Smart Cities Dive: As Bike Share Expands Neighborhood, Perception is Key

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by Jason Plautz

The wealthy Chicago suburb of Evanston, IL embraces bike-share as yet another alternative to driving, a great way to get around the city’s bike trails at lower cost.

Meanwhile, Humboldt Park, a historically Puerto Rican and minority neighborhood in Chicago, had a very different opinion. The Divvy bike-sharing docks located in that neighborhood were viewed skeptically; residents worried their presence was yet another sign of a gentrifying neighborhood. Why would we get these bikes, residents wondered, before more pressing needs, such as safety measures or expanded broadband?

That’s the contrast examined in a recent study from researchers at Northwestern University, who used advanced machine learning to analyze focus groups of residents in both neighborhoods discussing bike-share. The findings, published in the journal Transportation Research Part A, reinforced a persistent problem for new mobility options: Minority and low-income neighborhoods aren't always on board.

"It was almost seen as this bad omen of the neighborhood shifting, that it was a system that would make changes that wouldn't benefit local communities," said study author and Northwestern engineering professor Amanda Stathopoulos. "The operator is well-intentioned, but just putting service in new communities doesn't mean people will ride."

The problem isn't unique to Chicago. Bikes from a network sponsored by Ford were vandalized last summer in San Francisco to protest commercializing neighborhoods, and Baltimore’s bike-share network was shut down due to dwindling usage and damage to equipment that was never embraced by low-income residents.

Now as cities such as Boston and New York are widening their bike-share systems and new mobility options come online, that skepticism must be confronted head-on.

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