An illustrator nearly done taking live notes on a Better Bike Share Conference panel discussion.

Correction appended

Indego bike ambassador Kim Smith had a question.

She was sitting in a session on building equity in bike share at the Better Bike Share Conference last week, which honed in on that very topic. She seemed to realize aloud that it’s more of a suggestion, but she kept on: Put stops in neighborhoods where the underserved are.

“You’re still seeing a saturation in certain neighborhoods,” she said. From much of the city, “you still have to get transportation to a station to get on that fast track.”

The tricky thing, which the panelists and Smith all know, is that bike share shouldn’t be too scattered. Density allows for connectivity and therefore ideal functionality. As one Indego employee clarifies, “We want each station to be within five minutes each other.”

Smith does community outreach for the bike share system in Point Breeze, which has two stations, and Southwest Philadelphia, which has none. Conversations, as Smith explains, commonly go down this way: She tells them about the great new bike share system in town. They say that Indego isn’t for their communities. She tells them indeed it is.

“Their question is ‘when are they coming?’ and ‘Why are we the last ones to get it,’” said Smith after the panel discussion. This has given Smith trouble. “I know there’s a method to the madness, but how do you address the people who have this concern?”

The Better Bike Share Conference last week was essentially all about properly addressing the people to whom Smith refers, and their pointed and repeated concerns about using bike share. Getting more lower-income people of color to become bike share subscribers has challenged public officials, planners and advocates around the country. No North American bike share system, according to a 2014 Mineta Transportation Institute study, is successfully attracting users well across race and income. Billy Penn reached out to one of the co-authors of this study, Susan Shaheen, co-director of the University of California Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center and director of Innovative Mobility Research, to see if any system had broken this pattern in the two years since the study’s publication. If there were one, she told us, it would be Indego. She recommended looking into them.

Who’s riding Indego?

Philadelphia has received $4.5 million in grants to enhance service to underserved residents through Indego, first through a $3 million JFB Foundation grant that allowed the system to build a third of its initial stations in lower-income neighborhoods. The second was a $1.5 million William Penn Foundation grant to increase connectivity further to the underserved, as well as park spaces.

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Indego monthly subscribers are 66 percent white, 14 percent Asian, nine percent black and six percent Latino. Five percent identified as other. (This demographic data is self-reported, and not everyone responds to each question.) Thirty-one percent of monthly users come from households that make more than $95,000 annually, and 60 percent from those earning $50,000 or more. If you look at Flex memberships, the $10 deal that makes rides $4 per hour after that for the year, 48 percent of those cyclists claim household earnings of $95,000 or more. Carniesha Kwashie, a grant manager for the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia the city, cautions that those numbers aren’t fully representative of their reach. They do not count walk-up trips, nor rides taken at community engagement events, like appearing at Strawberry Mansion Day or smaller test rides. The Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems (OTIS) did not provide us with a number for how many users aren’t getting captured in the monthly statistics. Kwashie said the office is still in “collection phase” to determine how many.

Philadelphia has been celebrated for its equity-minded approach. Indego was the first to have a cash-pay option at launch, aimed to ensure access to city residents who have no bank account. A heavy community engagement program began even before their docking stations were open. They conducted focus groups with residents in the autumn before Indego launched to see what future users would want out of bike share. Their equity-conscious mission was supported by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, among other partners, and spread on the ground by OTIS, coalition staffers and ambassadors like Smith.

Indego launched in April 2015. Currently, roughly two percent of monthly memberships have been paid with cash; four percents of trips overall were. The monthly subscriptions demographics and low cash-pay option use would suggest for the 14-month old system, something hasn’t fully clicked yet. Kwashie believes it will.

“With any new transit option, it’s going to take time,” said Kwashie. “What we’ve tried to do is inform the public that these are phases… Right now, while we have laid down stations, we know and understand that’s it’s our responsibility to tell other areas in the city where we will eventually or hope to expand do to: We want you to be a part of the decision making process as we expand it.”

Kwashie said they’re thinking “beyond the bike” and aiming to connect community members to resources more generally. “If we can create a culture and build an industry that thinks outside of the box, that is more holistic and inclusive, that looks at the bigger picture, rather than the discipline that they come from or staying in your silo, I think there’s a lot of hope and opportunity for this industry to grow and be an example.”

Clarena Tolson, deputy managing director of OTIS, put it this way: There needs to be a “paradigm shift.”

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‘The majority of conversation is ‘This isn’t for us’’

A recurring theme of the conference was frankness about transit injustice: It’s not solely that housing patterns haven’t shaken the effects of segregation and redlining, or even that in many cities, main streets can continue to represent racial boundaries.

