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:

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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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