Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Bike Share: Public Health + Public Transit = Public Subsidy?

To ride a bicycle is in itself some protection against superstitious fears, since the bicycle is the product of pure reason applied to motion. Geometry at the service of man! Give me two spheres and a straight line and I will show you how far I can take them. Voltaire himself might have invented the bicycle, since it contributes so much to man’s welfare and nothing at all to his bane. Beneficial to the health, it emits no harmful fumes and permits only the most decorous speeds. How can a bicycle ever be an implement of harm?”

-- Angela Carter, “The Lady of the House of Love”, 1979

Last week, the City of Boston announced an innovative partnership with the Boston Medical Center that allows doctors to “prescribe” memberships to Beantown’s “Hubway” bike share system for as little as $5 a year.

The  “Prescribe-a-Bike” program, which comes with a free helmet, is designed to combat an urgent public health crisis: obesity. As noted by the Boston Globe, more than 1 in 4 low-income residents in Boston is obese—twice the rate of higher-income residents.
My precious "Founding Member" key

To date, New York has not made a similar commitment to ensuring that all Gothamites have access to its bike-share program, CitiBike. As DNAInfo reported, of the first 62,000 annual members, only 285 were residents of the New York City Housing Authority (less than 0.5 percent of the total), despite considerable outreach efforts by the NYC Department of Transportation. One considerable barrier continues to be cost. While Boston offers discounted memberships for $5, New York’s discounted membership still costs $60.

Despite innovative public health initiatives to curb smoking and encourage healthy eating, the Bloomberg Administration left office with New York still in the grips of an obesity epidemic.

As noted in NYC’s “Take Care Report”, published in September 2013, more than 50 percent of adults and 40 percent of children in grades K-8 are either overweight or obese. More than 5000 New Yorkers die each year from obesity-related illness. Black New Yorkers are almost three times as likely, and Hispanics twice as likely, as whites to die from diabetes. Furthermore, people living in very high poverty remains twice as likely to report not eating any fruits or vegetables on a daily basis.

New York should follow Boston’s lead by viewing bike share as a core element of the City’s public health infrastructure. By working with our world-class hospitals, we too can curb obesity by “prescribing” bikes as a healthy, efficient option for commuting and recreation.

Of course, bike share isn’t just good public health policy. It’s smart public transportation, too. New Yorkers have taken over 7 million Citibike trips covering over 13 million miles since the system launched last May. By comparison, the East River Ferry—which most have seen as a smashing success—provides about 1.2 million rides annually.

Bike share is now an integrated part of mass transit infrastructure in cities across the country and around the world. It’s time we started treating them that way.

That means amending the federal tax code to permit bike share membership fees to qualify for commuter tax benefits. Today, the federal transit benefits program subsidizes parking fees—encouraging drivers to bring their automobiles and the congestion they create into the hearts of America’s cities. And yet, bike share—with all its attended positive consequences—remains outside the ambit of that critical benefit program.

In addition, cities need to work with private sector partners—as New York City has done with Billy Bey ferry company and others—to expand availability of bike share to new neighborhoods using public dollars, rather than assuming that bike share should be self-sustaining purely on the backs of its users.

Lastly, we need to do a better job of integrating bike share siting decisions into broader, regional mass transit capital programs. For instance, in New York, CitiBike must work with the MTA to plan how bike share can augment the effect of new Select Bus Service routes.

Bike share is here to stay. The question is: will we have the foresight to view its prosperity as part of a broader public health effort and an integrated public transit system? For New Yorkers, Bostonians, and others, here’s hoping the answer is yes.

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