E-Bikes, Mobility Justice, and Rebooting Bikeshare

If you have crossed paths with our team over the years, you know that we hold a weird little place in the mobility world — we are part instigators, part problem solvers, part dreamers. Mobility Development starts with the premise that if transportation systems are going to serve everybody, they must be community controlled. With this mantra, we have supported the launch and growth of carshare, bikeshare, and volunteer transportation networks in marginalized communities since 2009.

About two months ago, we started talking with Uber about a donation of JUMP e-bikes under this same premise, following Uber’s exit from direct bikeshare operations. After working to find common ground, we agreed to take ownership of 3,000 e-bikes.

A lot of bikes

Gearing up for the massive scale of this donation also means gearing up for a conversation on how these bikes can serve as a tool for racial equity and mobility justice.

We critically need your participation in the conversation during this time when we’re collectively rebooting much of what is flawed in our society, as we re-imagine how bikesharing should work and who it should serve.

Backing up by a decade, JUMP (then a startup called Social Bicycles) observed that bicycle sharing was leaving many communities behind. Black, brown, and indigenous communities were missing from the map of where bikeshare was launching in DC, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Denver, circa 2010. Smaller city bikeshare programs were deemed “infeasible” by consultants of the day.

Perhaps worse: Black and Brown, as well as low- to moderate-income users were not at the table for the design of these programs, which were basically just an import of what worked for wealthy European cities. This had predictable consequences when institutions attempted to fix this after the fact without addressing the root issues.

Our non-profit in Buffalo, NY started working with JUMP’s co-founder Ryan Rzepecki and the team at Social Bicycles as the startup’s pilot city in 2011. By then, we had come to similar conclusions about a broken model in the carshare world. Having launched Buffalo CarShare, the first shared mobility program focused on marginalized communities, we saw a troubling outlook. We wrote about our progress and the gaps we observed at a time when carsharing and bikesharing was rapidly expanding:

14 of the 30 most transit-dependent cities do not have neighborhood-based car sharing services.Our hope is that our initial success […] and other work to come from our organization can be used to inspire car sharing startups in other cities that have been largely overlooked as markets in the past. […]Bicycle sharing is [also] prohibitively expensive for many smaller cities to launch in its current form. It is also expensive to maintain relative to the income the service produces. Buffalo CarShare is working with Social Bicycles, a Brooklyn-based startup company, to launch a network of low-cost, but high-tech bicycles that can be integrated into the existing BCS business model thereby cutting the costs of service provision.

The disparities we highlighted in 2011 still exist today, and are growing worse as programs shut down during the global pandemic.

However, we have three things going into 2021 that we did not have in 2011:

  1. The heightened awareness around structural racism, anti-Blackness, and racialized inequities, and the lofted affirmation that systems of institutional racism need to be dismantled and replaced.

In recent years, we’ve been aligned in our critique of the bikeshare world with Olatunji Oboi Reed. Oboi is a critical national voice in addressing inequities in these systems, and was honored for it as a 2015 White House Transportation Champion for Change awardee, under the Obama administration. Oboi’s organization, Equiticity has lifted up the idea of bicycle libraries as a concept for resetting and centering future programs in Black and Brown communities. While we’ve discussed this concept for years with Oboi, there has never been the spark to make this happen, until now.

So we are thrilled to announce that Equiticity Ventures will partner with us on this initiative. Equiticity Ventures and Mobility Development will team with community-controlled organizations to deliver, evaluate, and advocate for new models in racially equitable mobility. As the first step in this process, Oboi will join us as one of three co-chairs of a Request for Information (RFI) process targeted to community-based organizations and public agencies to determine how best to utilize these e-bikes.

Along with Oboi, Mike Galligano, founder of our Buffalo Carshare and Reddy Bikeshare programs, will also co-chair this RFI. As Executive Director of Shared Mobility, Inc., Mike is leading work to manage and redeploy this massive fleet. Mike and the Reddy team bring a ten-year track record of working with the technology behind the JUMP Bikes. RFI efforts will be supported by Creighton Randall and the planning team at Mobility Development Partners, which has supported similar initiatives across the U.S.

This RFI is your opportunity to help us reimagine personal electric mobility:

  • How will these business models be reimagined? Should access to an electric bicycle be like access to education? Healthcare? Electricity?

Soon, we will announce a steering committee to pedal this initiative forward. Recommendations for members are welcome through August 14th. We aim to release the RFI in September and will hold a public information session later this month.

The RFI itself should neither be the start or the end of the conversation about breaking down and rebuilding our industry. It’s also not the start or end of how you can get involved. We will need thinkers and doers, and above all, people that give a damn and do not accept the world as it is.

Unloading bikes in Buffalo

Please reach out to get involved and sign up to stay informed about our progress and details around the forthcoming RFI. We hope you’ll join us in this humbling yet thrilling effort to re-imagine what is possible in this most challenging of times.

Principal Consultant at Mobility Development Partners, working to support local organizations design, execute, and grow community-controlled mobility networks.