City could try to stop Lyft from dropping cash payments for bikeshare

A city supervisor hopes to force Lyft to keep accepting cash for its bike rental service in San Francisco.

A city supervisor hopes to force Lyft to keep accepting cash for its bike rental service in San Francisco.

Lyft announced quietly this week that it would stop accepting cash payments for its Bay Wheels bikeshare service in the Bay Area, including San Francisco.

City officials and transportation advocates have been quick to criticize the move for cutting out people with low incomes, and potentially immigrants, from accessing a service already largely seen as catering to affluent white men.

Now, however, one San Francisco official is taking it a step farther, saying he wants to make it illegal to drop cash payments from city bikeshare.

In an interview Friday, Supervisor Ahsha Safai told the San Francisco Examiner he believes Lyft’s lack of cash payment is detrimental to his constituents in District 11 on the south side of San Francisco.

Safai said city supervisors asked the City Attorney’s Office to determine if Lyft is violating the newly-passed city law requiring San Francisco businesses to accept cash payments for its bikeshare service.

“Even if the City Attorney’s Office says it does not apply (to Lyft), we can very easily amend the law so that it does apply,” Safai said.

That city law was authored by Supervisor Vallie Brown, who lost her campaign for supervisor this past November. Her last day in office is Monday, but Safai, the first co-sponsor on the cash requirement law, will pick up the torch and push Lyft to reinstate cash payments to its low-income bikeshare program.

Safai also will block Bay Wheels from expanding any of its bike docks into District 11 neighborhoods while the issue is being resolved, he added.

“I believe that even if technically they’re not in violation of the law, they’re in violation of the spirit of the law,” Safai said. “Lyft needs to do the right thing.”

Bay Wheels’ low-income program, Bikeshare For All, offers a subscription to its bikeshare service for $5 in the first year, followed by $5 monthly the second year on. After encountering difficulty signing up members by cash, Lyft opted to end accepting cash payments and wrote on its website that anyone wishing to pay cash could purchase pre-paid debit cards to sign up for Bikeshare For All.

“We faced the hard truth that our to-date approach to cash payments has inhibited scaling access to the Bike Share for All program as only 9 percent of Bike Share for All members currently pay in cash,” Lyft wrote in a blog post.

Groups working in neighborhoods Safai represents are coming out against Lyft dropping a cash option and claiming the company did not invest enough in making it accessible in the first place. Oscar Grande, who runs the bike group Bicis Del Pueblo, said in an email to Safai that ending cash payments is “a practice widely viewed as discriminatory against low-income residents,” creating “barriers for low-income commuters.”

In the wake of that announcement, Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Matt Haney also denounced the end of cash payments as tone-deaf and harmful to low-income communities.

As much as 50 percent of black and Latino households in San Francisco may be unbanked, according to a 2005 city study. Many immigrants do not sign up for bank accounts for fear of deportation, advocates said.

Friday, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition became the newest voice to object. Notably, the coalition fought for the Bikeshare For All program to be instituted in the first place.

The bike advocacy group called on Lyft, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission — which negotiated Bay Wheels’ contract with Bay Area cities — to reinstate cash payments for bikeshare.

“Prepaid debit cards can create more barriers and are not an accessible replacement of cash payment,” the bike coalition wrote in a statement. “In a city that continues to face challenges in providing safe, healthy and affordable transportation for all of its residents, it’s critically important to provide access to everyone who would like to use bike share.”

Lyft has a contract granting exclusive rights to operate bikeshare in San Francisco, an effective monopoly granted with the understanding that the company must invest heavily in its expansion.

In defense of Lyft’s move, John Goodwin, spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said “there may be less to this than first meets the eye.”

Goodwin said Bay Wheels only has 145 active members who pay cash, representing about 9 percent of all of its low-income Bike Share for All members.

However, the bike coalition pointed out one important barrier to signing up for the program: The lack of locations.

Anyone desiring to pay for Bay Wheels with cash currently has to hike to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission offices at 375 Beale St. in San Francisco, or to Good Karma Bikes in San Jose and some library locations in Oakland and Berkeley.

Perhaps then, the program was designed to fail, bike advocates speculated.

“Having to journey from outer southeast neighborhoods” to MTC, downtown “every month during business hours is a major barrier,” Grande from Bicis Del Pueblo said.

Initially, when Lyft made its announcement that it would end cash payments, the company also promoted a statement from transportation advocacy group TransForm that appeared to tacitly defend ending cash payments.

Lyft also donated $700,000 to a program administered by TransForm in February this year, which some bike advocates said clouded any public statements the group made in defense of Lyft.

But after it netted some public scrutiny on social media — including from local bike advocate Chema Hernandez Gil, who called it a “justice issue” — TransForm released a more definitive statement in support of cash payments. TransForm spokesperson Edie Irons said for cash payments to truly be successful, Lyft would need to invest heavily in making sure target communities are reached.

“It’s a terrible system. We’ve never been satisfied with how the cash system was working,” Irons told the Examiner. “Of course we want to see more locations, that are more accessible, for cash payment. We never endorsed removing cash payment. We’re dismayed our support for prepaid cards was made to look like that.”

At the end of the day, however, Irons said the cost of administering a cash program might be too high for Lyft to desire to engage in. It may be simpler, easier and more beneficial to Bay Area low-income communities to simply make the service free, she said.

“We continue to advocate that Bikeshare For All memberships and low-income scooter programs should just be free, period,” she said.

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