Esplanade closure begins February 1st

Bike-share membership with a food-stamp card? Portland hasn’t shut the door

Posted by on December 2nd, 2015 at 11:44 am

An Oregon Trail card might work as an ID for a
bike share system, even if no charge were made.
(Photo: M.Andersen/BikePortland)

Update 1:25 pm: This article was based on a Nov. 2 interview, but we didn’t check with the city again before publishing; we should have. Since Nov. 2, the city has done new research and is also speaking about the issues differently. We’ve changed the headline to reflect that. See the bottom of the post for more information.

Making bike-share systems useful to poorer people has been one of the thorniest problems in North American bike sharing.

One reason is probably that you need a credit or debit card to access most bike-share systems, and almost 20 percent of American households that earn less than $30,000 a year don’t have bank accounts. Another reason, presumably, is that bike share memberships cost upwards of $100 a year or (in Portland’s case) $2.50 per nonmember ride.

Bike sharing systems have tried to offset these problems by creating elaborate systems to allow cash purchases of memberships, or by discounting memberships to as little as $5 a year. The system Portland plans to launch next year is aiming to do both — though such programs have struggled to get more than several dozen eligible people to jump through the hoops and sign up.

If only huge numbers of poor Oregonians had already signed up for debit-type cards and carried them in their wallets everywhere they go.

As of 2014, 19 percent of Portland households use a personalized, government-issued electronic benefit transfer card to claim some sort of food stamp benefit, formally known by the acronym SNAP. Oregon’s food stamp program is one of the best in the nation at getting people to sign up; almost 100 percent of qualifying Oregonians have done so.

So what’s stopping Portland from offering free or deeply discounted bike-share memberships with a food stamp card?

Technical hurdles, but possible solutions

Bike Share passage press conference-4.jpg

Portland Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick at Portland’s bike share announcement in September.
(Photos: J.Maus/BikePortland)

To be sure, there would be major technical hurdles. Modern bike-share systems rely on credit cards not just to make money but to track users’ identities, so they can be contacted and charged if a bike is lost or damaged.

Oregon’s SNAP program has a name and (usually) an address associated with all its recipients. Elliott McFadden, executive director for the bike share system in Austin, Texas, said in an interview that sharing SNAP recipient data among government agencies or with a city-chartered bike-share company might violate privacy rights. But Steve Hoyt-McBeth, who is overseeing Portland’s bike share contract as the city prepares its system, said there’d be a simple way around that: ask people explicitly to opt in.

“You have an [intergovernmental agreement] with the other agency, whether that’s a university or Human Health Services or Multnomah County, whoever that is, and you just try to provide a portal,” he said in an interview last month. “Once they agree to it … whatever instrument they’re already using, they can continue to use. Student card, EBT card.”

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What about collecting money on a lost or damaged bike? A bike share system couldn’t exactly seize someone’s food stamp benefits if something goes wrong.

But that’s also a risk for cash systems like the one Portland is already planning to use, which will ask people to bring a mobile phone or paper printout to a local convenience store and pay cash there to get their bike-share membership. (Aaron Ritz, who works on a similar program for Philadelphia’s Indego system, said Wednesday that 280 people have bought a cash membership since the April launch, and 52 out of Indego’s 4,215 monthly members currently pay cash.)

In fact, anonymous rentals are already a risk with any credit-card-based system. If you want to trash or steal a bike-share bike, you can do so for the price of an anonymous VISA cash card from the grocery store. (With Portland’s system, theft will also require disabling a bike’s onboard GPS.)

The biggest problem with SNAP-card memberships isn’t that they wouldn’t work – it’s that they might

Bike share ride with Oregon team-1

Oregonians rent bike-share rides at the National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C.

Hoyt-McBeth, the Portland bike share project manager, said that though the concept of offering bike-share memberships to SNAP households is “really interesting and exciting,” he didn’t expect the city to do so it also carries many challenges.

Even if the technical and policy problems could be solved, he said, a deeper one could arise: basic problem, a SNAP card program might be too successful at getting lots of poor people to use bike sharing.

“We can’t run a system based on people who can’t pay,” Hoyt-McBeth said. “They take that proverbial last bike, and then somebody with their juicy credit card comes up and wants to ride that bike for three hours on the waterfront.”

