Accelerating Toward Equity

Oakland wants low-income communities to benefit from bike- and car-sharing.


Carlos Hernandez, bike share coordinator for the city of Oakland, said the success of bike-share programs are typically measured by how many trips an individual bike takes in a day.

Photo by D. Ross Cameron

On a sunny Saturday afternoon at DeFremery Park in West Oakland, smoke from a barbecue filled the air as thumping R&B and hip-hop blared from nearby speakers. But this was no casual get-together. Officials from the city of Oakland, nonprofits such as TransForm, Bike East Bay, and Cycles of Change, and businesses such as Motivate and Zipcar had set up tents, tables, and chairs, hoping to entice passersby in order to tell them about two shared-mobility services that are expanding in Oakland: car share and bike share.

The event was part of an outreach campaign called OakMob 101, short for Oakland Mobility, which specifically targets residents of East and West Oakland. While bike- and car-share systems have become enormously popular in the last decade—reducing car usage, transportation costs, and greenhouse gas emissions—their users tend to be overwhelmingly white and affluent. Oakland city officials want to change that. “It’s about opening up opportunities,” said Erica Terry Derryck, director of communications for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. “We want to be able to connect folks in lower-income communities—in places that haven’t been as easily served by some of these services—with the job centers. We want to be able to make it possible for kids to get to school, for people to reach the educational institutions that are going to give them a pathway to better paying jobs and to other opportunity, and that’s a huge filter for how these programs are being implemented and what it is we’re trying to achieve.”

The bike- and car-share expansion is part of the city’s new strategic plan for transportation, which was released in October and includes equity—as well as improved infrastructure, safety, and “responsible governance”—among its main goals. Beginning in spring 2017, Bay Area Bike Share will expand from 700 bikes (which are currently located in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Jose) to 7,000 bikes, including 850 in Oakland, 400 in Berkeley, and 100 in Emeryville. It will be owned and operated by the bike share company Motivate, sponsored by Ford Motor Company, and rechristened Ford GoBike.

Car sharing already exists in Oakland, but the city plans to create more dedicated car-sharing parking spaces and allow residents to pick up cars at one location and leave them at another—instead of picking them up and leaving them at the same location, as currently exists with Zipcar and City CarShare. Through a pilot program, the city will certify qualified car-share organizations, which can then apply for permits for dedicated or free-floating parking spaces on city streets or in municipal lots or garages. Next year, the city anticipates creating 100 dedicated spaces (only nine currently exist), and allowing 400 free-floating cars, according to Michael Ford, Oakland’s parking and mobility programs manager. So far, seven car-sharing companies have expressed interest in obtaining permits for dedicated parking spaces, he said.

So how will the city ensure that all residents have access to these services? As part of its contract with Motivate, Oakland mandated that at least 20 percent of the bike-sharing stations be located in so-called “communities of concern,” defined by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission as neighborhoods that have concentrations of low-income and minority populations, or other factors. After soliciting feedback from community members on where they would like bike stations to be located, that percentage will actually be closer to 50, according to Motivate spokesperson Paolo Cosulich-Schwartz. (However, there are no current plans to make bike share available farther east than Fruitvale.)

Motivate will also offer discounted memberships to low-income residents and accept cash payments. The discounted fee—$5 for the first year of membership and $5 per month after that—will be available to those who qualify. (The regular membership is $88 per year; a monthly option when the program expands will be $15.) Those who don’t want to pay an annual or monthly fee can pay $9 for unlimited 30-minute rides in a 24-hour window, although there’s no low-income discount for short-term rentals.

As for car-sharing, there are currently no plans to offer discounted memberships for low-income residents. (Zipcar memberships are $35 per year, plus $7 to $15 an hour, depending on the vehicle used. City CarShare costs $10 per month, plus additional hourly or daily rates.) Instead, the city is encouraging car-sharing companies to put their cars in low-income areas. “We’ve taken measures to make sure that the distribution of dedicated spaces will be around Oakland,” said Michael Ford. “We’ve put in place basically incentives or requirements that will lead car-share organizations to identify spots in areas that might not be justified in terms of their business model or having the highest traffic, but they’re important in terms of equity: communities of need, low-income areas, and we’re looking at East and West Oakland, in particular.”

