are not representative of Capital Bikeshare’s membership as a whole.


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I wonder, if the police see a young black male on a bikeshare, how likely are they to stop him and ask for proof of rental?

Cost isn’t the only issue.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

It might be important to focus on lurking variables. Bikeshares aren’t just attractive because of demographic proclivities; they are attractive because they “fit” within your existing commuting and transportation patterns. My guess would be that the residential areas where stations are concentrated skew much more white than the city’s average. It also might depend on what kind of job you have — or whether your commute includes, ahem, dropping a child off for daycare. On these metrics, I would say that more non-whites have children that they must factor into their traveling around town itineraries and also might have construction or other kinds of jobs that require, you know, TOOLS that are hard to lug around on a bike (like, they need something more than an iPad to do their jobs). They also might have more health problems, on average.

I would also say that the city provides better bus service in African American neighborhoods because, even if they don’t ride bikes, many African American residents of the city also don’t own cars, and are satisfied with bus routes. (Many who aren’t satisfied likely would not do better with bikes because the ride would be too far).

In short, yours is an exceedingly bank focused analysis that seems to see people as not much more than bank users or not. Please.

Posted by rb6 | Report as abusive

I think there are probably a lot of cultural and logistical barriers to those with less than a college degree and the unbanked not participating but one of the biggest, and simplest barriers is method of payment.

From the Capital Bikeshare FAQs:
“Annual or 30-day memberships are available online. All Capital Bikeshare memberships require a credit card; payment may be made with either Visa or Mastercard. Members must be at least 16 years of age.”

How are the unbanked supposed to participate if the most cost-effective and user-friendly membership requires a credit card? $7/day or $15/3 days is not exactly cheap especially when you can get a 7-day Metro pass for $15.

Posted by kcar1 | Report as abusive

Sorry,*unlimited Metrobus

Posted by kcar1 | Report as abusive

Felix, there are several flaws with your assessment.

First of all, this survey was done online and represents a self-selected group of members, not a representative group. The people who are unbanked are exactly the same people who won’t respond to an online survey. Of course they won’t show up in the numbers

Second, this survey was done in early November 2011. The program to enlist the unbanked was launched on Dec 16, 2011. How exactly would you expect the beneficiaries of a program to show up in a survey done a month before the program started.

So perhaps you should have looked that up before writing this “I told you so” post?

Posted by washcycle | Report as abusive

If a smallish amount of money is wasted on a very small and undeserving population, cost-benefit analysis suggests that the subsidy be discontinued.

The better rejoinder to Reason’s point is the network externality; this is the beginnings of a public infrastructure, and once people have adapted it will increase welfare more than the sum of individual marginal benefits. This is solving a coordination problem, essentially, and that’s something that government is reasonably well positioned to do. The fact that these are not poor people means they’re paying taxes, anyway; public goods of this sort are a compelling reason for taxes.

Posted by dWj | Report as abusive

To the point of the unbanked, here’s from the FAQ page: “NYC Bike Share and NYC DOT are also working on a program that will allow residents to join the bike share system at a discount through NYCHA and credit unions to help the unbanked join.”

Posted by HamTech87 | Report as abusive

“the government subsidy for bikeshare is basically a rounding error in the grand transportation budget, and I’m sure that the amount of government funds spent on maintaining roads in affluent suburban communities is orders of magnitude greater than the amount spent on bikes.”

Well hey, if you’re against cutting it because it’s just a small “rounding error”, then I guess you’d be more amenable to tackling DC’s deficit by cutting the big expenditures: Pensions, public sector salaries, redundant public sector services, etc etc… Dishonest argument is dishonest.

So because we spend tons of money on roads for rich suburbs, we should thus also spend money on bikeshare problems that benefit the rich, but MAY, sometime, in the long run, possibly, benefit the poor, at some point? Libertarians generally favor toll roads by the way, so they’d agree that yes, funding “public” roads in rich subdivisions is silly.

Why not expand this? Why not add rollerblade, skateboard, unicycle, and horse shares? It’s public transportations! WE ALREADY SUBSIDIZE ROADS AND TRAINS!!!!!!! WHY DO YOU HATE POOR PEOPLE/BLACK PEOPLE/ THE CHILDREN!?!?!?

Posted by duh2 | Report as abusive