In North America, bike share systems are funded largely by that second person.

Hoyt-McBeth said Portland is pursuing other options like letting college students use bike sharing, in part because students’ memberships could be bundled into their school fees.

“Students would be a heck of a lot easier than people using SNAP,” he said.

Beyond that, he said, the most important thing Portland is trying to do to serve low-income people is “have a really simple, low-cost fare instrument” — $2.50 per ride.

If the city wants bike share to be helpful to large numbers of poor people, Hoyt-McBeth said, then taxpayers will have to pay for that. And for years, Portland’s city council has set a goal of not spending any local public money on bike share operations.

“We have public goals around financial sustainability and we also have goals around serving the public,” Hoyt-McBeth said. “And depending on what part of the public you’re in, those goals are either in conflict or not.”

Update 1:25 pm: Portland officials said Wednesday that despite the complexities of using food stamp cards as IDs, they have continued to research its feasibility.

“Issues of trying to integrate a food-stamp card are longer-term issues,” Hoyt-McBeth said. “We have not shut the door to that opportunity.”

“As we’ve indicated from the very beginning, we want to make bike share accessible to every person in Portland,” he said. “We are interested in working with people who are SNAP recipients. … There’s a lot to figure out in the technology and the level of partnership.”

“It’s not as simple as saying you just punch anything in and it works,” he said.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – michael@bikeportland.org

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

41 Comments
  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) December 2, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    It’s really a bummer that this new transit service will not be as accessible to all Portlanders because of the dumb and spineless politics that has led to the promise of “not spending any public dollars” on bike share.

    That’s so absurd and I wish someone in city hall would stand up and literally put some money where their mouths are in terms of being a cycling city — or heck, even a city that takes climate change seriously (since transportation is the largest contributor to carbon emissions).

    Every other transportation mode and transit service is heavily subsidized by the City of Portland but bike share isn’t because bikes are simply not respected by our politicians. The gap between the ROI of cycling and the political/institutional/funding respect cycling gets is embarassingly wide.

    When will one of our local leaders stand up and say this and start to change it? Oh, they’re waiting for the public to demand it and “create the political breathing room” for them to lead? OK then, who will create the public urgency that will lead to political urgency? BTA? BikeLoud? Hello?

    Sorry.. this rant is probably a bit misplaced given that overall I’m excited for bike share and the work PBOT has done to make it a reality finally. I’ve just been frustrated lately about lack of us doing anything really big or bold and this touched a nerve.

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    • J. E. December 2, 2015 at 12:44 pm

      I spoke with Steve Hoyt-McBeth a few months back and one of my questions to him was how can BikeLoud help the bike share effort (specifically in terms of a faster build-out, since I think everyone is sorely disappointed by the limited usage area). He made it sound like the best thing to do is to wait until the system is rolled out and then to use the neighborhood associations to build support and push for bike share in their area (e.g. for neighborhoods already bordering the system to request expansion into their neighborhood). So it sounds like having a specific neighborhood say “hey, that thing our neighbors have, we want that too” or “we residents can currently use bike share to get to work, but we want it to go to the grocery store too” will get city council’s attention more than a bicycle advocacy group asking for more of something bike-related before it even rolls out.

      One of the reasons why Chicago’s Divvy system was so successful and popular was that it did a small two-week trial downtown, then rolled out to a HUGE portion of the city within the first month or so, and then continued expanding rapidly for the months after that. I’m quite bummed that Portland isn’t taking a similar approach, but without more public financial support (not to mention a private sponsor) this is the best we could hope for regarding the initial roll-out. That’s not going to change, so we should IMO focus our campaigning efforts on getting citizens to ask for bike share in their area one month after it officially starts (assuming a smooth, bug-free roll-out)

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    • Todd Boulanger December 2, 2015 at 12:48 pm

      Jonathan – excellent points…but should this comment be a separate “editorial? item vs. the first “reader” comment on the article?

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      • MNBikeLuv December 2, 2015 at 1:13 pm

        The article is by Michael and the comment is by Jonathan. So yeah, it could comment as a reader.

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        • Racer X December 2, 2015 at 2:36 pm

          MNBikeLuv – yes I was aware that Micheal wrote it before I responded…I had to check just from how unusual the post comment was…my comment still stands [in my mind].

