On the street below the seventh-floor office of the Boston Department of Transportation (BTD) adjacent to City Hall Plaza, busy Bostonians are seen rushing across the street, hailing taxis, and checking their phones for the next bus to arrive. A row of bikes docked at a nearby station promises an ecologically friendly way to get from point A to point B, yet only a few passersby decide to take them for a spin. Boston is special in its demographic diversity, but oftentimes the benefits of living in the city are shared disproportionately. Today, according to a report presented by the BTD, only 1 percent of residents utilize Boston’s bike-sharing program for their commute, but this may be due to their inability to pay rather than their disinterest in the service.
With the SNAP Card to Ride, the City of Boston hopes to establish an equitable transportation modality that allows for low-income individuals to access discounted subscriptions to the city’s Hubway bike-share network.
Rolled out on Jan. 19 of this year after a trial run in December, the SNAP Card to Ride program is the first phase of a larger objective to expand access to alternative transportation options. In this process, the Department of Transportation has partnered with the cities of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, the town of Brookline, the State Department of Transitional Assistance, and Motivate, the city’s bike-share operator, to expand the service. The new initiative consists of a streamlined online form that will allow verified income-eligible residents of the region to qualify for discounted $5 monthly or $50 annual Hubway memberships. While the intention is for the process to be easy to use for everyone, the Department of Transportation has established an open door policy in the event that users have questions about the process.
The annual rate for a Hubway membership is regularly $99 for the general public, but the cost can be a real barrier for many families and individuals that are living paycheck to paycheck and struggling to make ends meet.
“Income inequality is increasing in the country, and we know that rents are very expensive here,” said Stefanie Seskin, the active transportation director for the City of Boston. “What we can do to help them is bring that cost down a little bit more so that they have the opportunity to use bike-share to help them get around.”
Moving forward, Seskin and the team behind the Go Boston 2030 mobility plan hope to expand the number of Hubway stations to 195 within the next few years. Ultimately, their vision is to implement bike-share-specific infrastructure that protects the consumer and upholds its stance as a public service. As Boston grows as a hub for innovation and economic opportunity, the City of Boston expects this expansion to support the transportation needs of the people that make it special.
“From the very beginning, the city heard loudly that equity is a big concern in transportation and making sure people have access to reliable transportation that is also low-cost,” Seskin said.
The implementation of the SNAP Card to Ride as part of the Go Boston 2030 mobility plan was informed by lots of collaboration and an extensive civic engagement effort that gathered information regarding the exigencies of citizens through different events. For example, the city deployed a series of “What’s Your Question” trucks into various communities as a way for people to voice their opinions. These clear-walled, repurposed food trucks welcomed visitors, allowing city officials to catalog the over 5,000 questions that were brought up. From there, the city has continued to organize workshops, community events, and in-person rides to incorporate as many people as possible into the planning process.
Despite requiring a good deal of time and energy on behalf of city officials, this transparent approach resulted in a series of project and policy ideas. Throughout the process, Seskin has stressed the importance of establishing effective communication lines between all those involved.
“We want to make sure that it’s as easy as possible for folks to know that this is out there,” she said. ‘The next phase is finding all the partners, getting them on board, and telling them about the program. It’s worthwhile to do, but it does take time.”
One of the main criticisms of the public Hubway bike-share system in Boston is that supply has yet to meet demand. Since the bikes are located at static stations around Boston and neighboring communities, interested users who don’t have a station nearby are cut off from the service. In this context, foreign bike-sharing companies such as Ofo, Limebike, and VBike—to name a few—have introduced the concept of dockless bike-sharing for general use.
Seskin is cognizant of the competition presented by private bike-sharing services, but contends that the Hubway platform servicing individuals validated through the SNAP Card to Ride system is far superior in terms of quality, reliability, and equity. To create a more inclusive ecosystem, the City of Boston is offering a $5 a year membership to anyone that is a client or guest at any of the city’s homeless shelters or transitional housing centers. Additionally, all the bikes are maintained by a union shop that receives benefits and the support needed for the employees to perform their jobs safely.
“We have a minimum rideability standard for all of our stations,” Seskin said. “We work to make sure that the hiring process is as inclusive as possible … to help [employees] get into a regular job with regular pay and benefits.”
This low-cost bike-share program has been promoted as part of the larger Go Boston 2030 mobility plan instituted two years ago. The objective is to reimagine Boston’s transportation system by expanding the menu of services available to residents of the city. Ultimately, Go Boston 2030 is not just a vision, but also an action plan that will provide policymakers with a clear roadmap for the next 15 years and, ideally, beyond. The hope is that the improvements outlined in the report will promote equity, economic opportunity, and climate responsiveness in the city.
Featured Image by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor