Who Rides Bikeshare in San Francisco?

During the pandemic, Bay Wheels bikes served a diverse cohort and helped people make essential trips, according to a new report.

A new report on San Francisco’s Bay Wheels bikeshare system sheds light on who uses bikeshare in the city, and why. 

In recent years, the Lyft-owned black and blue bikes have become a staple of the city’s transportation network. In February of 2020, San Franciscans took 400,000 rides on Bay Wheels classic bikes and pedal-assist electric bikes combined. Ridership is way down — only 110,000 trips were logged in March — but now, the people riding are more likely to be essential workers than downtown office commuters. 

That diversity is reflected in the report, which paints a portrait of the average rider that diverges from the salad-crushing, Patagonia-wearing tech bro commonly associated with bikeshare. In fact, the majority of Bay Wheels riders are people of color, and their median income is considerably below that of the city as a whole. The data indicate that many people who have used bikeshare over the past year have been using it for essential trips. 

Produced by Lyft and based on data gathered in December 2020, the report provides an indication of why people use bikeshare in San Francisco. About one third of riders used the service when public transit was not available, and 81 percent said they used the bikes to complete the “first mile” and “last mile” trips to and from a bus stop or train platform — 23 percent on a weekly basis. Just over half of riders do not have a personal car, and of those who do, 29 percent said they used it less because of bikeshare. Nearly half of respondents said it would have been “difficult or even impossible” for them to access essential services during the pandemic without bikeshare. And nearly three quarters of riders say they use bikeshare for recreation or exercise. 

The report also provides a glimpse at the demographics of bikeshare ridership. The average age of riders is 34 years old, and 34 percent of riders are women, 32 percent are Hispanic/Latinx, 18 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander, and 4 percent are Black. The median household income of riders is $73,000. 

Those figures diverge from citywide averages in some interesting ways. Bikeshare riders skew male and are slightly younger than the average San Franciscan. They are much more likely to be Hispanic and less likely to be Asian than the general population; while white and Black people are more or less proportionally represented, according to U.S. census data. Bikeshare riders are also considerably lower-income than the general population, in a city where the median household income stood at about $112,000 in 2019.

This data is distinct from the data collected in the East Bay and San Jose, where Lyft also runs Bay Wheels fleets. Looking at those three bikeshare networks combined (the East Bay’s system includes Berkeley, Emeryville, and parts of Oakland), the report states that 40 percent of bikeshare trips in the Bay Area start or end in a low-income area, as designated by HUD. Taking the region as a whole, Bay Area Bay Wheels riders have a median income of $57,000, and 58 percent of riders identify as people of color. 

The demographic data in the report comes by way of a survey done in collaboration with YouGov carried out in December 2020. The survey of bikeshare riders on Lyft-owned systems throughout the country received about 10,000 total responses, and about 8,000 survey completions. It’s unclear how many of those surveys were done in San Francisco.

Over the past decade, bikeshare has skyrocketed in popularity across the U.S. The largest systems, including the ones in New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and the Bay Area, are all owned by Lyft. In recent years, bikeshare has been overshadowed by the meteoric rise of e-scooters — a business that Lyft is also in, along with San Francisco-based Lime and Spin. Together, shared bikes and scooters have turned into a significant aspect of urban transportation. In 2019, America’s 136 million shared bike and scooter rides would be equivalent to the fifth-busiest subway or light rail system in the country, providing more trips than BART. 

The report comes a week after Bay Wheels expanded its footprint to include the Presidio, where only the more expensive electric bikes will be available. 

The convoluted and relatively high prices of Bay Wheels’ e-bikes have been a source of criticism of the bikeshare system, which has a legal monopoly over bikeshare in San Francisco until 2025. (Monthly members, including low-income people in the Bikeshare for All program, pay lower prices for e-bikes.) Supervisor Dean Preston has called for the city to study what it would take to create a municipally-owned bikeshare system in San Francisco. That concept is gaining traction elsewhere: Austin’s public transit agency recently took over the city’s bikeshare system. Santa Monica’s city-owned bikeshare program, on the other hand, recently went belly up, and was replaced by a Lyft-owned system. 

No matter who owns and operates bikeshare in San Francisco, it’s clear that people want — and in many cases, need – to ride.

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