Microtransit programs are rolling, people-moving proof of Occam’s Razor: Sometimes the simplest, most obvious answer is the right one. If you want to allow people to get from place to place in a convenient, energy efficient way, on-demand products such as bikes and scooters can be far more efficient and practical than cars, buses or trains.
And there’s an added benefit: riding a bike to get from point to point also provides a form of physical exercise that many people don’t get in their everyday life, and which provides a myriad of both physical and mental health benefits. (The average Zagster rider burns 350 calories per hour riding a bikeshare bike.) Microtransit operators and their partners are well served by embracing the health benefits their programs bring to the communities they serve.
That’s why health impact assessments (HIAs) can be such a valuable part of microtransit programs. HIAs add a valuable metric to the mix of ways we can measure the value and effects of active transportation programs.
The city of Rochester, NY, offers a great example of the value of using an HIA on a first foray into bikesharing. Zagster launched its Rochester Bike Share (RBS) in 2017, with an initial goal of deploying a fleet of 250 bikes at 25 stations dispersed throughout the Upstate city. In fact, the program exceeded its goals, seeing 340 bikes deployed at 46 stations. The project took full advantage of the more than 60 miles of on-street bike lanes in the city, and as with any bikeshare, offered the potential for more physical activity, more interaction between users and their communities, and better access to healthy food sources. All in all, RBS looks like a success.
But things can always be improved, which is where the Rochester Bike Share Health Impact Assessment comes into play. Prepared by the health planning organization Common Ground Health with financial assistance from the Genesee Transportation Council, the RBS HIA uncovered several areas in which RBS could improve the way it serves its primary purpose of providing convenient personal mobility while at the same time improving the health of its users and—perhaps more importantly—potential users.
The HIA saw three primary features that limited the potential success of RBS:
Access to the program is dependent on proximity to the bike stations;
Not all residents had the credit cards or smart phones needed to lock and unlock the bikes;
None of the stations was located near a grocery store;
As a result, the study made five specific recommendations that it said would increase use of the system, and as a result, improve the health of users:
Put bike stations within one-half mile of grocery stores, farmers markets, parks and other community resources;
Improve the city’s bike infrastructure, including adding more bike lanes and trails and making them more interconnected;
Increase community education and awareness of the program and its benefits through the use of empowered brand ambassadors;
Enhance user safety by placing stations in high-visibility areas in traditionally underserved areas of the city;
Improve the payment system to reduce barriers to low-income and at-risk residents.
Zagster and its subsidiary brand, Pace, immediately worked to solve these problems. One of the most immediate solutions came in the form of the Pace Pledge, Zagster’s plan to make ridesharing available to everyone, regardless of income level. Under the terms of the Pace Pledge, riders with EBT cards qualify for a $5 monthly membership, meaning they can get an unlimited number of 60-minute trips each month. Zagster also created Pace Cash, which allows users to pay for rides using PayPal Cash and PayNearMe to replenish Pace accounts at stores like Family Dollar, Rite Aid and CVS.
Zagster also began to prioritize the placement of new bike stations by using chronic disease census data presented in the HIA, which recommended prioritizing 12 census tracts within the RBS area that were most in need of health interventions and would benefit the most from active mobility solutions. It also instituted a series of meetings with key stakeholders in the area, and improved signage to help with community awareness of the program and its benefits.
“We’re going to continue to capitalize on the surge of success we’ve seen with the bike share to date, to leverage its potential to improve the health of those most in need in our city,” says Benjamin Woelk, a health and community infrastructure analyst for Common Ground Health and the author of the Rochester Bike Share HIA. “The HIA led to a front-page article in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle about the health of Rochesterians, which greatly increased awareness of the project and how to engage with the bike share. It also allowed us to begin planning for a summit on active transportation infrastructure and health-informed decision-making in the realm of transportation throughout our region. As a result, we learned that we need to prioritize vulnerable populations and enable them to participate in active transportation by having the correct community infrastructure to make that happen. Our goal with this HIA and future HIAs is to have them all align with New York State’s Health Across all Policies initiative.”
As the old business adage goes, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. HIAs provide ample ways to measure a shared transportation and mobility project’s efficacy on health impacts. And as Zagster’s ongoing efforts show, we can manage in a way that offers continuous improvement.