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    • BeavertonRider December 2, 2015 at 3:05 pm

      Im not sure it’s appropriate to call it dumb and spineless. I mean, sure, if you think that public officials here are simply fearful of, well, unknown political consequences, maybe **Portland of sentence deleted by moderator**. However, we have reasonable reasons/considerations in effect here.

      For example, it is absolutely correct that this program cannot be administered and operated if a large number of user can’t pay. That Portland is adopting a cash payment system that would stymie efforts to it and locate people who damage/steal bikes doesn’t erase the fact that you can’t run a program when many users don’t/can’t pay. It just means that Portland ought to consider not permitting cash payments.

      With so many other competing spending priorities that readers demand be funded, where does this fit in? Where does a bike share program fit in with all other spending? Cut an inclusion officer *gasp*? Cut spending for safe routes, diverters, etc? Or does this program warrant increasing taxes to raise money? My opinion is none of the above. The City is already wasting gobs of cash and still cannot adequately deal with public safety issues, homelessness, bike infrastructure that a bike share program quickly falls down the list of important things.

      Hence, sure, a local political official could show some interest here and then I think the popular reaction would be, “meh”. I dont think there’s some massive popular support or even moderate public support for a bike share program that is funded with public $, hence, it’s perfectly rationale, imo, for local politicians to not vigorously pursue this let alone throw money at it.

      As well, that more local politcos don’t appear to take climate change more seriously is a feature to me and lots and lots of other residents. I appreciate the enthusiasm on the climate change advocacy side, but, scientifically, it’s wildly overblown and improperly equates correlation in computer models with causation in the wild. Again, just last week, yet another story of climate change scientists “adjusting” temperature data sets…and this is so casually dismissed by the climate change side, it’s maddening.

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    • Adam Herstein
      Adam Herstein December 2, 2015 at 4:41 pm

      Forget about the city funding bike share, they can’t even fund bike infrastructure. Create a safe network of cycle tracks first, then worry about funding bike share.

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    • lop December 3, 2015 at 1:17 am

      >transportation is the largest contributor to carbon emissions

      Electricity is.

      http://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/sources/transportation.html

      http://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/co2.html

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  • Allan December 2, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    There is an easy solution to Hoyt-MacBeth’s issues – more bikes. All transporation is subsidized in this country, why not bikes

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    • Steve B December 2, 2015 at 2:10 pm

      To be fair, Portland bikeshare *has* been subsidized already to the tune of $2million by the feds. That’s not much compared to other systems, so more funding would be nice.

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      • lop December 3, 2015 at 1:18 am

        Bike share is also getting lots of free land.

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  • briandavispdx December 2, 2015 at 12:13 pm

    There’s an interesting if frustrating chicken-and-egg problem around bike share funding: It’s often argued—even by many bike advocates—that since bike share primarily serves higher-income people in or near the central city, there should be little if any public money invested in these systems. This forces the systems to be designed and operated in a way that maximizes revenue generation, which means confining the system to the parts of the city that are dense enough and central enough to keep the bikes in constant circulation. And in an era of gentrification, that means they serve primarily upper-income neighborhoods.

    This food stamp card deal is obviously another manifestation of that. That’s a real shame. I hope that the initial roll-out of our bike share system serves as a proof-of-concept, and a future city council in an improved funding environment can muster the political will to dedicate funding to increase access to the system, as we do with other transportation investments.

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  • AndyC of Linnton December 2, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    What if this were the Portland that still lead on things like this? What if we were the city that figured out how to get low income people in the bike share system? But yeah, I get it, Portland is now more interested in attracting developers that put bike symbols on signs on their condos than actually helping people get on bikes.

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  • meh December 2, 2015 at 12:30 pm

    There be two accounts associated with an EBT card, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) which can only be used for food and TANF which is a cash benefit. TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) benefits can be accessed the same as any debit based account. Monies can be removed via an ATM machine, and the card can be used to purchase items as a debit card. There is no restriction on what can be purchased with the TANF funds.

    Not everyone who has an EBT card receives both types of benefits.

