Columns, Opinions

Friedman ’19: JUMP bikes are a boon for public transport — for some

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, September 28, 2018

On Monday night, I test drove a JUMP bike on a journey from Wayland Square’s Starbucks to the Rockefeller Library. The bike shattered my expectations, especially after the electric pedal-assist kicked in and made the hill up Angell Street seem like an airport runway. I would classify the experience akin to riding an electric chariot, and the bike feels like a moped at top speeds (around 20 mph). Long gone are the days of walking into class sweaty after a strenuous morning ride. It seems that JUMP bikes are here to stay, which I think is great. Where other cities have failed, Providence has succeeded in its implementation of bike-sharing, but despite JUMP’s success, the lack of equity in distribution of bikes deserves redress.

JUMP bikes arrived in Providence this September during a turbulent time for the bike-share and electric scooter rental industry. Docked bike-sharing is an established concept in big cities like London and New York, which rolled out their Santander Cycles and Citi Bike programs in 2010 and 2013, respectively. Now, “dockless” bike-sharing, which allows parking of bikes anywhere outside the public right-of-way, has achieved unprecedented scale in an increasing number of cities. As of 2017, “five major dockless bike-share companies reported operating in approximately 25 American cities,” according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials. As of August 2018, Bird, an electric scooter company with a similar business model, reported operations in over 60 U.S. cities.

Providence got its first taste of the transportation “sharing” economy this past summer, when Bird scooters appeared without warning in July. However, Bird’s sudden invasion of Providence’s streets was over as soon as it started, as its scooters vanished just a month later after extensive reactionary regulation, possibly to the disappointment of next year’s Brown pre-college students. Emerging electric scooter entrepreneurs take note: Scooter numbers are now capped at 300, companies must pay the city $1 per day per scooter and the density of scooters may not exceed 100 per square mile.

Despite creating barriers for unannounced scooter arrivals, Providence officials still believed in the public utility of shared e-vehicles. Providence smartly learned from the mistakes of bigger cities, whose urban landscapes became economic battlegrounds between warring bike companies. Many companies left behind bike graveyards when they retreated from reactive and prohibitively expensive regulation in cities like Dallas, whose bike population decreased by about 16,500 this year. Providence avoided this by awarding JUMP an exclusive five-year contract in 2017. The city partnered with Lifespan and Tufts Health Plan to sponsor a reduced rate plan for low-income riders, allowing them one hour of ride time per day for a year for $5. The JUMP project in Providence received public assistance as well; it was funded by Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant money that was reallocated from the failed streetcar initiative. The project also receives $200,000 annually from D.C. nonprofit PeopleForBikes.

So far, the bikes have been a huge success, especially for Mayor Jorge Elorza, who tactfully released a statement addressing not only affordability, but also the environment and public health: “The JUMP bike-share program offers Providence residents and visitors an affordable, eco-friendly and healthy way to explore or commute.”

However, for all of JUMP’s success, I think Elorza and the city need to address systematic flaws. Specifically, the distribution of bike docking stations is unfairly skewed toward the College Hill neighborhood. Low-income neighborhoods such as Washington Park and Olneyville, whose residents are most likely to use JUMP bikes to get to work, have few docking stations. I understand that College Hill rides present the best opportunity for JUMP (which is now owned by Uber) to make money, but considering that the program receives significant funding from nonprofits and the government, it is incumbent on either the company or the city to address the geographic disparity in service.

By granting JUMP exclusive rights to the city, Providence successfully avoided the infighting that doomed the bike-sharing programs of many other American cities. However, a challenge remains: Providence needs to leverage the deal with JUMP to better serve the constituents whom the program stands to help the most.

Andrew Friedman ’19 can be reached at andrew_friedman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.