A new study reportedly found that low-income and BIPOC workers are more dependent on bikeshare to get around during the pandemic than their wealthy, white counterparts. And yet, the location of docking stations doesn’t always prioritize their travel needs.
Conducted by the Maryland Transportation Institute, researchers studied the pre- and post-pandemic ridership trends in Chicago’s popular Divvy system in hopes it might serve as an object lesson for communities across America that are rethinking the role of micromobility in the wake of COVID-19. In the results, the team found that total trips plummeted when the city locked down in Mar. 2020 before gradually rebounding as quarantine orders eased — on par with California and the rest of the country.
But despite the fact that bikeshare trips overall rose much faster than other modes, not all Chicago neighborhoods experienced the same trend. In fact, the researchers found that residents of disproportionately white and Asian neighborhoods were “significantly” less likely to return to Divvy compared to residents of predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods. Researchers also noted that these same groups are more likely to be employed as front-line workers and medically vulnerable to CODIV-19, which might have motivated them to stay away from public transit.
Despite an early panic regarding the use of public transportation during the pandemic, scientists have stated that public transit has proven to be one of the most COVID-safe places to be outside the home. Many scientific studies have reassured essential workers that it’s largely safe to take public transportation given that many public transit vehicles are relatively uncrowded, well-ventilated, and usually not the site of the kind of loud conversations that can accelerate the spread of airborne particles. Moreover, the fact that most transit agencies are requiring personal protective equipment to passengers also factors in. Some epidemiologists even think that shared car services, such as Uber and Lyft, may be more dangerous than mass modes.
The authors of the aforementioned Chicago-based study noted: “Essential workers are mostly non-White, poorly paid, and required to travel to their workplaces regardless of the stay-at-home orders. Lower car ownership … and less flexibility to change to other modes may be other potential reasons.”
These Chicago-centric findings highlight the need and open up a broader conversation regarding equity in city transportation planning throughout the entire country. In an op-ed for Forbes, the author wrote that “for those of us who have long fought for mobility of the car-less, of low-income BIPOC communities, [the pandemic dethroning the nine-to-five commute] is not the death of the city — it’s a refocusing on the needs of those underrepresented that will make our cities more resilient.”
The Maryland-based researchers hope that studying Divvy — which is one of the country’s largest bikeshare systems — can serve as “a reliable source to study travel behavior regarding cycling.” However, they also recognize the inherent limitations of a study that’s limited to solely one bikeshare program, especially given that Divvy is a docked system whose stations are more highly concentrated in white, wealthy areas.
As noted by StreetsBlog USA in their article, “The study might inspire cities and the bikeshare providers to think about how they can put cycling-dependent riders first, whether by relocating stations, introducing flexible, dockless options, or redistributing bikes to poorer neighborhoods more frequently.”