Madison BCycle, Trek’s local bikeshare program, is racking up more and more rides per year. In 2014, the program logged 104,274 total rides, up from 63,325 in 2012.
But who’s actually using those red bikes?
Data compiled by the bikeshare program suggests that BCycle riders are generally white and hold a college degree — and they make a pretty good living.
That’s probably not unexpected, given that UW campus BCycle stations are the busiest in the city. But it’s also consistent with data from other cities, reported by Vox, that show that bikeshare programs are disproportionately utilized by the well-heeled, despite the fact that more of the people who depend on bicycles are low-income.
“It’s a constant struggle throughout bikeshares to address the issue of equity and making sure that bike share options are available in neighborhoods that are underserved,” said Martha Laugen, city director for Madison BCycle.
BCycle doesn’t have comprehensive data on the people who use the program. While they sent out a survey to members after the 2014 season, those members represent only 12 percent of BCycle users — although they make up 62 percent of the trips. The majority are considered “casual users,” one-and-done riders who check out a bike for a leisurely trip or a single purpose. For instance, Laugen said, last weekend's commencement events generated a lot of business from families facing an impossible parking situation in the campus area.
Only about a quarter of the members who received a survey — 569, to be exact — returned it, prompting Laugen to caution that the survey results may not be an overly accurate reflection of BCycle customers.
"It's a small fraction of a small fraction of our users," she said.
But for what it’s worth, here are the main findings:
Of respondents, 86 percent described themselves as white, and about 87 percent had a college degree. Genderwise, they were split right down the middle. Thirty percent were between 25 and 34 years of age, and 25 percent were between 35 and 44, meaning that over half were between 25 and 44. Seventy-four percent were employed full-time, and 12 percent were full-time students.
Of the reasons for using B-Cycle, going to work (31 percent) and running errands (26 percent) were the most common.
The results follow a pattern that is consistent with surveys in other locales where data collection has been more robust. For instance, this report out of the Mineta Transportation Institute shows that in 2012 in Minneapolis-St. Paul, 84 percent of bikeshare customers had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 44 percent of the population. In Madison, 88 percent of respondents had at least a bachelor's degree.
In Minneapolis-St. Paul, 17 percent of bikeshare customers earned more than $150,000, compared with just 8 percent of the population.
In the Madison survey, 10 percent of respondents earned over $150,000, and 29 percent earned over $100,000.
Meanwhile, in Minneapolis-St. Paul, only 13 percent were made up of those earning less than $25,000, compared with 27 percent of the population. In Madison, 12 percent of respondents earned less than $25,000.
So why is bike-sharing popular with the rich?
Matthew Yglesias of Vox offers this:
“Maybe rich people love bikeshare because bikeshare is like vacation travel or theater tickets — a high-end recreational amenity that people spend money on when they have money to spare, but that less-fortunate families find it easy to go without.”
The Mineta report looks at two reasons why low-income folks don’t participate in bikeshare programs: They aren’t located in low-income neighborhoods; and riders need a credit or debit card to use them — a lot of low-earners face a "banking barrier," meaning they don't make enough to keep money in the banking system.
Meanwhile, other data show that bicycling in general is far more prevalent among the poor. The reason: They can’t afford cars.
The Mineta report suggests that if cities want bikeshare programs to become vital components of their transportation systems, it will require public subsidies, bike stations in low-income neighborhoods and alternate payment structures.
In Madison, BCycle's 39 docking stations are concentrated in the downtown/UW corridor, with a few outlying stations servicing well-used bike paths and multi-modal transportation routes. Laugen said BCycle is working to fan out from the dense central core to neighborhoods that include a more diverse population, like South Park Street.
"Ideally, we would love to see Madison BCycle grow to 100 stations throughout the community over the next five years," she said.
BCycle also has been working with groups like the Boys and Girls Club, the Urban League and Centro Hispano to boost awareness of bikeshare, she said.
But membership and user fees don't even cover the operating costs for the bikeshare, much less the cost of expansion, so BCycle needs to find community and business support.
"Our new station sites rely heavily on the potential of community partners and sponsors to bring new stations to fruition," she said. "As we launch into our second five years of operation in 2016, we will look for alternative funding sources available for bikeshare to expand our system and expand service throughout our community."
And she said BCycle has made efforts to overcome the banking barrier by offering a low-income membership plan that doesn't require a credit card. She said the bikeshare may consider a pre-paid card plan, along the lines of a bus pass. That concept is currently being piloted in Philadelphia, but so far BCycle hasn't seen a demand for it.
"Since our opening, we have strived to keep the barrier to entry into the system as low as possible, Laugen said. "This is apparent in our pricing model, our discounts for students, seniors, active duty military, and our low income membership plan. We will not turn away any prospective rider."