A trail of self-praise has followed Citi Bike over the last week. Over 6,000 Citi Bikers pedaled through the city against the Polar Vortex and just yesterday the program announced that it had signed up its 97,000th member. So why is the docking station outside of the Lillian Wald Houses on Avenue D and East 5th Street so often chock full of bright blue bikes?
Citi Bike has had great success serving a certain demographic: “Riders are mostly white, male, and live in households with six-figure incomes,” said Justin Ginsburg, Citi Bike’s program director, in September. But public housing residents — 4.9 percent of the city’s population — make up less than .5 percent of Citi Bike’s ridership, per to city data obtained by DNAInfo.
The bike share program offers public housing residents an annual membership rate of $60 a year (a $35 discount) and waives the $1,000 fee if a bike is stolen, but its rollout has been bumpy among low-income New Yorkers. Which is remarkable given that they’re the ones most impacted by rising public transportation costs.
“Certain people can’t afford the bikes or the membership so a lot of people don’t sign up who live here,” explained Carlos Vazquez, 17, and a resident at the Jacob Riis Houses, on Avenue D and East 12th Street. The average family income in the projects is $22,994 and their average annual rent is $5,232, according to the New York City Housing Authority. Roughly 11 percent of families receive some kind of public assistance.
Then there’s the matter of security. Residents will sometimes take loose Citi Bikes from the docking station and leave them lying around the projects after they’re done using them, said a worker at one of the NYCHA buildings in the area who asked to remain anonymous.
“I just feel like a lot of people are scared,” said Marcus Townsey, a 20-year-old resident of the Wald Houses where a Citi Bike dock sits inside of the building property on Avenue D and East Sixth Street. “They don’t want to use Citi Bike because they’re afraid someone will steal them.”
Townsey uses public transportation to get to school at John Jay College and walks to work at a local Starbucks. He wasn’t aware that the stolen bike fee of $1,000 is waived through the discounted annual membership.
But to sign up for the discounted annual membership, one would need a credit or debit card — which many NYCHA residents don’t have. Bikers also need to sign up online. This step poses an additional barrier when only four in 10 residents have access to the Internet.
“I don’t know a lot of people who have credit cards here,” said Vazquez. “I would consider using Citi Bike in an emergency. I don’t have a credit card so I would have to borrow one from someone in the neighborhood.”
To meet that need, Citi Bike has partnered with three credit unions – Brooklyn Cooperative Federal Credit Union, Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union and NYU Federal Credit Union – where residents and low-income people can start a bank account and sign up for a discounted Citi Bike membership.
Some local bike advocates are determined to ease these barriers. Dylan House is a member of Local Spokes, a coalition of nine organizations in the Lower East Side and Chinatown that advocate for community cycling. He said they want low-income residents to participate in Citi Bike. They plan to launch a program where people can do group rides, learn about rules of the road for cyclists and how to access discounted memberships. The group also advocates for increased bike security, affordable biking options and increased space to store bikes.
“Of all bike share systems launched in US this is the only system that is geographically positioned with a low-income neighborhood in the middle. So we want to see it be successful in this neighborhood and accessible,” said House.Even with the discount, House admits that $60 can be a steep price for renting a bike. “If you’re on a tight budget the upfront cost of the program might be the difference between feeding your family for a week or not,” he said.
House and members of Local Spokes advocate for alternative pricing arrangements where participants in the program can pay the cost in installments over time. But cost-saving measures for low-income New Yorkers may not be a top concern for Citi Bike.
“The program is geared toward making a profit. That’s just the way these things are structured,” said House. “There are no tax payer dollars going through the program. For the program to become sustainable over time, it has to have revenue.”
Despite these issues, some housing project residents feel that Citi Bike is a great benefit to the community.
“I’ve seen different kinds of people use the bikes who live here. I hear people talking about how great of a program it is,” said Olga Rivera, a 68-year old resident of the Wald Houses who does not ride bikes.
“We’ve met with Citi Bike and the Department of Transportation and they’re open to working with us,” said House. “They want to see the program succeed as well. I think they just have a lot of logistical hurdles.”