This past July, Mayor Thomas Menino announced the installation of New Balance Hubway, a bike sharing service that allows anyone over 18 with a membership to rent a bike by the hour or day.
Hubway is the flagship program of Boston Bikes, a City of Boston initiative that strives, according to its web page, to “make Boston a world-class bicycling city by creating safe and inviting conditions for all residents and visitors.”
Over the past few months, the Hubway system, with its sleek, grey metallic bikes and computerized payment centers, seems to have caught on with residents and tourists in Boston’s bustling downtown area.
But will Hubway catch on in the hood?
That’s what community organizers and advocates gathered to find out when the Boston Public Health Commission and Madison Park Community Development Corporation met with a handful of local neighborhood groups about the availability of discount Hubway memberships for Boston’s low-income residents, particularly those living in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan.
Federal stimulus funding is helping to subsidize memberships for those for whom the normal cost of a membership ($85) would be a question. Any Boston resident over 18 who now receives some form of public assistance like SNAP (food stamps), Medicare or HeadStart is eligible for the subsidized membership.
Residents must call BPHC to answer a short series of questions to confirm their eligibility and local residency. Once confirmed, they receive a discount code which they can then use to receive the subsidized membership rate when submitting their Hubway application online or by phone.
For BPHC, the installation of Hubway was a prime opportunity to show residents how bicycling can help them become healthier. This is especially important in Boston’s urban communities, where black and Latino residents experience higher rates of obesity in comparison to Boston’s white residents.
“Obesity rates are different depending on which neighborhood you live in,” said Daisy De La Rosa, director of BPHC’s Health Connection. “We find that neighborhoods [with] a higher concentration of communities of color have higher obesity rates.” Mattapan has the highest rates, followed by Dorchester, East Boston, Roxbury and Hyde Park.
According to national data, 17 percent of all deaths are related to poor diet or sedentary lifestyles, behaviors health practitioners say lead to obesity. BPHC studies show that only about half of all Boston residents say that they’re getting enough physical activity.
The commission is hoping discount Hubway memberships will encourage residents to find new ways to get and stay active. But they realize that this isn’t always easy to do in an urban environment, where De La Rosa said healthy behaviors are often “not supported.”
“Obviously, [in an urban environment], cars are [the] dominating mode of transportation, and many [environments] are not designed to support people walking and biking. And in reality, a lot of our communities have violence and safety concerns that don’t encourage people to go out and walk and be more physically active,” she said.
Angela Kelly, assistant director of Community Action for Madison Park Development Corporation, explained how her organization’s involvement in the federal “Complete Streets” program would support residents as they advocated for healthier, safer and easier ways to move around their communities.
“We’ve realized that one connection around encouraging people to be active is that they first have to feel safe,” Kelly said. “We know that there are hot spots in this community where people don’t feel safe, and sometimes that has very much to do with the built environment.”
She described Complete Streets as a redesign process where “streets are planned in such a way that all users have safe access.” This means considering the many different populations and age groups — from children and seniors, to pedestrians pushing carts and carriages and people in wheelchairs.
She pointed out that the popularity of the bike share program could have a significant influence on the upcoming redesign of Melnea Cass Boulevard, one of Roxbury’s busiest thoroughfares.
“The team of us advocates are working together to identify ways that the built environment of our neighborhood, especially the Dudley Square area and in the Melnea Cass Boulevard area, do not encourage people to be physically active, do not encourage people to walk, to bike, to feel safe when using public transit,” she said.
In the meanwhile, Madison Park will continue to work closely with BPHC to help promote the bike share to local residents. BPHC has more than 500 membership discounts available that must be spoken for by March 2012; to date, only 50 residents have signed up for the subsidized membership.
And with the Hubway system slated to shut down for the winter in November, the two organizations were anxious to encourage the advocates in attendance to tell their clients and colleagues about the program.
Still, some at the meeting were concerned that Hubway’s confusing membership terms would discourage people from maintaining a membership or joining at all. When one advocate insisted that unclear rental terms opened the door for new members to rack up unwanted rental charges they can’t afford, Hubway marketing specialist Ian Sanders-Fleming admitted that the bike share had a “relatively complicated pricing system,” and said the company was working on affixing tags with the rental rates to payment kiosks and bikes.
Also at issue for some was the lack of Hubway stations in the Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan areas, which some people pointed out made it difficult to make the kind of short trips the bike share program is typically intended to provide.
Though the bike share was designed so that stations are no further than two to four hundred meters from each other, as of now, there are only six Hubway stations in the areas where much of Boston’s low-income communities of color reside. All the stations are in Roxbury and are averaging around 11 trips per day.
De La Rosa encouraged the organizers to remind their clients that their involvement and voice would be key to making Hubway a viable transportation option in their communities.
“I think that community advocacy’s very important to make sure the bike stations make it out to all the neighborhoods. [That’s] why it’s even more critical that our Roxbury stations work, because it’s an example that this can work in [urban] neighborhoods.”
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