In Post-war American cities, as workers started moving to the ’burbs and commuting in through expressways. Job centers started to form in the suburbs too. Meanwhile, public agencies began to take over pre-existing private transit operators and continued with downtown-centric transit routes. Here what experts call the “spatial mismatch” arrived: inner-city urban poor, particularly those of color weren’t as able to chase jobs in areas they couldn’t afford to move to, or easily reach through transit.

The very highways have a legacy too — of displacement. Neighborhoods were commonly razed to make way for them, and in many cases were African-American areas. Queen Village lost hundreds of houses (and families) with the construction of I-95, as did Fishtown. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has been outspoken on the harm urban highways caused. Stephanie Gidigbi, director of strategic initiatives in Foxx’s department, spoke at the conference.

“There is a physical divide that has been created by infrastructure,” said Gidigbi. “[There’s a] culture that’s embedded that really limits the conversation.”

Speaking of people of color, she continued, “We rely on a system that wasn’t built for us.”

When the director of strategic initiatives for the U.S. Department of Transportation says that, it’s not hard to believe that distrust, as many attendees expressed, lingers in inner-city neighborhoods on what their transit systems can do for them, or whether those systems were there for them at all.

When Smith hits the streets, “The majority of conversation is ‘This isn’t for us,’” she said.

Daniel O’Brien, deputy director of the city’s Grant Office, had a similar experience doing outreach. “Rightly or wrongly they felt that they had been ignored by the city,” he said. “They thought that bike share was for Center City, for white people.”

If it seems odd that perception could influence a rider’s decision, consider the people who turn their nose up to buses due to stigmas deeply steeped in stereotypes on class and race. Shaheen, while noting the importance of “cost and accessibility,” said in an email that “perceptions likely play a role in the use of bike-sharing systems among different sociodemographic groups.”

One panelist, Black Women Bike D.C. Founder Veronica Davis, argued that neighborhood norms also should be considered. Davis said, “There is a bike share program; it’s called ‘Let me hold your bike.’”

Tolson said in her remarks that she thought for women their culture of transit use might be swaying them away from bikes. “I grew up in one of those poor, disadvantaged communities that you hear about,” she said. It’s “similar to how women like me might not swim.”

“There may be a perception that poor people are the ones that ride public transit,” said Tolson explained to Billy Penn later. “Sometimes poor people have been taught historically, ‘Hey, your goal is to get a car,’ or that some groups of women, particularly African American women, may not have used bicycles as a way of transportation, they’ll use it for recreation, or recreation only, or that you may do it in youth.”

Tolson said with different transportation modes, comes the need for inclusivity and access. Then, more residents can see the opportunities that bike share offers. Part of their outreach is explaining that “Bikes are accessible to all,” she said. “They aren’t harbingers of somebody else coming to use them.” (Indego is nearing 100 stations, with its latest expansion, out of a 185-station goal.)

Moving forward

Upon Indego’s one-year anniversary, it slashed costs by 66 percent for those with Access cards, Pennsylvania’s food assistance benefits. Claudia Setubal, access manager at Bicycle Transit Systems, who works with Indego’s cash-payment and Access card memberships, says the decision to reduce the price was based on feedback. They’d been hearing comments like, “You’re trying to sell me the same product that you’re trying to sell everyone else and that’s not going to work for me,” she said. The Access membership works just as regularly priced monthly membership does. The most recent count shows they’d sold 315 passes, and interestingly, only 15 percent were paid with cash. Also, more than two thirds of the Access riders are women, something that goes against how experts predict lower-income bicycle use to trend.

Station siting still appears to be an issue though. It’s long been called a thorn in Indego’s diversity efforts. Neighborhood Bike Works Executive Director Erin DeCou expressed concern before the system launched. “I wish it went further, especially in this first year,” she told me in an interview for Spoke. “Because when you’re launching an equity campaign, you need accessibility to be there at the same time. There’s part of me that worries that by having those stations branch out later, it’ll hurt the equity piece.”

Tolson explained that need for density also stems for being mindful of how riders use transit.

“It’s probably not a reasonable expectation that people are going to catch a bus to go find a bike to catch it to go to someplace else,” said Tolson. “As a basic fundamental use of the system, you don’t want people to have to walk three miles to get to a bike station… As we grow the system, I think more and more people will take advantage.”

Smith loves Indego. She rides often. But she doesn’t take it to work. She works below Baltimore Avenue, close to the border of West and Southwest Philadelphia. The Clark Park bike station is about as close to Southwest as Indego gets. “If I were bike to work, I’d still have to walk four or five blocks,” the South Philly resident said. “SEPTA gets me right there.”

Cassie Owens is a reporter/curator for She was assistant editor at Next City and has contributed to Philadelphia City Paper, Metro, the Jewish Daily Forward, The Islamic Monthly and Spoke,...