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    • Edie Spencer December 3, 2015 at 10:48 am

      Exactly. There are many people in the area who get SNAP, but who do not get TANF. They just about maybe make rent but need assistance with food. What would be really helpful is if the Metro area as a whole had a transport credit for Tri-Met or bikesharing so people could do errands without having to shell out all the cash for transport.

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  • Todd Boulanger December 2, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    There may be other ways around this, perhaps the other work around is:
    – for the City to write a grant application for 100% to cover these users (low income, work force – night owl swing shift users, etc.);
    – for an independent good samaritan to sponsor these users and get to post their logo somewhere; or
    – for the City to do a swap (pay for all City staff in the CBD some minimum use of the system and this money then is applied to cover a set number of low income users.

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  • Chris I December 2, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    Do we provide subsidized Trimet passes for low-income residents?

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    • Beeblebrox December 2, 2015 at 1:42 pm

      Not really. I think there are some free tickets that get distributed to homeless shelters and whatnot, but not an actual low-income program. Seattle recently became one of the first cities to offer a means-tested low-income fare.

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  • Jonathon December 2, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    Isn’t SNAP meant for food. Why should they allow it to be spent on bike transit?

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
      Michael Andersen (News Editor) December 2, 2015 at 1:49 pm

      It is – the SNAP benefit itself couldn’t be used as payment. But it could (theoretically) be used as identification. And as “meh” mentions above, some people get other cash payments distributed using the EBT cards that might be usable for bike-share memberships.

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      • Kristi Finney Dunn December 4, 2015 at 6:32 am

        I am just not getting this concept. Maybe it’s different in Oregon than Washington, but most EBT cards are issued with no names and multiple family members use one card. Husband and wife don’t each get a card, for example, except under very rare circumstances. I guess I’ll have to see how it plays out because it makes no sense to me yet. (I work at WA DSHS, directly with SNAP and TANF clients, and often authorizie EBT cards).

        Does Oregon/Portland have any Bike to Employment programs like in Clark County, where low income people can get a bike, accessories, training, and possibly a bus pass to supplement their ride to work? This is through Human Services Council.

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    • Steve B December 2, 2015 at 2:05 pm

      SNAP can’t be spent on bike share, I think they are considering using the card as a sort of pass or ID for those who don’t have credit/debit cards.

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    • Brian December 2, 2015 at 2:49 pm

      And energy drinks.

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  • Jonathon December 2, 2015 at 1:26 pm

    The bigger issue is how can someone function without a bank account?

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  • Lester Burnham December 2, 2015 at 1:36 pm

    Isn’t MAX basically already free? Nobody pays to get on the platforms and enforcement on the trains is basically zero. Do we have to subsidize EVERYTHING?

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    • Steve B December 2, 2015 at 2:04 pm

      I witness fare inspection with regularity while riding the MAX these days.

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    • ScoodyDoo December 2, 2015 at 4:31 pm

      A great many of the MAX riders pay for weekly/monthly/yearly passes, that is why so few pay at the platform. I see the fare inspectors regularly. As a generalization I would say 10% of riders get ticketed when I see the inspectors walk thru.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) December 2, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    Please note the significant updates to this story:

    Update 1:25 pm: This article was based on a Nov. 2 interview, but we didn’t check with the city again before publishing; we should have. Since Nov. 2, the city has done new research and is also speaking about the issues differently. We’ve changed the headline to reflect that. See the bottom of the post for more information.

    ….

    Update 1:25 pm: Portland officials said Wednesday that despite the complexities of using food stamp cards as IDs, they have continued to research its feasibility.

    “Issues of trying to integrate a food-stamp card are longer-term issues,” Hoyt-McBeth said. “We have not shut the door to that opportunity.”

    “As we’ve indicated from the very beginning, we want to make bike share accessible to every person in Portland,” he said. “We are interested in working with people who are SNAP recipients. … There’s a lot to figure out in the technology and the level of partnership.”

    “It’s not as simple as saying you just punch anything in and it works,” he said.
    ===

    We regret any confusion this might have caused.

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
      Michael Andersen (News Editor) December 2, 2015 at 2:19 pm

      And to be clear: this was my fault. I pulled an old story off my to-do list without verifying that it was still good.

      The story above, with the revised headline (“hasn’t shut the door” rather than “isn’t interested”) is accurate.

