Courtesy of BCycle, Change Happens

It took less than an hour for the first person to sign up.

By the end of a community event held at Change Happens! on Saturday, August 24, in Third Ward, Henry Morris said, Houston BCycle had already signed up nine new members for the GO Pass program, a gesture toward building more equity into the system.

Modeled on a similar program in Cincinnati, Ohio, said Morris, who does development and communications work for Houston Bike Share, the nonprofit that manages the city’s BCycle program, GO Pass provides Houstonians who make less than $35,000 a year a lower-cost membership—$3 per month instead of $13. That can be paid in cash, in person, and the bikes can be accessed without a smartphone. 

The GO Pass also allows longer rides—90 minutes instead of 60 minutes—so users can make round trips or ride into the neighborhoods that still lack stations where they can dock the bikes and lock up.

There’s already a new station, too, at the corner of Elgin Street and Sampson Street. Three others will be added in the months to come, all part of what residents told Helen Stagg they wanted. “We did a survey going door-to-door with 362 residents,” said Stagg, CEO of Change Happens! “We had a number of community engagement meetings, we had focus groups, we collected information and data. One of the things that was identified is more accessibility and mobility within the community.”

Because you have to apply for the GO Pass in person, DeMarcus Foster, who works alongside Stagg on the Northern Third Ward Neighborhood Implementation Project, will be one of BCycle’s community partners, helping residents with the application, the bikes and the stations at Change Happens!

Foster said that he sees the GO Pass as part of the way to build community, grow the local economy and serve the health and happiness of children and families—all goals of the larger project.

Since BCycle debuted in Houston in 2012, it has faced questions about how it can increase accessibility. In 2013, when there were just 175 bikes on the street, almost all in Midtown and downtown, the Houston Chronicle wondered whether they were “legitimate transportation or merely toys for urban bohemians,” writing that BCycle would need “a systematic effort to make [them] something more than upper-class recreation.”

That question—who’s really being served?—has been asked in every city and after seemingly every other so-called “micromobility” option trying to get people where they need to go in something other than a personal car or someone else’s personal car, from dockless e-scooters to Citi Bikes. The knock against these new technologies is they’re too expensive, concentrated only in some neighborhoods, inaccessible for people who don’t have a credit card or a smartphone, among other issues, both tangible and intangible, ranging from concerns about safety to simple distaste and distrust. You can’t use a BCycle, after all, to take your child to daycare. And you certainly can’t use a BCycle to take your child to daycare if you live in a neighborhood that lacks one.

So, in 2018, even as the number of rides on shared bikes and scooters doubled, MobilityLab found that “high-income whites [are] taking more than three times as many trips as low-income people of color.”

According to a 2017 survey that BCycle conducted with 1,000 riders, at least, 25 percent reported an income less than $30,000. Only 8 percent reported an income of more than $150,000 and 39 percent reported having a bachelor’s degree. BCycle’s ridership also appears to be just as diverse as Houston, with 44 percent identifying as Hispanic, 30 percent as white, 15 percent as black and 8 percent as Asian. Since 2012, BCycle has expanded to include 99 stations and 635 bikes. 

But a look at the map still shows gaps. There are no stations in Fifth Ward or OST / South Union, and only two stations outside Loop 610. Even as BCycle continues to look for ways to keep expanding, the stations remain expensive, costing between $60,000 and $120,000, Morris said, a cost that must be shared among a range of partners, including “property owners, developers, private business owners, management districts, TIRZs, councilmembers, county commissioners and more.”

Equity, then, doesn’t just happen. But programs like GO Pass can encourage it. For the next six months, BCycle will study the data and decide whether to search for more funding and other community partners to expand the program. Just as farmers markets started accepting SNAP and doubling those dollars so more Houstonians could access fresh produce and proteins, GO Pass should get more people in the saddle. The Third Ward, Stagg said, “is one of those communities where people really do ride bikes, and we think that this is only going to increase accessibility.”

Allyn West is a writer, editor and teacher in Houston. Most recently, he served on the editorial board for the Houston Chronicle. He now works for an environmental nonprofit. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @allynwest.