Why a Viral Tweet Blaming Divvy for School Funding Problems Is Misguided

Chicago residents have every right to be angry about the sorry state of the Chicago Public School funding. But don’t scapegoat the Divvy bike-share system, a bargain for local taxpayers that could have a positive effect on our city’s wealth inequality problem.

The above tweet, implying that Divvy is a frivolous project paid for by money that should have been spent on schools, has been retweeted over 1,200 times this month. I understand the sentiment that the city invests too much money on downtown tourist attractions while neglecting the neighborhoods, but bike-share doesn’t belong on this list.

First of all, Divvy is a smart investment for the city. After the system, which launched in 2013, expands this summer, it will include almost 6,000 bikes and 584 docking stations and serve 37 of Chicago’s 50 wards, so it’s evolving into a citywide public transportation network.

The total cost for all of the city’s bike-share infrastructure, plus some of the wages for siting the stations, is $35,838,780, with 80 percent of the bill covered by federal and state transportation grants. (The suburbs of Evanston and Oak Park lined up their own funding for ten and 13 stations, respectively).

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A Divvy station outside Comer High in Grand Crossing. Photo: John Greenfield

$36 million sounds like a lot of money but – like most bike enhancements — it’s a drop in the bucket compared to car infrastructure costs. For example, the current work to expand Chicago’s Jayne Byrne (formerly Circle) Interchange is costing $475 million. That’s more than 13 times the price tag of the city’s entire bike-share network, for a project that many transportation experts say won’t achieve its goal of reducing congestion.

Moreover, the federal and state grants that paid most of the cost of Divvy can only be used for transportation infrastructure. Chicago doesn’t have the option of spending that cash on schools.

OK, you might ask, but how about the 20-percent match the city had to provide – couldn’t that roughly $7.2 million have been spent on the CPS? Yes and no. According to the Chicago Department of Transportation, the local match was largely funded by ward “menu” money (which can also only be used for infrastructure), Divvy’s $12 million sponsorship deal with Blue Cross Blue Shield, and payments from real estate developers who purchased docking stations to go in front of their buildings.

However, it is true that some of the $7.2 million came from Chicago’s tax-increment financing program, which has been widely criticized because it diverts property tax revenue from schools, parks, and other taxing bodies. But if we’re going to have a TIF program at all, spending a few million to fund Divvy stations is in line with the original intent of the program: earmarking tax revenue from a designated district for investments that benefit residents of that district.

As for the expenses associated with running and maintaining the system, CDOT says operations costs are currently being covered by user fees and revenue from the ad panels on the stations.

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A breakdown of Divvy infrastructure funding provided by CDOT. “CMAQ” is federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funding, “TIGER” is federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery funding, the state grant for the 2016 expansion is from the Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program, and BCBSIL money is from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois sponsorship.

But another valid question is, does Divvy truly benefit average Chicagoans, or is it really just geared towards visitors and wealthier residents who are willing and able to pay $9.95 for a 24-hour pass or $99 for an annual membership? It’s true that, in an effort to make the system financially sustainable, CDOT concentrated most of the first 300 stations in the city’s denser, more affluent areas, including downtown and the Near North Lakefront. That was a factor in why a user survey released last year found that, as with most U.S. bike-share systems, Divvy members are more likely to be white, wealthy, and well-educated than the city’s general population.

But recently CDOT has taken steps to make Divvy more accessible to residents of low-to-moderate-income communities of color, the neighborhoods that stand to gain the most from the mobility, health, and economic benefits of bike-share. Most of the 85 stations being installed in Chicago this year are going to predominantly African-American and Latino communities on the South and West sides such as Burnside, Chatham, Greater Grand Crossing, Brighton Park, Englewood, East Garfield Park, West Garfield Park and Austin.

Last July the transportation department launched the Divvy for Everyone initiative, which offers one-time $5 memberships to individuals making $35K or less, and waives the usual credit card requirement. Bike equity organizations like Go Bronzeville and Slow Roll Chicago have been helping to promote the program and over 1,300 people have signed up within the first year – almost twice as many as CDOT’s original target of 750.

Granted, a $5 Divvy membership doesn’t help you connect with job or educational opportunities if you don’t know how to ride a bike, or aren’t comfortable navigating city streets on two wheels. That’s why this year CDOT’s Bicycling Ambassadors are offering six weeks of free bike handling classes for adults. The one-time seminars, which will each last an hour or two, are only being offered on the South and West sides.

Again, Chicago’s bike-share network has a ways to go before it’s a transportation system that serves all residents equitably, but it’s definitely moving in that direction. If you’re going to criticize the city government for having misplaced funding priorities, keep in mind that Divvy isn’t part of the problem – it’s part of the solution.

  • Jeremy

    The Sun Times has printed articles about how much Trump building has had property taxes decreased. That should bother people more than the money spent on Divvy.

  • Chicagoan

    Almost 500 million for the Byrne Interchange? That’s awful. I imagine that they could accomplish a lot with that cash if they used it on some worthwhile infrastructure project.

    Will we spend another 500 million when this doesn’t fix things?

