Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is the Metro Editor for WNYC News. She has previously served as Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
Virginia Tech has just released a study of casual users of Washington, DC's bike share system, and the numbers on African American usage are startlingly low.
The study, based on 400 surveys of those who buy either 24-hour or 5-day passes, shows that just 5 percent of such users are "black/African American."
Caucasians represent 78 percent of casual users.
That contrasts starkly with the population of the District, which is 50 percent black, and 34 percent white.
(Hispanic use is also low, but the Hispanic population of DC is only 9 percent.)
Ralph Buehler, the VT Assistant Professor who oversaw the study, cautioned that their sample only looked at casual users. "Many of those users are tourists," Buehler said. "It's not surprising that would be more heavily white than the population of DC."
But Capital Bikeshare's own numbers for annual membership look even worse. According to CaBi data from 2010, cited in the report, just two percent of annual members are black.
Chris Holben, DC's Bikesharing Project Manager, tells us more recent data shows an increase. African American participation doubled by the end of 2011 -- but it's still only at four percent.
Ralph Buehler ran the numbers for us, and as it happens, participation in bike share is lower than general cycling rates for African Americans. According to the American Community survey, 12 percent of the population is African American, and 11 percent of the people who bike to work are African American.
Holben says DDOT is working to address the problem. One barrier to entry, he says, is the need to have a credit card to join the system. DDOT is participating in a "Bank on DC" program to get bank cards to the "unbanked," a population that typically tends to be more black than the general population. DC is running a promotion to offer discount Capital Bikeshare memberships ($50 instead of $75) with the bank cards, and is looking into ways to create a monthly payment plan to make it even easier to join.
Holben also suggests that geography may play a role. The heavily African American neighborhood of Anacostia is separated from the rest of DC by a long bridge, it's more hilly than other parts of DC, and highways further serve to cut off bike access.
Buehler adds: "There is a relative lack of bicycle infrastructure in the neighborhoods East of the Anacostia River (in Wards 8 and 7; the neighborhood of Anacostia is actually only a small part of that area). Moreover population density is lower there than in downtown"
DDOT says it plans more outreach in African American neighborhoods as the weather warms up.
But the question remains: why do so few African Americans use DC's bike share?