When Philadelphia’s bike-share program hits the streets in 2014 it will face a hurdle that other bike-share programs before it have yet to overcome: getting large numbers of low-income residents involved.

A 2012 study from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) found that bike-share programs continue to face challenges in reaching low-income and minority populations, despite innovative attempts to do so. Furthermore, the report noted that the long-term success of these programs depends on being able to show they serve everyone.

At a bike-share forum hosted by the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities in Philadelphia last week, the three panelists from Boston, Denver and Washington, D.C., admitted that their programs are not as inclusive as they would’ve hoped.

“Our demographic profile is very much like everybody else’s — we have a long way to go to serve everybody in our city. Some of that’s a function of station location, some of it is a function of our business model, some of it has to do with culture,” Parry Burnap, executive director of Denver Bike Sharing, the nonprofit that owns and operates Denver B-Cycle, told attendees.

Currently 90 percent of B-Cycle riders are white. But whites make up only 52 percent of Denver’s population, Burnap said. “We have a really diverse population in Denver and our ridership isn’t representing it,” she said. “31 percent of Denverites are Hispanic and only 5.4 percent of them are riding our bikes.”

Denver works with local housing authorities to make memberships available to residents of public housing.

When Boston’s Hubway bike-share program was in the early planning stages, “we got a lot of questions about equity of bike share, there was the assumption that cities wouldn’t do a good job with equity,” executive director of Boston Bikes Nicole Freedman said in an interview.

In response Boston launched a subsidized membership program available to low-income residents and those receiving public assistance. The membership costs just $5 a year in comparison to the normal $85 annual membership. The members also receive a free helmet. Freedman said the program has sold around 600 subsidized memberships to date. This makes up about 5 percent of Hubway’s riders. Planners also made sure to place stations in all level areas—tourist areas, college areas and low-income areas.

Marketing and outreach was key in selling the subsidized memberships. Hubway representatives spent considerable time visiting social service agencies in low-income neighborhoods to raise awareness about the memberships. More recently, the program has extended its window for usage charges for subsidized members. Usually after 30 minutes a member is charged usage fees. Subsidized members can ride for an hour without being charged. Freedman said this is because many of Boston’s low-income neighborhoods are located at the edge of Hubway’s system, where density is not as great, “so there was more of a need for longer trips.”

FHWA’s report found that bike sharing can be an affordable transportation option for low-income and minority communities. But use of these systems by these populations has been limited despite their “increased reliance on public transit and historically low rates of auto ownership.” The report suggests one reason for the low access is that a credit card is required to use bike-share systems.

In Boston this wasn’t a huge issue. Freedman said the vast majority of low-income residents in Boston have a credit card so the program decided to tackle this population by focusing on subsidized memberships.

Washington’s Capital Bikeshare has a partnership with Bank on DC, and other banking agencies, to provide a reduced membership fee with credit card access to “unbanked individuals.”

Still, financial access is something Philadelphia will have to address during its planning process.

Kristin Gavin, executive director of Gearing Up, a non-profit that works with women in transition from abuse, addiction and incarceration to integrate biking into their lifestyle, said many of the women who she works with don’t have a credit card. Gavin said she’s interested to see future outreach efforts, “because from our perspective it’d be really great to be able to direct women in our program to bike share and they could get some sort of account set up and have access to that. I think that would require an awful lot of effort and outreach on behalf of the bike-share program, and I don’t know if that’s realistic in their business model.”

“Our business plan is considering a range of issues around making sure that Philadelphians can access the system regardless of income level, including addressing how those who don’t use traditional financial institutions can access the system,” said Andrew Stober, MOTU’s chief of staff. That plan will be released later in May.

FHWA’s report suggested that future bike-share programs should consider minority and low-income populations early on, and tailor their strategies accordingly

According to Susan Dannenberg, policy fellow at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, African Americans bike at 20 percent the rate of Caucasians in Philadelphia. She noted that Hispanics also bike at a lower rate but that Asians bike at a higher rate.

“When you’re dealing with equity issues what we’ve found is that it’s not necessarily low-income,” Dannenberg said. “Across the board minorities bike less, so how do you address that?”

While other cities have addressed the issue from a purely economic standpoint, Dannenberg said cultural barriers in many ways are bigger. “So it’s going to be education and outreach and in some ways it’s marketing,” she said.

Stober said MOTU has been thinking a lot about inclusivity. “I believe Philadelphia has a real opportunity to be the most economically and socially inclusive bike-share program in the nation,” he said. “That is principally because, unlike other cities, Philadelphia has neighborhoods with substantial African-American, Hispanic, Asian populations and low-income residents of all racial and ethnic backgrounds who live with in three miles of major commercial, work and education hubs.” Stober identified trips between one and three miles as ideal for bike-share trips.

That last mile is especially ideal in neighborhoods that aren’t well accessible by public transportation, said Nicholas Mirra, communications coordinator for the BCGP. “There’s a lot of people who either work within a mile of their train stop or live within a mile of their train stop, being able to bike from where you get on or off your train to your first or last destination is a nice spot that the bike share can fill.” Bike share, Mirra added, also complements Philadelphia’s public transportation system since it takes advantage of “the whole grid.”

Bike share is also seen as a way to reduce public transportation costs. In that respect the women of Gearing Up are a perfect model, Gavin said, “the population of women that we’re working with, they have to be at a thousand places at any given day. They have to be at probation and parole and then over to welfare and then to a group [meeting]. This is a way to eliminate the cost and the time that public transportation takes.”

The current plan for Philadelphia’s system features two zones. The first zone, defined as the core of the system, would encompass the core of Center City and University City from around Federal Street to the Temple University area and from the Delaware River to West Philadelphia. The second zone would begin to bring in the neighborhoods around the core area from Point Breeze to central North Philadelphia and Brewerytown to Mantua.  Zone I is expected to include 100-120 biking stations and 1,000-1,500 bikes, for an area of about 8 square miles. Zone II would be less dense with 50-80 stations and 500-1,000 bikes, for an area around 14 square miles.

Use the comments below to tell us what you think Philadelphia might do to make its bike-share program appealing to low-income residents.