As Mobi, Vancouver’s new bike sharing program, brings hundreds of new, shared bicycles into the city this summer, residents are finding a green, convenient and more affordable commuting option.

High pricing and limited access for lower income people, however, could limit the program’s effectiveness.

More than 600 cities around the world, including four eastern Canadian cities, have bike share programs. Mobi is the first to bring bike-sharing to western Canada, with 1,500 bikes to be set up at 150 docking stations in Vancouver by the time the program is fully up and running this month.

Public bike share programs are considered an innovative public transportation strategy that addresses cities’ transportation challenges. For example, they provide a low-carbon solution to the “last mile” problem, which refers to the short distance between home and transit or transit stations and the workplace that may be too far to walk. Bikesharing is not meant to replace the use of personal vehicles; instead, it is meant to bridge the gap in transportation networks (pdf) and encourage commuters to use public transportation modes.

Bike sharing’s benefits are numerous: Individuals don’t need to buy an expensive commuter bike, find parking or worry about theft and vandalism. The programs also  allow riders to help reduce GHGs, get better access to public transit and exercise more.

A survey of bike share programs (pdf) in four major North American cities, including Toronto and Montreal, found that 60 per cent of their users are younger than 34, 80 per cent are white, and 85 per cent had a bachelor’s degree or higher, all characteristics that differ from the socioeconomic demographics of the four cities.

In theory, bike share programs are supposed to be an affordable transportation option for people at all income levels. Low-income cyclists in particular are among the residents who could benefit most from their services. Yet they are easily edged out.

For example, Vancouver’s Mobi monthly membership can only by paid for via credit card – but some low income people are not able to have a card. Cash payment as an option should be considered. In addition, the membership requires a minimum three-month payment up front and provides no installment option. Low income people are likely to have more difficulties coming up with this lump sum payment.

To address the cost barrier, Vancouver can learn from Arlington County’s bike share program. The county vouches for a resident, so that they don’t need to provide a credit card. The program allows residents to pay cash for monthly membership by visiting a Commuter Store, which sells transit fare passes. Applicants only need to present identification, proof of residency, and $16 in cash to get started. And when the customer’s account goes below $2, the county contacts the individual to add more money to their account.

Overall affordibility is another serious issue. Vancouver Mobi requires $180 for unlimited 30-minute rides for a whole year. A comparable plan at Bike Share Toronto is priced at $90. And Montreal Bixi, Canada’s largest bike share program, offers unlimited 45-minute rides throughout the year for $87. In a city haunted by its unaffordable housing market and low wages, a pricey bike share program will fail to achieve full success in Vancouver.

Vancouver Mobi also has a limited number of docking stations in low-income neighbourhoods. To increase ridership in low-income populations, not only should the program consider affordable payment options (Calgary’s recent endorsement of a sliding scale pricing for low-income transit pass holders comes into mind), but it also needs to ensure that low-income areas have enough, densely placed stations.

While the City of Vancouver has promised a $5 million subsidy over the next five years, corporate sponsors can also help to keep membership prices low without requiring more from taxpayers. For example, Portland’s bike share program, Biketown, is a $10 million, five-year partnership between The Portland Bureau of Transportation and Nike, whose headquarter is located near the Portland metropolitan area. New York’s bike share program, Citi Bike, is privately funded by Citigroup, headquartered in New York, and operates without city subsidy. 

Cities are increasingly facing congestion, accidents and pollution problems. Bike share programs can enhance urban mobility and serve as a complement to public transit. While Vancouver Mobi is a sensible first step, the program must reconsider its accessibility and affordability for people at all income levels.

Luise Yang is a research intern