When Philadelphia’s offices, museums, and shops all shuttered in March 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city’s Indego bike-share service saw its total ridership plummet. Downtown commuters began working from home, and tourists stayed away. But one group — low-income passholders — began riding the light-blue bicycles like never before. After the public transit operator limited bus and subway service in parts of the city, Indego was often the only available form of transportation. Bike stations in low-income neighborhoods were especially busy near parks, as residents sought a socially distant way to exercise or unwind.

“We really heard during the pandemic that people still wanted to ride,” said Waffiyyah Murray, who oversees bike-share equity programs for the city of Philadelphia. “Some cities had to stop their bike-share systems, but we kept Indego running.”

A year later, Indego has 100 percent more reduced-fare Access Pass holders than it did before, according to Kristin Gavin-Wisniewski, Indego’s general manager. Regular passes are up by nearly 60 percent as riders return to using the service, especially for recreation. The bike-share service this year is building more docking stations in low-income neighborhoods and adding hundreds of electric “pedal-assist” bikes, which feature a motor that kicks in when a rider pedals, making riding easier. The efforts are part of Indego’s broader plans to double the size of its system by 2025.

Philadelphia is leading the charge among U.S. cities working to make bike-sharing more equitable and accessible. In Detroit, where more than a quarter of households don’t have access to a personal vehicle, the nonprofit MoGo is offering free passes to connect bus riders to bike-share stations. Chicago’s Divvy service is now expanding into predominantly Black neighborhoods, closing a longstanding gap in the eight-year-old system. Milwaukee’s Bublr Bikes is rolling out more adaptive bicycles, including recumbent bikes and tricycles, to accommodate users who can’t ride a traditional two-wheeler.

Bike-share advocates say the pandemic has illustrated the necessary role these systems play in helping people get to grocery stores, workplaces, libraries, or parks — all without burning fossil fuels and producing tailpipe pollution. Yet the past year has also revived thorny questions about how bike-sharing should fit into a city’s larger transportation network. Unlike buses or subways, bike-share services typically don’t receive public subsidies to operate; instead, they mainly rely on private-sector investment, philanthropic funding, and a battery of individual grants.

Read the full article about bike-sharing programs by Maria Gallucci at Grist.