One of the biggest hurdles new public bike-share programs face is the problem of social inclusion. For a large part, the programs, which have popped up in cities from New York to Austin in recent years, aren't gaining major traction with low-income communities.
Boston, however, has taken an aggressive approach to making sure that everyone, regardless of income status, has an opportunity to ride—and is aware that they can. While annual Hubway memberships cost $85, the city offers an $80 discount for anyone on public assistance. That means if you live in low-income housing, your membership just costs $5. And, as of late March, doctors can prescribe memberships for those who qualify.
"What we've found is everyone seems to be interested [in the bike-share program]. And that was a relief," says Boston Bikes director Nicole Freedman. "It's just about reaching people in different ways. And maybe it wasn't through Facebook and Twitter, like we normally would."
While some would think that coordinating among the medical center and the public bike-share program might make a bureaucratic mess, Freedman says it was actually kind of easy. "From a logistics standpoint, it wasn't that hard," she says.
As a result, doctors at the Boston Medical Center can now prescribe $5 bike memberships to their low-income patients. Once they print out the Prescribe-A-Bike prescription, the patients can either call the city to register, or walk across the street to the Boston University transportation office and sign up right there. A free helmet and key fob arrive a few days later in the patients' mail.
"We do know that when cities subscribe bike memberships, the initial barriers to people of low incomes are the fee, not having bikes where they live, not having helmets, and Boston has a program that solves all of those things," explains Cassie Ryan, a registered nurse and BU doctoral student helping with the program. "Considering this is a nontraditional program, we thought, 'How do we use the medical system to hook people up to all of this?'"
It appears that Boston is the first American city to launch a service linking medicine to public bike shares. The next step, Ryan says, is to make it easy and as seamless as possible for busy health providers to write the scripts.