Is bike-share equitable?

Is bike-share equitable? Here are my comments on a now-deleted exchange between Adonia Lugo and Michael Andersen on Dr. Lugo’s Urban Adonia blog:

Bike share, as David Hembrow suggests (more details in posts on his earlier blogspot-hosted blog), is by nature expensive, because of the overhead involved with any kind of large-scale program, and limited in its powers to increase mode share of bicycles, because there just aren’t as many bikes in the bike share program as there are in garages and basements.

Andersen suggests in his comments that the low cost to the end user makes the program appealing for low-income people. He thus elides Lugo’s chief criticism, which is that the total program budget should be the point of consideration, not the individual user’s portion, as that aggregate figure could as well fund several other kinds of bicycling initiatives, such as supporting bike shops, teaching kids repair skills, or giving away bikes on long-term arrangements.

I suggest that Andersen is focusing on the wrong side of the equation. Just because something is cheap doesn’t make it a good value for people with limited funds. Bike share programs’ costs to user are not what makes them inequitable, it’s that they are limited to the coverage area, limited to a single user, and limited by the length of the subscription. The program does not build any bicycling capacity; at the end of the subscription term, or at the outer limit of the coverage area, the share-program bicycle turns back into a pumpkin.

Lugo however is concerned with systems that operate in the public interest, and even though certain systems operate without city financial support, those systems do receive benefits from the city such as space to set up docking stations and wayfinding signs, regulation and competition-limiting support from the authorities, and participation of public officials in ribbon-cutting or press-release issuing.

As an advocate for bicycling myself, it troubles me to see other advocates cheering for programs like these, or at least not confronting the programs’ biases in the direct fashion of Dr. Lugo. I confess that I have no idea of the current mission of our local New York City bicycle advocacy group, Transportation Alternatives, whose leader, Paul Steely White, was recently in Portland plugging New York’s Vision Zero safety campaign. I would like bicycle advocates to be plugging for getting more people on bicycles.

Poor People and Bicycling

Poor people don’t bike, according to this this Citylab article from earlier this year. Why not?

Most obviously, for the same reasons as rich people. It would be good if researchers (and commenters, of course) could avoid the fundamental attribution error, where rich people like the commenter describe themselves as au fait with the current options of transport, but describe poor people as hostage to poor information about bicycle options or commute time.

Degradation of the built environment. The streets and roads in poor neighborhoods have been redesigned over years to make them less useful for pedestrians and bicyclists and more useful for cars. See this Invisible Cyclist blog post, about how bike-share programs were never designed with equity or social justice in mind, for more details on how exactly this works.

Poor people’s jobs are further away. Rich people have the means to be able to move closer to where they work, taking on one-time costs of moving as well as more expensive costs for groceries, day care and entertainment. Poor people working for low wages can’t afford to shift their residence to somewhere nearer, and they also may not be willing to move for a less secure, less desirable job. In addition, poor people are more dependent on others who may not be able to move. What looks like a person’s quixotic decision to stay in one place far away from a low-paying job may be a calculated decision that takes advantage of relatives, low cost day care, or a partner or spouse’s opportunities.

Slums and pedestrian casualties

Two points here, this one, from the pages of Governing magazine, and this one, my comment on an Invisible Cyclist blog post.

It’s obvious in NYC that noxious environmental conditions stemming from highways and excess traffic conditions degrade residential neighborhoods in the vicinity, however the point you make, that the systematic process of slum development has also affected the ability of locals to get around without automobiles, is not often made.

Funny, because it seems even more obvious. If you build a large highway through original neighborhoods, spillover traffic from that highway will make it tough for anyone to get around without driving.

You see this in the Bronx. The highway development there divides neighborhoods, creates unappealing choke points along crossings, generates excess noise and pollution, breaks up the grid to make it harder for traffic to flow smoothly around obstacles, streams extra cars onto city streets from off the highways, blocks access to waterfront areas, and alters mental geography to make relatively close-by places seem very distant.

“A face that seemed so sturdy as to defy even the devastating pickax of misery,” Balzac


…Godefroid examined [the stranger] closely and was surprised at his exceptional thinness, no doubt caused by sorrow, and perhaps hunger, and very likely hard work. Each of these debilitating forces had left its mark on that face, whose withered skin clung tightly to the bones, as if baked by the fires of Africa. His high, looming forehead sheltered two steel blue eyes beneath its cupola, eyes as cold, hard, wise, and penetrating as the eyes of the savages but marred by two deep and very wrinkled dark circles. His long slender nose and proudly raised chin gave the old man a certain resemblance to the popular image of Don Quixote, but this was the face of a cruel Don Quixote, a Don Quixote without illusions, Don Quixote as a formidable figure.

In spite of this severity, the old man could not entirely conceal the fear and frailty that indigence confers on all its victims. These two afflictions had created something like cracks in a face that seemed so sturdy as to defy even the devastating pickax of misery. His mouth was eloquent and serious. Don Quixote was complicated by the President de Montesquieu.


Le grand vieillard hésitait à répondre; il voyait venir Mme. Vauthier; mais Godefroid, qui l’examinait attentivement, fut surpris du degré de maigreur auquel les chagrins, la faim peut-être, peut-être le travail, l’avaient fait arriver; il y avait trace de toutes ces causes d’affaiblissement sur cette figure, où la peau desséchée se collait avec ardeur sur les os, comme si elle avait été exposée aux feux de l’Afrique. Le front, haut et d’un aspect menaçant, abritait sous sa coupole deux yeux d’un bleu d’acier, deux yeux froids, durs, sagaces et perspicaces comme ceux des sauvages, mais meurtris par un profond cercle noir très ridé. Le nez, grand, long et mince, et le menton, très relevé, donnaient à ce vieillard une ressemblance avec le masque si connu, si populaire attribué à don Quichotte; mais c’était don Quichotte méchant, sans illusions, un don Quichotte terrible.

Ce vieillard, malgré cette sévérité générale, laissait percer la crainte et la faiblesse que prête l’indigence à tous les malheureux. Ces deux sentiments produisaient comme des lézardes dans cette face construite si solidement que le pic dévastateur de la misère semblait s’y ébrécher. La bouche était éloquente et sérieuse. Don Quichotte se compliquait du président de Montesquieu.

—Balzac, The Wrong Side of Paris (L’envers de l’histoire contemporaine), Part II, Chapter 3, translated by Jordan Stump

Do we still see our fellows in the same detailed way? I wonder if this kind of descriptive language, this way of introducing a character, still exists in the language of the present day. I know that it’s often easier to look for a shorthand metaphor, a kind of picture-word that’s worth at least five hundred other words; I’m thinking of this kind of description in particular:

The headmistress was a tall, slim woman who looked a little like Charles de Gaulle.

To me Balzac’s description reeks of the past, of a different way of looking at people, of close examination of appearance as a way to better understanding of character. This kind of quote takes those old saws about how “suffering was written on his face” and walks the reader through one such face: M. Bernard’s thinness as the result of hard work and sorrow and hunger, the forehead-as-cupola, the steely blue eyes, and the reference to popular views of Don Quixote.

The larger question is this: do people even look like M. Bernard any more, especially in novels?

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