April 12, 2017
Bike-Sharing in Bed-Stuy:
How We Helped It Get in Gear
By Tracey Capers
Five years ago, officials from New York City’s Department of Transportation (DOT) came to the community-based organization I’m part of, Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (Restoration), to describe the planned rollout of a new bike share program in neighborhoods that would include Bed Stuy.
I initially had a hard time envisioning how the unemployed or working poor of our predominantly African-American neighborhood would use their scarce disposable cash on a bike share membership. The thought of confronting their misunderstanding and frustration was far from appealing. I didn’t see how promoting bike share could be as important as safeguarding affordable housing, ensuring opportunities for upward mobility, and preserving the cultural heritage of our rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Intensifying my skepticism was the fact that I had never been on a bicycle in New York City – and while I wanted to lose weight and get around town faster, I also had no interest in trying.
The bike share program, christened Citi Bike, started in 2013. The devastation of Hurricane Sandy the previous October, however, had reduced the bike fleet size, delaying and sharply curtailing the area of Bed Stuy initially covered. While Restoration took part in some early outreach events, that inauspicious beginning hardly laid to rest questions I, and many residents, were asking — who was the system for if it didn’t extend to historically underserved and under-resourced communities of color?
Then, in anticipation of a 2015 expansion of bike-sharing, Citi Bike informed us about a national pilot project with the Better Bike Share Partnership (BBSP). It would test strategies to increase membership and ridership among people of color and low-income communities.
I wondered: Could we use that to change the discussion in Bed Stuy from bike share as a gentrifying force to bike share as a tool for physical and financial mobility? I thought about how powerful it would be if Bed Stuy Citi Bike could mirror a community where people of African and Caribbean descent predominate. Tipping my decision to move forward was the prospect of aligning bike-sharing with work we were already doing with the City Department of Health to address the community’s high rates of obesity and high blood pressure.
We were awarded a BBSP grant – and from the outset, we knew that collecting information would be critical to guiding our work. So along with Citi Bike, DOT, and the Health Department we tracked and monitored membership and ridership data in Bed Stuy compared to overall city trends. At the same time, surveys of community residents told us that many felt bike share was not for them. They weren’t aware of membership discount options (while an annual membership costs $163, for example, adult residents of public housing and some credit union members need pay only $5 per month for annual memberships). Many also said they felt unsafe riding bikes. Participants in focus groups also expressed fears of racial profiling and a concern that needing credit/debit cards would preclude “unbanked” residents.
What stood out to me was the need to have the messengers and messages about bike share reflect the community. In response, we enlisted prominent residents, local leaders, fraternities, sororities, and elected officials to lead bike regular rides. We combined the rides with periodic larger events where families could gather information about bike share, learn to bike, take bike safety classes, and pick up free helmets. A companion marketing campaign including advertisements, posters, blog posts, and articles featured bike share riders of color sharing stories on why they joined Citi Bike and how they used the service.
At Restoration, we integrated bike share across all community development programming. Our staff and president attended events and led bike rides. Young people in summer employment slots did surveys of residents and later became the first beneficiaries of a Citi Bike youth free membership pilot. We infused bike share into our workforce and financial literacy initiatives, as we counseled clients on how to save money while traveling to work, training, errands, and outings.
A Health Department grant permitted us to develop partnerships with Interfaith and Woodhull Hospitals and with a business improvement district, the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project. They adopted bike share and served as models for other businesses and neighboring institutions.
Our partnerships embodied what social scientists call a “collective impact model” benefiting from a backbone organization (Restoration) our regular communication, shared measurement systems, common agenda and mutually reinforcing activities. The Health Department launched “Prescribe-a-Bike” for Bed-Stuy patients, while Citi Bike created school initiatives giving teenagers a chance to get active. Citi Bike also enlisted public housing residents to champion the system among their neighbors. DOT engaged community-based organizations earlier, more regularly, and more collaboratively in anticipation of Citi Bike’s expansion.
Bed Stuy Citi Bike membership grew by 56 percent between March 2015 and December 2016, outpacing growth citywide by 10 percentage points. With a concerted advertising program and a new monthly payment option, public housing membership soared 1000 percent in a two-month period.
Our promotional bike rides, which began with only two or three riders, now draw as many as 25 cyclists. We even kicked off our season early this year with two brisk February rides.
The community partners we’ve recruited have become our best cheerleaders and champions.Tony, a Woodhull Hospital administrator, now rides Citi Bike in Jersey City and New York City, after not having ridden a bike in 45 years. And public housing resident and business improvement district employee Shaquana went from thinking that bike share wasn’t for her to being named "mayor" of her neighborhood bike share station by the Citi Bike app, after posting over 650 trips in her first year. (With her “NYC Housing” discount, Shaquana’s cost per ride was just eight cents!)
Even I took the plunge – and 10 months into my initial annual membership, I had logged 123 rides and 311 miles, burned 13,400 calories, and saved money to boot. Maybe even more gratifying, I’ve experienced the relief and liberation of overcoming a deep-seated fear.
Later this year, Citi Bike will reach Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, and Harlem, the last phases of its planned expansion. However, it is clear that the program could benefit more New Yorkers who need access to healthy, affordable transportation.
Going forward, Citi Bike and the City of New York will have to reach an agreement for any future expansion that’s likely to require, for the first time, public subsidy. Dominican Republic-born City Council Member and Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez is leading the charge for Citi Bike to become a five-borough system that is equitable and accessible to all. I see that as proof positive that the conversation is changing from “Why here?” to “Why not here?” and “When?”
Tracey Capers is the Executive Vice President of Programs and Organizational Development at Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation in Brooklyn. The Better Bike Share Partnership is a JPB Foundation-funded collaboration between the City of Philadelphia, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the PeopleForBikes Foundation to build equitable and replicable bike share systems.
Learn more about BSRC’s bike-share work in this report, recently released in conjunction with the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO).
Photos courtesy of Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation