(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Lyft to stop accepting cash for Bay Wheels bike rentals

Renting bikeshare in San Francisco will soon only be possible by phone, pre-paid card and credit card.

If you’ve only got cash, you’re out of luck.

Lyft, which operates the Bay Wheels bikeshare service in the Bay Area, this week quietly announced on their website that as of January 20 they will no longer accept cash to rent their bikes.

Cash payments were previously accepted by Bay Wheels through its “Bikeshare for All” program, a bikeshare subscription option available for people with low incomes. It starts at $5 for the first year and $5 monthly thereafter.

Now, Lyft will only accept pre-paid debit or credit cards as alternative payment methods.

Already, San Francisco leaders are up-in-arms over the change.

“This is outrageous,” Supervisor Hillary Ronen said. “And clearly shows that Lyft cares as little for low-income communities as it does for their exploited workers.”

Supervisor Matt Haney told the San Francisco Examiner, “They should reverse this decision. In order to ensure access for everyone, bike shares have to accept cash. Period.”

Both Ronen and Haney represent many low-income areas in San Francisco, including the Mission, Tenderloin and South of Market, for whom the low-income bikeshare subscription was initially designed. Haney said he would reach out to Lyft to express his position.

“I’m a big supporter of bike shares. I think we need a lot more,” he said. “So when they set up these sort of barriers to access, it’s a problem.

Some are saying ending cash payments will shut out low-income communities of color from renting bikes on the Bay Wheels platform. This was long feared in the Mission community in particular, where Bay Wheels bikes — formerly Ford GoBikes — were strung from trees in pieces, splattered with paint and lit on fire in protest.

When Mission activists fought the installation of Ford GoBikes, the bikeshare operators said the bikes were for “everyone,” and touted their cash-payment option as an example of how they were protecting immigrant communities who feared starting bank accounts and credit cards, for fear of deportation.

Mission activists pushed back, saying the bikeshare mode was marketed to, and catered to, a monied, white, tech crowd. They called it gentrification by bike.

Two years later, Jon Jacobo, vice president of the Mission neighborhood group Calle 24, said this move to go cashless validates every fear his group had about San Francisco bikeshare since the beginning.

“They literally did a bait and switch,” Jacobo said. “We said this was one of our concerns. They said this wouldn’t happen. They promise us the world, sure enough here we are again.”

Surveys show people of color and low-income communities often don’t have access to credit cards and payment options requiring banks.

As much as 50 percent of African American and Latino households in San Francisco are estimated to be unbanked, according to a 2005 study commissioned by The City. And in 2017, 17 percent of all African American households and 14 percent of all Latino households in the United States had no bank account, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission.

“There are still tens of thousands of people who are ‘unbanked’ in SF and the rest of the Bay Area,” Chema Hernandez Gil, a transportation advocate, wrote on Twitter Monday. “I was already very critical of Bike Share for All. It’s proxy eligibility programs have very low eligibility requirements, effectively excluding people who are poor in the Bay, but not poor by federal standards. This decision narrows it down even more.”

A Mission District bikeshare station was one of many vandalized in San Francisco in 2017. (Courtesy Photo)

The San Francisco Examiner asked Lyft to provide statistics on how many people used the cash option. Lyft declined to do so.

Lyft however did say that the percentage of their subscribers who are low-income is the same as the percentage of low-income residents in the Bay Area.

In a statement, a Bay Wheels spokesperson argued that prepaid cards offer the same protections as paying in cash, and would open up options to purchasing in more places. Right now paying cash in San Francisco for Bay Wheels requires a visit to a physical location like the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

“We accept cash loaded onto a prepaid card, so riders who prefer to pay without a credit or debit card can continue to do so — no SSN required and many cards offer no fees,” wrote a Bay Wheels spokesperson. “We are committed to and continue to support our Bike Share for All members who prefer to use cash and may be unbanked through prepaid cards. Supporting prepaid cards makes it easier for riders to manage and maintain their bikeshare membership at their convenience, including more locations to purchase and load cards, and helps us grow the Bike Share for All program alongside our partners like TransForm.”

Hernandez Gil was less than satisfied with this response.

“So @baywheels decided to engage with some bullshit spin,” he tweeted. “If @lyft’s only brick-and-mortar business in SF (@baywheels) no longer allows cash-only memberships for Bike Share for All, they’re not committed to an equitable bike share system.”


A bikeshare bike hangs from a tree in the Mission District in 2017. (Courtesy photo)

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