Image by RVA Bike Share.

Bike sharing has never been more popular in America. However, even as national programs see record numbers of riders, Richmond’s RVA Bike Share seems to have stalled, and a major expansion to try to save the service is only progressing in fits and starts.

RVA Bike Share first rolled onto Richmond’s streets to dazzle visitors during the 2015 UCI Road World Championships as part of a larger promise from the city to create a more bicycle-friendly Virginia capital. The handful of stations that comprised the pilot project were meant to expand into a formal bike share system the following year.

Despite a delay, RVA Bike Share eventually launched to much fanfare two years ago in August 2017. The first phase of RVA Bike Share included 20 stations and 220 bikes scattered across the city, while the anticipated $1.9 million second phase would double the number of stations and bikes to 40 and 440, respectively.

Although it announced the expansion more than a year ago, the city agency responsible for the second phase, the Department of Public Works (DPW), has only rolled out a limited number of new electric-powered bikes and long ago admitted it has “no timeline for completing the project.”

After two years of operation, RVA Bike Share seems to have made little impact on Richmond’s transportation ecosystem. One year after the bikeshare launched, its website boasted only 378 active members in a city of more than 220,000 people. Similarly, only 5,262 people out of the Richmond metropolitan region’s 1.2 million residents and over seven million annual visitors had ever tried out one of the bikes. Today, the indicators and stats page of the website no longer shares any such ridership information.

This highly-anticipated system was supposed to revolutionize cycling in Richmond as bike sharing did in DC and other US cities by offering locals and visitors alike a cheap, easy, and healthy way to get around. Advocates hoped it would create a virtuous cycle of ever more bicycle riders and safer streets for all. This exciting vision of a healthier, greener, and more mobile Richmond remains, however, a distant one.

City government and RVA Bike Share’s Canadian parent company, Bewegen, deserve kudos for getting creative and offering a Groupon for membership, providing a month of free rides to patrons of local businesses that were affected by Pulse construction, and promoting bikeshare tours exploring Richmond’s brunch scene, black culture, and murals. There are, however, three critical and far more substantial areas in which RVA Bike Share needs a full makeover if is to survive, let alone thrive: Accessibility, affordability, and agreements.

1. Accessibility

A successful bikeshare system requires two types of accessibility: A dense network of stations that cater to all, as well as leadership that engages with and listens to the needs of its users—city residents. So far, Richmond has neither.

Bike share experts will tell you the key to making bike sharing work in any city is “go big or go home.” There needs to be a lot of bikes available, or the system won’t be very useful and won’t get enough traction. Unfortunately, RVA doesn’t seem to be addressing its basic problem of not having enough stations or bikes.

Shortly after the system launched, Powhatan-born transit journalist and GGWash contributor Canaan Merchant pointed out that RVA Bike Share stations are “concentrated downtown and in the West End which makes sense because it’s where some of the city’s densest and most bike friendly neighborhoods are, but this first phase ignores the city’s poorer neighborhoods in the East End and Southside.”

The current bikeshare network includes just one station east of I-95 and three stations barely south of the Downtown Expressway. All other stations restrict themselves to Downtown, the Fan, or Broad Street. Such a dense network along a commercial corridor like Broad Street may prove useful for people running errands during their lunch break. However, to boost ridership, bikeshare requires stations located in neighborhoods where people live.

RVA Bike Share understandably limited its stations to the flattest portions of the city in its first phase, but now that the second phase of motorized e-bikes has begun to roll out, there is no excuse not to better connect those neighborhoods on the other side of a hill, bridge, or river. This second phase must prioritize underserved residential areas of the city and dole out the twenty new stations to Northside, Southside, and the East End to create a truly useful city-wide network.

Map of bike share stations in Richmond. Image by RVA Bike Share.

With accessible leadership at RVA Bike Share, a more equitable and effective rollout of the second phase that would meet the needs of all Richmonders should be guaranteed. However, so far the Department of Public Works has proved more elusive than engaged. Over the two years of RVA Bike Share’s existence, DPW has denied multiple requests from the Times-Dispatch to interview the bikeshare coordinator, Jake Helmboldt.

Leadership that listens and takes heed of the public—especially RVA Bike Share’s users—would actively solicit feedback. Instead, it seems the only work that has been done to find out where Richmond residents would like to see the 20 new stations is a year old independent survey from Sportsbackers’ Bike Walk RVA.

The expansion and new station placement shouldn’t be a game of trial and error. Targeted community engagement from the top could make sure Richmonders are heard and the new stations are located to best serve their needs.

