The Big Apple finally has a bike-sharing program, prevailing over performance art protests, hurricane-related delays and the inevitably caustic New York Post headlines (and after everyone from D.C. to Minneapolis got to it first). Supporters of the program are optimistic it will reduce traffic congestion and promote more active lifestyles. But in a city of more than 8 million people, only a select segment of the population will likely enjoy the benefits.

Citi Bike opens up to the public at large on June 2, with 6,000 bikes spread across more than 300 stations throughout Lower Manhattan and the hipper (i.e. pricier) parts of Brooklyn. Absent from both the current map of stations and near-future expansion plans are kiosks in Harlem, the Bronx, the more ungentrified portions of Brooklyn, most of Queens (to say nothing of "the forgotten borough" of Staten Island). Nor is bike share really for New Yorkers with limited existing transportation options -- most Citi Bike kiosks are close to existing subway stations. Overall, Citi Bike doesn’t really fill gaps in transportation so much as it provides already well-served New Yorkers with another way to get around. And if Citi Bike mirrors other municipal bike-share programs, much of its use will come from a distinctly upper-class clientele.

“The bicycle is so affordable, at first blush you’d think it’d have a widespread appeal to the economically disadvantaged,” University of Colorado Professor of Planning, Design and Civil Engineering Kevin Krizek told International Business Times. “But at least in this country, the preponderance of people riding tend to be male, 40ish, and relatively well-to-do. So if you kind of translate that forward, the people using bike share tend to fall into that same demographic profile.”

The data from other cities’ bike-sharing programs bears this out: Users tend to be whiter and richer than average. A survey of Washington, D.C.’s, bike-share program, Capital Bikeshare, released in May, found that 81 percent of its users are white. Just 3 percent of the program's users are African-Americans, who are the majority ethnic group in D.C., at 50.7 percent. A quarter of Capital Bikeshare members had an annual household income of under $50,000, though just 7 percent of users were pulling in under $25,000 a year.

Denver City Councilman Paul Lopez, representing a mostly Latino district, initially opposed expanding his city’s B-Cycle program, arguing that the program was ignoring poor and minority neighborhoods. In lower-income areas like his district, Lopez said, high obesity and diabetes rates mean residents need all the opportunities to exercise they can get.

"If it is truly about behavioral change, make it available where it is really needed or where it will have impact," Lopez said last September, according to the Denver Post. "Is this truly, truly about the issues and behavioral change or is this just for looks?"

Barriers to access

The most common hurdle to bike-share equity is a lack of stations in low-income neighborhoods. The city’s immediate expansion plans for Citi Bike will result in 10,000 bikes at 600 stations (there isn’t a fixed date for those additions yet). But the majority of the proposed additional locations – Greenpoint and Park Slope in Brooklyn, Long Island City in Queens, and the Upper East Side and Upper West Side in Manhattan – aren’t where lower-income New Yorkers live. It could be a long time before Bushwick, Brownsville or Mott Haven sees a bike kiosk, if ever.

New York City’s Department of Transportation claims that because the Citibank-bankrolled Citi Bike is not taxpayer-subsidized – unlike most other U.S. municipal bike-share programs – the initial stages of the program focus on the densest part of the city, where ridership is more certain. On the other hand, taxpayer-subsidized programs also seem to adopt the same strategy.

“I would say you have to walk before you can run,” University of Minnesota civil engineer David Levinson says. “You have to get something operational before you can expand.”

Some cities have already tried to address criticism by adding more stations in low-income areas, but this is no guarantee that bike share will catch on in those communities. Minneapolis’s Nice Ride, for instance, found it hard to attract users in the poorer neighborhoods of North Minneapolis.

One possible explanation is that a few token stations added in lower-income communities aren’t enough. Bike share’s ease is tied to the density of the network of kiosks -- it’s a breeze to get around lower Manhattan on Citi Bike because there are docking stations every few blocks. But for those who live in Fort Greene, a Brooklyn neighborhood that’s right on the limit of Citi Bike’s current reach, it is not as convenient.

“If Fort Greene becomes populated with bike stations, it would be valuable if you want to go toward Downtown Brooklyn or Manhattan,” says David King, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University. “But if you tend to head east --” say, to visit your grandmother in Bedford-Stuyvesant – “bike share tends to do you less good.”

Another obstacle for less affluent residents is the credit or debit card needed to buy a membership or a temporary pass to Citi Bike. Poor New Yorkers often do not have bank accounts, relying instead on check-cashing and money orders to pay their bills. A 2010 study conducted by the city found that 13 percent of New Yorkers were “unbanked.” There are many reasons why low-income people tend to not have checking accounts: lack of time to stand in lines, bad credit, inability to maintain minimum balances; but also because many banks, like bike-sharing programs, find low-income neighborhoods to be a risky investment.

There are cultural barriers too. Louis Moore, a bicycling club president in Minnesota, related a conversation he once overhead to the local public radio station. The speaker, an African-American woman, thought that people would look down on her as lower class if she was riding a bike.

Bikes “are not a status symbol yet,” Krizek says. “We’ve had a car culture for so long.”

The Big Outlier

But Citi Bike isn’t necessarily destined to follow in the tire tracks of other cities. “All things with respect to NYC versus any other U.S. city in terms of transport tend not to be comparable,” Krizek says. For instance, “car culture is, by several standard deviations, considerably less in NYC.”

The city is finding ways to reach out to lower-income New Yorkers. Within the initial, highly concentrated launch area, there is a Citi Bike station within a block of all public housing buildings (though most stations are also in close proximity to luxury buildings). There are also discounted annual Citi Bike memberships ($60 per year instead of $95 per year) available for public housing residents and members of certain credit unions targeting low-income people. And according to a DOT outreach report on Citi Bike, the city’s contract with program operator NYC Bike Share LLC specifies that the company has to cover a number of New York City neighborhoods.

The bike-share program comes after Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s long campaign to lay down bike lanes across the boroughs, which benefits bike riders across the city.

“A lot of other cities have put out the bikes first and are now saying, ‘We need better infrastructure,’” Krizek says.

The system is also quite flexible. As data pours in on usage patterns and as interest grows, the city can respond accordingly.

“You can pick up a bike-share station and move it somewhere else,” Levinson says. “It’s much easier to do that than to build a subway system.”

Looking forward

While bike sharing isn’t necessarily elitist at its core, it certainly does highlight some of the fundamental inequalities of New York City – a place where the gap between rich and poor is comparable to sub-Saharan Africa.

Will Citi Bike actually change how citizens – both richer and poorer – get around? One of the things transportation researchers will be interested in looking at over the first year or two of Citi Bike is how users would have traveled without the program. The recently released Capital Bikeshare member survey showed that the program isn’t actually taking cars off of the road; people who were using the bikes would have walked or taken public transit if the program wasn’t available.

It's still uncertain whether bike-share programs in the U.S. are viable transportation options for most residents, or a way for cities to provide “another kind of luxury item,” Krizek says.