Boston City Councilor Pushes for More Access to Hubway Bike Sharing Program

Originally published in Open Media Boston by Tate Williams (Staff), Dec-28-12

BOSTON/Government Center - Boston’s bike-sharing program is heading into its third year as a major success, exceeding ridership expectations and planning to expand. But one city councilor has expressed concern that not all parts of the city are benefitting from the project’s success.

Councilor Charles Yancey, as part of the authorization of a $300,000 grant to expand the Hubway program, asked city staff involved to create a written plan for expansion into underserved areas such as Jamaica Plain, East Boston and Mattapan.

“Far too often, in part because of the disparities in neighborhoods, many neighborhoods are left out of certain programs,” Yancey said in a phone interview this week. “My challenge to the administration is to find creative ways of expanding the program.”

The Hubway bike-sharing program, started in 2011, has built an impressive 10,000 members, with 675,000 rides and 720 bikes in Boston alone. The vendor, Alta Bicycle Share, has contracts with Cambridge, Somerville and Brookline as well. In the city, there are 72 stations among 15 neighborhoods, with the bulk surrounding downtown and stretching from Allston over to the South End. There are a few stations each in South Boston, Dorchester and Roxbury, but none in East Boston or further south.

“Just 18 months ago there was no Bike Share in Boston and in that short amount of time thousands of people have adopted this as a way to get around, so we are on the right track, just not at our destination yet,” said Kris Carter, interim director of Boston Bikes in an email.

At a recent public hearing to discuss the project—pending release of a $300,000 grant from the Barr Foundation—Carter and Boston Transportation Department Commissioner Thomas Timlin explained that Hubway stations need to build out gradually by quarter-to-half-mile increments in order to be successful.

“Make no mistake councilor, the mayor shares your vision of making sure there is a Hubway station available to all of our residents. As we continue to build out, we will fulfill that goal,” Timlin said.

Some cities have made political decisions to place stations in outlying areas, and in doing so have been less successful than Boston, he said.

“It would be unfortunate if folks were looking at this as some sort of equity argument, other than exactly what it is, which is smart urban planning,” Timlin said.

But Yancey has been unsatisfied, noting that he hasn’t seen a specific plan or vision to expand into areas like Roslindale, Hyde Park, Forest Hills, Mattapan Square, and other areas in the southern parts of the city.

“It feels like that area of the city is being left out, even in spite of some of the growth opportunities that exist,” he said at the hearing.

The councilor called the hearing before he would recommend authorizing the grant funds, so he could first address his concerns about placement of the stations. While the council released the funds this month, he requested a written plan for expansion and committed to revisit the issue next year.

Hubway is one of several bike-sharing programs across the country, in which cities partner with vendors to establish bike stations throughout urban areas. By becoming a member and paying a fee, a user can borrow a bike and drop it off at another station near his or her destination.

In Boston, all program income is split 75%-25% between the city and the vendor, with the city’s share going back into the program. The project is run through a partnership between the vendor and city staff. With support from grants and sponsorships, Hubway has done well, and expects to break even in year three and then continue to build the program, according to Carter.

In its second year, the program added 10 stations, and Somerville, Cambridge and Brookline now have their own programs, totaling 105 stations and over 1,000 bikes in the region.

In order to make the program economically successful, the layout of the stations must be very dense, and then gradually grow into outlying neighborhoods. That requires time and money, Carter said by email.

He also stressed that equity is an important part of the Hubway program, with subsidized memberships, and recent expansion stations in Dorchester and Roxbury.

Yancey said while he commends the program for being so successful and doesn’t want to undermine the strategy, there are critical masses of users in areas that aren’t being served, and he wants to make sure there’s an articulated plan in place to get there.

“It’s critical that we recognize that we have people in all neighborhoods in Boston who utilize bikes as a casual or routine means of transportation,” he said by phone.

City of Boston video of the recent city council hearing on the Hubway program can be viewed here.

Photo by Flickr user Mr. T in DC