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      • Racer X December 2, 2015 at 2:27 pm

        Apologies accepted.

        [And If the CoP gives BikePortland any grief on this article then we should remind them of all the half starts on this program over the last 10 years (? has it been this long?).]

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      • AndyC of Linnton December 2, 2015 at 3:11 pm

        Okay. Good to hear. It helps assuage some of my cynicism about this town nowadays.

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  • Anne Hawley
    Anne Hawley December 2, 2015 at 2:39 pm

    The patronizing belief that the poor don’t know how best to use their money means we spend more on the bureaucratic administration of benefits than on the benefits. I’ve love to see SNAP expanded to allow the purchase of bikeshare.

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    • BeavertonRider December 2, 2015 at 4:21 pm

      But as we know from yearly news stories and inspector general reports and general accounting office reports – there is already massive fraid throughout federal welfare and state welfare programs. Related here, we see the stories and reports of welfare dollars beimg spent at bars, strip clubs, etc, and also being exchanged to non-snap goods.

      These aretaxpayer dollars being given to welfare recipients and as a taxpayer, I demand controls on how welfare benefits can be used. If that offends some recipients well thats too bad, dont accept public funds.

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      • soren December 3, 2015 at 1:31 pm

        Myth #3: SNAP is rife with fraud and abuse.
        “SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. SNAP fraud has actually been cut by three-quarters over the past 15 years, and the program’s error rate is at an all-time low of less than 3 percent. The introduction of EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards has dramatically reduced consumer fraud. According to the USDA, the small amount of fraud that continues is usually on the part of retailers, not consumers.

        http://www.hungercoalition.org/food-stamp-myths

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    • Edie Spencer December 3, 2015 at 10:51 am

      This would be best and make life a lot less complicated. But grant money for purchasing solid bikes with panniers, lights and fenders would be best. You can use your bike again and again and not be faced with an empty rack while running errands.

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  • John Liu
    John Liu December 2, 2015 at 6:59 pm

    I think that, on the list of things that we should provide to the poor, a bike share membership is pretty far down the list. Stuff like shelter for the homeless, educational assistance, help with child care, access to health care, etc all rank far higher.

    If you want to talk transportation, a bus pass is far more useful for most car-less poor people, who increasingly live outside of the central city, than access to a bikeshare system that will initially be rather concentrated in the center of the city.

    Providing the poor with free bikeshare memberships, when they can’t ride a bus or see a doctor, could almost be a “Portlandia” storyline.

    The other consideration is that Portland’s bikeshare system, without much commercial sponsorship, will do well just to be a sustainable, functional operation, to survive its initial years and grow its initial footprint. I’m optimistic but recognize the challenge. Saddling it with a social welfare mission at the same time is, I’d argue, too risky.

    Of course, if the city wants to subsidize the system with a few million dollars per year, then it can probably take on this and other missions. That’s not likely.

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    • lop December 3, 2015 at 1:37 am

      >If you want to talk transportation, a bus pass is far more useful for most car-less poor people

      Probably, but here’s a way to try to find out.

      http://trimet.org/accesstransit/index.htm

      Trimet has a grant program to give away or discount fares for low income people through various non profit groups that serve low income clients. I’d say ask those groups, are they getting enough transit passes to serve their clients? (If I remember, there was a lot of competition for limited grant money, so I’m guessing no, they’re not) Would they prefer to give out fewer transit passes and shift some of the funding to bike share memberships? If they had extra funding would it go to increased transit passes, or would some of it go to bike share?

      That program is in addition to trimet’s honored citizen discounted fare and even cheaper downtown only pass.

      http://trimet.org/fares/honoredcitizen.htm
      http://trimet.org/downtownpass/index.htm

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  • Eric Leifsdad December 2, 2015 at 9:50 pm

    There are piles of stolen bikes being stored on public property, many of which are unreported / unregistered / unclaimed. Clean out daily or weekly until the theft stops. Forget about subsidizing bike share for the poor, just make some way to give a bike, fenders, and a lock to anyone in need.

    Sure, there are logistics problems with repurposing stolen property for public good, but surely we can file that under “tragedy of the commons” along with the gasoline and pavement I’m subsidizing for reckless or menacing drivers who don’t cleanup after their pets or bother to report a stolen bike.

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