Energy

A Black-led bikeshare company is charting a new course in Youngstown, Ohio

From protecting the planet to serving the public of entire cities with accessible and affordable transportation options, the missions of bikeshare services across the country and around the world are often broad. They’re intended to serve large swaths of a population, yet people of color, low-income folks and others from marginalized communities are often left out as services bend toward wealthier and whiter neighborhoods and urban centers.

Most bikeshares also rely on corporate sponsorships for their existence. When this critical financial support evaporates at the whims of said corporation, as has recently happened in the Twin Cities, the service itself is jeopardized.

In Youngstown, Ohio, a local family is looking to do things differently in their hometown.

YoGo Bikeshare, set to launch its fleet of e-bikes in March, will be the first bikeshare in the small Midwestern city — a steel town halfway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh — of just over 60,000 people. Unlike most other bikeshares, YoGo is a family-owned, Black-led local business that got started with a $174,000 loan it secured through the Youngstown Business Incubator. That loan, alongside a personal $5,000 investment from both YoGo president Ronnell Elkins and his business partner and father, Kent Wallace, comprised the business’ entire startup capital.

“We’re family-owned, and we really pride ourselves on that,” Elkins says of the business he runs with his dad and two brothers. Plus, Elkins and his family, like 41 percent of Youngstown’s population, are Black. “We look like the demographic in our area, but we wanted to roll this out and execute it in a way where the city as a whole can be proud of it whether you’re Black, white or whatever ethnicity.”

When it launches in the spring, the micromobility company will begin by installing docking stations at four locations throughout the city’s downtown. E-bikes will be available to rent at a price of $4 per 20 minutes, or $90 for a year-long subscription. The service will operate from 7:45 a.m. through 10 p.m. daily, between late spring and late autumn.

We look like the demographic in our area, but we wanted to roll this out and execute it in a way where the city as a whole can be proud of it.

The idea first came to Elkins when he was visiting Washington, D.C., with his family in 2017. He found the city’s Capital Bikeshare inspiring (although a 2016 survey found that just 4 percent of bikeshare members were Black, in a city where close to half of residents are Black) and thought that something similar could work in Youngstown. But the idea remained simply an idea until 2020 when the extra free time brought by the pandemic allowed him to turn it into reality.

YoGo isn’t the first attempt to bring bikeshare to his hometown. “The company they were trying to hire didn’t deem Youngstown a viable area for them to launch bike sharing,” he says.

Elkins and his partners began their own research, in part, by closely examining a 2019 analysis of the Youngstown bikeshare market that Elkins says was commissioned after the city as proof that bikeshare was viable there.

John MacArthur, sustainable transportation program manager at Portland State University’s Transportation Research and Education Center, completed a national scan of bikeshare equity programs at the end of 2020. According to MacArthur, Youngstown’s struggles to attract a bikeshare company aren’t unique among mid-sized cities. “The issue in smaller communities is that you can’t just get Lime to come to Youngstown… because of the market issues,” he says. “What I think is interesting [about YoGo] is that you have local buy-in. You have people that live in the town trying to serve the people they know well.”

In 2022, hundreds of audience members voted to award YoGo $5,000 prize during the Youngstown Business Incubator’s “Shark Tank”-style pitch event. “We like to say that YoGo Bikeshare was built from the community, for the community,” Elkins told media afterward.

The incubator experience helped Elkins push the idea over the finish line by helping YoGo secure their loan, find an insurer, and make connections to supporters across town. What’s made YoGo work where other efforts have failed is their locally focused approach.

The research has also backed another strategy that YoGo has undertaken: using a diverse set of people in their imagery.

That’s not the only thing YoGo has gotten right, though. Going the e-bike route, as YoGo has, is supported by MacArthur’s research. Not only do e-bikes allow users to travel further distances by bike more easily, but they can also be a better option for some people with mobility restrictions than can make riding a traditional bike difficult.

The research has also backed another strategy that YoGo has undertaken: using a diverse set of people in their imagery.

“If an individual sees an African American woman who’s 40 using the system, it makes another African American woman who’s 40” better able to see themselves using the bikeshare system, MacArthur says. This, he says, is where ambassador programs can make a difference when it comes to engagement.

But for Elkins, YoGo is about more than just micromobility. He hopes that his efforts to start a new business in the city will inspire others to follow suit. It’s rare and recent for companies outside of the city’s deep history in the steel and manufacturing industries to pop up.

“It’s like, all right man, these guys are stepping out and doing something new… and they look like us. So why can’t we do other things? Why can’t we open a 3D printing business?” Elkins says. “So that’s the psychological change we’re trying to bring into our area.”

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