2. Affordability

An annual pass—the most affordable option for Richmond residents looking to incorporate bike sharing into their commute—currently costs $96. In an era of subscriptions that users can cancel at any time, RVA Bike Share needs to offer an attractive price to earn such a commitment. For low-income and unbanked Richmonders, on the other hand, a $96 credit card charge is not a carefully weighed purchase but rather an impossibility.

Roughly $100 for a year of use may not sound unreasonable, but other bikeshares across the country offer lower rates for networks with 10 times more bikes than what RVA Bike Share currently provides. Furthermore, people in DC, Boston, and San Francisco earn substantially more than the average Richmonder, making a $96 a year price tag an even bigger ask relative to the $85 an Alexandrian would pay to commute with Capital Bikeshare. The fact that so few people in our city believe RVA Bike Share is a good enough value to become an active member should be cause enough for a rethinking of the current price point.

RVA Bike Share bicycles. Image by RVA Bike Share.

As is too often the case in modern policy making, those from the lower rungs of the income bracket have seemingly been forgotten. RVA Bike Share has no pricing targeting low-income Richmonders and has not mentioned any plans to do so. Portland State University released a comprehensive study last year which showed “low-income people of color were more likely than other groups to say that the cost of a membership was prohibitive to their use of a system.”

Especially in the former capital of the Confederacy, our government should be modeling inclusive public policy that actively seeks to promote equity. There exist many role model bike share systems such as B-Cycle in Denver or DC’s Capital Bikeshare, both of which cater to low-income and non-banked clientele with $5 annual passes.

Bird’s launch of its scooter sharing service in Richmond last year proved highly controversial⁠ and ultimately resulted in the impounding and auctioning off of the entire fleet. But in Baltimore, the company “agreed to give discounts to low-income users and ensure that at least a quarter of their fleet serves mixed-income neighborhoods.” That’s more than RVA Bike Share has done.

Boosting affordability boosts overall ridership. RVA Bike Share needs to offer Richmonders a good value and options for the low-income and non-banked among us if they want to raise ridership as well as revenues.

Bike shares around the US
Host city System Annual pass cost Median income
Minneapolis Nice Ride $75 $73,231
Washington, DC Capital Bikeshare $85 $95,843
Boston Hubway $85 $82,380
San Francisco Bay Area Bike Share $88 $96,777
Denver B-Cycle $95 $71,926
Richmond RVA Bike Share $96 $62,929

3. Agreements

The best bikeshares amplify their impact on a city through agreements with large partners such as corporations, universities, and public transit agencies. So far, RVA Bike Share has only convinced one company (CarMax) to sponsor one station. Besides a letter from Mayor Levar Stoney asking for support, it’s unclear what—if anything—the city is doing to ensure bike sharing’s success through institutional agreements. Sadly, Richmond’s bikeshare currently operates as a lone wolf in an industry that requires robust partnerships to thrive.

That same PSU study found that “when asked about what incentives would make residents more likely to use bikeshare, the most popular response was free transfers between bikeshare and public transportation.”

Imagine a world in which GRTC and RVA Bike Share link their two systems so Richmonders could hop off the Pulse and ride a bike the last mile home for free. What if RVA Bike Share negotiated a deal with VCU similar to GRTC’s and offered free bikeshare access to its students, faculty, and staff? At the least the city could strike a deal to offer its own employees a reduced rate for the annual pass to decrease downtown congestion and promote the health of its workers.

An uncertain future

In its more than two years in operation, RVA Bike Share has generated only $83,000 in revenue. That means that each year the system is only able to cover one tenth of its $393,000 in annual operating costs. No transportation system fully pays for itself—and it’s bad policy to hold any to that standard, but RVA Bike Share’s inability to cover more than a tiny fraction of its costs should serve as a canary in the coalmine for city officials.

For now that funding gap is covered by a $1.06 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Improvement Program. In six months time, however, the money from the feds will run out, and who will pay the difference remains an open question.

If RVA Bike Share continues to ignore its lack of accessibility, affordability, and institutional agreements, its stint as part of Richmond’s multimodal ecosystem may be short lived.

Wyatt Gordon is Greater Greater Washington's Virginia Correspondent. He's a born-and-raised Richmonder with a master's in Urban Planning from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and a bachelor's in International Political Economy from American University. Previously he's written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Civil Beat, Style Weekly, and RVA Magazine. You can find him on Richmond's Southside.