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Portland State University study points the way to achieving greater equity in bikeshare programs

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: OLIVIA SANCHEZ - Dolores Griggs tries out a rental bike after taking a workshop offered by Biketown for All. The program aims to improve access for lower-income riders.  Dolores Griggs, 61, was the only woman at a recent Biketown For All workshop in Portland.

She was excited about getting enrolled in the low-cost bikeshare program, but when it came time for the group ride around the block, she teetered nervously on the bright orange bike.

When was the last time she rode?

"Oh, Lord, probably when I was 22," Griggs says, laughing. "It's been a long time."

Many low-income people could benefit immensely from bikeshare access programs like Portland's Biketown For All program, but a new study by Portland State University researchers found it's not that simple.

The study, "Breaking Barriers to Bikeshare: Insights to Equity" surveyed people in Philadelphia, Chicago and Brooklyn to glean ways to get more low-income people and people of color to ride the bikes scattered around central cities. They found the barriers revolved around traffic and personal safety, cost and possession, logistics and physical ability.

Biketown, a collaboration between Nike and the city of Portland, launched just over a year ago, and since then, Portlanders have grown accustomed to seeing the shiny orange bikes zipping around downtown.

The whitest big city in America is struggling to address equity problems, so Biketown For All, a reduced-price version of the Biketown program, launched shortly afterward to assure more diverse users for the service. It's a collaboration between Biketown and the Community Cycling Center, a local nonprofit.

(Portland was not part of the study because of how recently the program launched here, says PSU researcher Nathan McNeil.)

In order to take advantage of reduced-price memberships via BIketown For All, patrons are required to attend a workshop to learn about the program, bike safety and earn a free helmet. Community workshops take place every three weeks, but if you can't devote three hours in the middle of a Saturday, you're out of luck.

"If we had more workshops, I'm sure more people would be able to sign up," says Biketown For All Program Manager Ira Dixon.

Unfortunately, because the program is so new in Portland, very little demographic information on users has been collected, so precisely measuring up the program against the PSU study findings for racial and socioeconomic equity is tough.

Portland on right track

But based on the barriers unearthed in the study, McNeil says he thinks Biketown For All has a lot of the elements needed to expand access to Biketown.

Since the preliminary planning phases, organizers have made a conscious effort to make the program accessible to all Portlanders, Dixon says. They purposely put bike stations near low-income housing complexes and locations where social services are available. They wanted the bike-sharing system to be more than a luxury for people who could afford it.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: OLIVIA SANCHEZ - Cole Lalomia, from the nonprofit Community Cycling Center, led a workshop for Biketown for All. "We're just all about trying to get as many people on bikes as possible," says Cole Lalomia, the workshop leader from Community Cycling Center.

People can be referred to the program by a caseworker, join through a low-income housing complex, or, if they believe they would be a good fit for the program, fill out an interest form and attend a workshop.

In hopes of making membership feasible to all, it costs only $3 per month, a mere 25 percent of the regular $12 per month membership. That regular rate requires a yearlong commitment, and the users are liable to pay additional fees. Under Biketown For All, members can pay month to month and are exempt from extraneous fees.

One suggested improvement emerging from the PSU study is making it easier to ride with family and friends. Right now, the Biketown system is a harder sell for families with kids, as it requires patrons to be over 18 years of age. Lalomia expresses regret about the minimum age for Biketown users, and hopes this might be reconsidered in the future.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: OLIVIA SANCHEZ - Shiny orange Biketown bikes are now stationed in North Portland. "It's a fault in the system, I think," he says.

A little more than a year after Biketown's first birthday, it has served over 75,000 annual and casual users, according to Biketown operating partner Motivate. They expect that these numbers will continue to grow. In June, the service was expanded into North Portland and further toward neighborhoods that historically have been more diverse.

Olivia Sanchez can be reached at 971-204-7876 and on Twitter @OliviaRSanchez

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