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Citi Bike Signups Scarce Among Poor New Yorkers, Data Show

By James Fanelli | October 22, 2013 6:41am
 A review of data shows very few low-income New Yorkers have purchased annual Citi Bike memberships.
Few NYCHA Residents Join Citi Bike
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LOWER EAST SIDE — Since Citi Bike started in late May, officials have heralded milestone after milestone to underscore the program’s runaway success.

A month after the launch, the city crowed that more than 1 million miles had already been pedaled on the royal blue bicycles.

By September the number had soared to 7 million miles.

And just last week the city’s Department of Transportation Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, noted the program had clocked more than 4.3 million trips.

But for all the fanfare, some figures go unmentioned — like the very low Citi Bike participation rate among low-income New Yorkers, and the lack of membership in the outer boroughs.

NYCHA residents make up less than 0.5 percent of the program’s annual membership, according to city data. Meanwhile, the Bronx and Staten Island are home to only a few hundred subscribers, while Manhattan has tens of thousands.

DNAinfo has compiled a map of the number of Citi Bike members, by zip code, around the city.
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DNAinfo/Nigel Chiwaya

DNAinfo New York obtained the data from the DOT — the agency that oversees the bicycle-sharing program — through a request under New York’s Freedom of Information Law. The DOT provided the data three months after the inquiry, after an initial denial, and did not respond to requests for comment for this article by press time.

Because of the DOT's delay, the figures only account for Citi Bike sign-ups through July 23, but the numbers still illustrate the striking gap in usage of the bikes between the city's low-income and wealthier residents.

As of that date, Citi Bike had already exceeded expectations, signing up 62,384 annual members and becoming a global sensation.

Members hailed from Oregon to Australia and from Amsterdam to Japan, but as expected, the majority of subscribers lived in New York City. In fact more than half of all annual members lived in wealthy Manhattan neighborhoods, according to a DNAinfo analysis of the data.

But low-income residents, who qualify for a membership discount, made up a tiny fraction of subscribers. Only 285 members lived in NYCHA housing, according to the data.

The cost of an annual membership — which includes unlimited 45-minute trips — is $95. NYCHA residents receive a program discount and can purchase an annual pass for $60.

Even with the $35 in savings, community advocates say many of the city’s low-income residents have a tight budget for transit and can’t afford to tack on the cost of Citi Bike.

“The discounted membership is too expensive,” said Caroline Samponaro, a senior director at Transportation Alternatives. “If you’re spending less than $100 a month in total [on transportation], you are not going to add bikes.”

While it’s impossible to know the incomes of Citi Bike members, wealthy New Yorkers appear to do most of the pedaling.

Last month, Justin Ginsburg, a director for NYC Bikeshare, the company that operates the program, said at a Baruch College panel that its riders are mostly white and live in six-figure income households.

The data shows that as of July 23 most Citi Bike members lived where the program's 320 stations had been set up thus far: south of 59th Street in Manhattan and in parts of western Brooklyn.

The zip code that's home to the most annual members is 10011, a swath of Manhattan that includes Greenwich Village, the West Village and Chelsea, where the median household income was about $100,000 in 2010, according to the census.  The area had 3,908 members.

The zip code with the second most members was 10003, which includes parts of Greenwich Village, Gramercy Park and East Village.

Only one zip code from an outer borough — 11201, which covers parts of DUMBO, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Vinegar Hill and Fort Greene — cracked the top 10. It was home to 2,362 riders.

All of the outer boroughs — which have a larger amount of low-income communities — had far fewer yearly subscribers than Manhattan did.

Only 290 annual members lived in the Bronx, and 260 hailed from Staten Island, according to the data.

NYCHA-discount members lived mostly in Manhattan. Nearly half resided on the Lower East Side. Even with the high concentration of bicycle stations in these neighborhoods, many NYCHA residents there didn’t know about the Citi Bike discount.

Luther Stubblefield, 72, the vice president of the Baruch Houses Tenants Association on the Lower East Side, said he spends about $60 a month on MTA bus rides to get to Chelsea, where he tends to a public garden.

“I’m shocked because I probably would take advantage of it,” he said when he was told of the discount. “Just for the exercise alone at $60 a year, I would invest in that. I would just ride back and forth on a bike to the garden.”

Citi Bike held a demonstration near Baruch Houses residents on July 2, but Stubblefield said he didn’t hear about it. He added that only 10 to 20 percent of residents attend meetings in the development. A better way to do outreach, he said, is through fliers and mailers.

Vanessa Vasquez, 26, who lives in Samuel Gompers Houses on the Lower East Side, said she doesn’t belong to Citi Bike but regularly rides one of her boyfriend’s bicycles.

She said she believes the program's membership requirements dissuade NYCHA residents from joining. Members must pay the whole fee at once and provide a credit card for Citi Bike to keep on file. 

“We are in the projects,” she said. "A lot of people don’t have credit cards."

Samponaro, of Transportation Alternatives, praised Citi Bike's community outreach, but said it could do more to drive up participation.

She pointed to Boston’s bike-share program, Hubway, which charges low-income residents only $5 for an annual pass. Samponaro also suggested printing signage on the station kiosks in multiple languages, so non-English speakers could be more informed.

Lowering the bar for membership, Samponaro said, would greatly benefit NYCHA residents, especially on the Lower East Side and in Chinatown, where “low-income residents typically live farther from public transit.”

“Bike share becomes a great solution and affordability has to be an important of the puzzle,” she said.