City Desk

Why Bikeshare Data Doesn’t Speak for Everyone on a Bike

Sound the data siren: Virginia Tech's released a study about Capital Bikeshare, "A Closer Look at Casual Users and Operations"! Though there's one surprising nugget—51.33 percent of Bikeshare riders are female, while only around 30 percent of cyclists in the District in total are female—the other statistics are probably what one would expect: 78.17 percent of riders are Caucasian, 42.9 percent hold an advanced degree, 41 percent frequently ride on city streets, and 92.6 percent don't wear helmets. The median age of riders is 31 and 53 percent are domestic tourists.

The bottom line: Bikeshare members are a bougie bunch, a revelation to, well, no one who has observed the folks making use of the rather noticeable bikes in the areas where stations are most densely packed.

John Hendel at TBD on Foot uses the study's findings to knock around some assertions I made in a City Paper cover story back in August. Then, I wrote that the notion that only "rich, white, gentrifying newcomer[s]" ride bikes in D.C.—a common trope bandied about during the last mayoral election—was false. Hendel says:

But the overall data here suggests that bicycling is, at least for now, overwhelmingly more popular among white professionals.

The identity of the D.C. bicyclist may not be as far from any casual stereotypes as we believe, and this report is a testament to the gaps our city still needs to bridge. The City Paper correctly points to the many psychological, political issues that underpin that image as well as spotlights the many ways the city and its biking community is reaching out to people who don't fit its parameters of race, class, and education. Yet these efforts don't erase the reality of the data and the need to do more. To say the stereotype is wrong misses the data that underpins it.

That's all well and good, except my story was about bikes, not Capital Bikeshare. (In fact, I only mentioned Bikeshare to note that "logic says that as more Bikeshare users become comfortable with riding in D.C.—and become frustrated with the system’s downsides, such as frequently empty docks—they’ll buy bikes of their own.")

Conflating biking and Bikeshare is really bizarre; it's obvious that the latter's signature red steeds and the people who ride them aren't representative of every kind of cycling and cyclist in D.C. To apply research conducted specifically about one discrete thing—Capital Bikeshare—to an entire mode of transportation is an abject misreading.

If a study found that the majority of, say, Mini Cooper drivers are white, middle-class, and don't wear seatbelts, would Hendel assume that the majority of drivers, period, are white, middle-class, and don't wear seatbelts? Probably not. Capital Bikeshare might boast 1,100 bikes, 17,786 annual members, and 120,000 members of all kinds, but this is a city of more than 600,000. There are people here who use Bikeshare to get to work when they know they're heading to happy hour after, people who ride beaters they found on Craigslist because they wanted a cheap ride, people who decided they wanted to buy a Jamis or a Linus or a Brompton or a Bianchi new and found the prices agreeable, people who ride Colnagos to train in Rock Creek Park, and so on. Virginia Tech's data isn't about biking, it's about Bikeshare.

And it's not like the program is lacking in self-awareness. DDOT has been working on an initiative—since before the study's findings were released—to help "unbanked" individuals get on bikes. Capital Bikeshare Program Manager Josh Moskowitz says the agency is planning more outreach to promote the Bank on D.C. program, will eventually allow members to pay membership fees in installments, and will hook up with the Department of Employment Services to encourage Summer Youth Employment Program participants to ride Bikeshare. "Bikesharing is for the most part relatively new. We had the first program with Smartbike, and we’re still the largest system," says Moskowitz. "Bank on D.C. is the first of its kind. We’re committed to expanding in parts of this city that are underserved."

UPDATE, Jan. 13: Moskowitz says, "I think one of the things that’s gotten lost in all of this is that the study focuses on casual members" and not monthly and annual members. Commenters darren and drez make similar observations. Casual members are just that—less likely to live in D.C. and ride Bikeshare regularly—so, again, data collected on who they are isn't representative of who bikes in D.C. as a whole.

Photos by Alex Baca and zcopley via Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0, illustration by Alex Baca

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  • Lauren


  • John Hendel

    The Virginia Tech report, I'd note, does cite certain biking stats in the DC region more generally, beyond Capital Bikeshare. It mentions that 88% of the DC region bicyclists are white and 6% are black in a city where the breakdown is 50/34, which is part of what inspired the broader statement there.

    I absolutely agree that Capital Bikeshare and DC's biking population differ and shouldn't be conflated, which is why I generally focused on the bikeshare population itself and on the ways it syncs up with the stereotypes.

  • darren

    Further, this survey collection WAS NOT designed to even capture the broader CaBi membership. Only 24 hour and 5 day renters were surveyed, and surveys were only collected at stations with the highest history of checkouts by those customers. The closest comparable demographics are the ones presented in the study - those of the broader DC tourist population. With which the sample was in line.

  • Mario

    Hendel's comments are just bizarre. What is this “need to do more?” Maybe many nonwhites hate cycling. It really doesn’t matter; for if it did, where would the “outreach” end? Many white folks hate whiting. Lets force it down their throats until they like it!
    Taking these data and making analyses in order to set policy priorities is ludicrous, which is the only thing I can imagine Hendell wants to do. Much more to be done in this city before we start figuring out if the cyclists of this city are ethnically and demographically diverse enough to satisfy some nonexistent need.

  • oboe

    " It mentions that 88% of the DC region bicyclists are white and 6% are black in a city where the breakdown is 50/34,"

    Did you really just compare the *regional* percentage of bike riders who are white with the *city* percentage of residents who are white?

  • Tim

    Are you guys really arguing over this inane point? Bike Share, no matter how it describes its mission, is set up for hipster whites by hipster whites.

    And as for the percentages of whites verses blacks who ride bikes in the city, did anybody bother to go into Anacostia and North East and count the thousands of kids who ride up and down the block all day and late into the night?

  • drez

    Go anyplace outside of downtown, and the majority of people on bikes are black and hispanic. Combine this with the fact that bikeshare is most heavily invested in the downtown area (for density reasons) and it's easy to see that the study is pure nonesense.

  • Southeast Ken

    I hate these race baiting type articles. I don't ride a bike because I am afraid of getting hit by a car. It was ok riding a bike in the South or in a small city. Riding a bike in a major U.S. city with lot's of traffic is dangerous.

  • oboe

    And yet...every year the number of people on bikes goes up, and the number of serious injuries on bikes stays tiny. No reason to live one's life in fear of things that aren't dangerous.