Whether residents in those communities use the services remains to be seen. One West Oakland resident was skeptical about bike share and questioned whom it was designed for. “People of color aren’t going to use it,” said the 75-year-old man, who did not want his name published for privacy reasons. “Why should they pay for it? They already have their own bikes. The locals here, if they need transportation, they can get a donated bike.”

Fekida, aka MC Andromeda, a hip-hop and reggae musician who lives in East Oakland and works at the Mandela Foods Cooperative in West Oakland, was more optimistic. He was performing at the OakMob event but said he didn’t know anything about the bike-share program. His initial reaction was positive. “That’s awesome. I think I would use it,” he said. But after thinking about it more, he said he didn’t think it would appeal to most people because of their psychological attachment to cars. “It’s not that easy to change things from the outside,” he said.

Motivate understands that convenience is key to getting people to use bike share. A survey conducted by UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center in May 2015 found that people who considered using bike share in San Francisco but didn’t cited the high cost as the most common reason for not doing so. “Inconvenient station locations” was another factor. Motivate’s Cosulich-Schwartz said “convenience” usually means no more than a five-minute walk between stations, which is why the company has divided up certain areas of Oakland into quarter-mile square grids, with the goal of getting at least one station in each square quarter-mile.

But if shared mobility services are to be successful in Oakland, they will need to attract users. How many exactly are needed to make the programs sustainable? No one seems to know.

In an email, Michael Ford wrote that the number of members needed to maintain a car-share vehicle in a neighborhood varies widely from one car-share organization to another—“as such, there is no easy way to say what makes for a ‘sustainable car share program.’” (The car-share program is a grant-funded initiative.)

Cosulich-Schwartz said the pilot program of Bay Area Bike Share has been heavily subsidized through the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, so it hasn’t relied on membership for revenue. For the expansion, Motivate will deliver and operate the system at no cost to taxpayers, using funding through the sponsorship with Ford but also revenue from memberships. When asked how many members would be needed to make the program sustainable, Cosulich-Schwartz said he didn’t have that information. “We’re doing this because we do think this can be profitable,” he said. “At scale, we think bike share will be transformative in terms of helping people get around and being able to grow and sustain itself in the future.”

Photo by D. Ross Cameron

Hernandez said the city trusts Motivate to know what it’s doing.

Carlos Hernandez, bike share coordinator for the city of Oakland, said the success of bike-share programs are typically measured by how many trips an individual bike takes in a day, with four trips being the “gold standard.” According to data from Motivate, the 350 bikes in San Francisco each took about 2.5 trips per day in the last year.

Hernandez said because bike share is a public-private partnership, the city is trusting Motivate to know what it’s doing. “We can’t make assumptions on what the bottom line looks like,” he said. “We’re hoping it’ll be as successful as possible.”

But at least one of Motivate’s other bike-share programs has not been a success. In Seattle, the city was forced to buy the Pronto bike-share system (which was owned by Motivate and operated by the nonprofit Puget Sound Bike Share) for $1.4 million—less than two years after it started—in order to keep it from shutting down, according to the Seattle Times. That system was criticized for having too few stations.

Pointing to the history of transit, Michael Ford said it’s not realistic to expect these services to be revenue neutral. “That’s why [car share] is a grant-funded initiative and we’re doing it on a pilot basis,” he said. “We’re learning as we go, and our goal is to develop it into a fully funded program that deserves to be resourced.” With bike share, he said, it’s likely the city will have to subsidize it at some point. “Shared mobility initiatives further the city’s goals—equity, sustainability, economic development, which makes the case for eventually subsidizing its use as necessary.”

John Stehlin, a geography lecturer at UC Berkeley who is studying the history of bike-share systems, said bike-share initiatives are expected to be revenue-neutral, but this puts cities in a difficult situation when social-equity goals are involved. “Because there’s been a fragile awakening around bikes, people are concerned [bike share has] got to work from the beginning,” he said. “That’s tough, because meeting social-equity goals requires a longer-term investment.”

Motivate’s partnership agreement with Ford is for seven years.


Published online on Dec. 7, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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