  • Fred

    Ugh, I’m so tired of the “WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDRENZ????” response to spending money on anything other than education. The city can’t just shut down because CPS is underfunded and poor at educating.

  • rohmen

    Daley’s and Rahm’s absolutely ridiculous TIF spending is more to blame than any of the above mentioned examples, and if someone wanted to create a meme that includes a $55 million arena for DePaul, a $250 million empty shell for an express train station to O’Hare and the countless other TIF abuses that have amounted to essentially corporate welfare—money that literally otherwise would have gone to schools at least in part—I’ll gladly start circulating that one around.

  • Chicagoan

    Great article, John, I appreciate your sanity on this matter.

    This, this right here, is a great example of just why people should donate to this site.

  • eric299

    It is fine as a tourist or recreational thing. But it is never going to be a real transportation network as the article suggests. Winters in this town are too severe. Trying to force it to be something it isn’t is like back when the Khmer Rouge forced everyone to leave the cities of Cambodia and move to farms.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Thanks!

  • what_eva

    Why can’t it be part of the transportation network for the parts of the year when it’s not winter?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Plenty of people do ride Divvy during the winter. Beats shivering at a bus stop. http://chi.streetsblog.org/2014/03/11/ice-ice-divvy-how-has-the-system-performed-during-this-brutal-winter/

  • Pat

    I regularly ride Divvy home from work when its 25 degrees or above and I must say, with a hat and gloves, its very pleasant.

  • Anne A

    I ride Divvy throughout the year, whether it’s hot and sunny or there’s snow on the ground. Plenty of other people are doing the same thing. I agree with John’s comment below. Riding Divvy in winter sure beats shivering at a bus stop any day.

  • ohsweetnothing

    It’s far too complicated for me to hash out in a comment section post (and maybe that’s part of the problem??) but most of what you just said is about as wrong/misguided as blaming divvy. Yet those talking points go viral allll the time too.

  • ohsweetnothing

    I’m probably going to catch shit for this but even the $7.2M in TIF is a red herring. The whole line that TIF diverts money that would have otherwise gone to schools is a red herring too and sorry but Joravsky is probably the WORST source to cite re: TIF.

    There are definitely issues with TIF and whether it’s truly worthwhile as a funding source is worth delving into, but the idea that it “steals” money from CPS or whatever is largely wrong.

  • lykorian

    Exactly. Public services exist to serve the entire city, not just children and their parents.

  • Joining the chorus, a City native here and I use Divvy most of the year. As the coverage has increased it has only gotten more functional.

    And I appreciate John’s article – as a CPS parent I also understand why everyone is frustrated, but if anything Divvy is the kind of infrastructure improvement that will help keep people in Chicago (and CPS kids can use it, too), it helps me get to and from work, as well as better handle the logistics required to also get my daughter to school. It’s a smart long-term investment.

  • The fact that sitting aldermen and other politicians are permitted to have financial interests in firms that handle property tax appeals is textbook corruption. The conflict of interests is beyond obvious.

  • rohmen

    I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on TIFs. They can serve and important function, and you’re right that it’s complicated, but this City has what I consider a well-documented abuse of their purpose/intent.

    But to suggest (which is how I read your comment) that TIF spending does not directly or indirectly impact CPS is I think just as wrong as anything I’ve written, or is at least the subject of debate among many people. Case in point: http://www.chicagomag.com/city-life/April-2015/Do-TIFs-Cost-Chicago-Schools-Money-Or-Not/

  • ohsweetnothing

    If you’re citing that article, then I don’t think we’re as far apart as I initially believed…because that is almost exactly my position on TIFs.

    And to your larger point, I think that is highly a case-by-case scenario…as in some situations (I’m being intentionally vague by saying “some”) the TIF is the reason there would be any new property tax revenue to begin with. It’s not honest to then point to that generated revenue and say “well that should be going to CPS!” like it would have magically been available without the TIF.

  • rohmen

    Well, and therein lies the rub. My issue with TIFs are more the amount of time they run (and then sometimes are extended). So, for instance, the central loop TIF really may have been necessary when it first started, but at some point I’d argue it became more of a pet project piggy bank for Daley more than anything else.

  • ohsweetnothing

    Oh yeah, I agree with you there.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Just to clarify, the article states that only *a portion* of the $7.2M in local funding is TIF money.

  • ohsweetnothing

    Ah much appreciated.

  • Maria B

    Thanks for posting this thorough and thoughtful article!

  • eric299

    That’s nice for you. I live on Lake Shore Drive. In the summer the bike path is teeming. In the winter? Only a very few people, like you, trying really hard to make a point.

  • eric299

    Both situations involve aggressively forcing a left wing doctrine on a population that may or may not have other priorities in life, probably for the sake of power.

    Nothing is pleasant at 25 degrees.

  • eric299

    Put simply? I don’t think most people care. I go to the grocery store twice a month. Am I supposed to buy a Radio Flyer wagon and drag my groceries home on it while I pedal my bike?

  • eric299

    I don’t know what business you work in. But if I showed up to a meeting in a sweaty rumpled business suit I would be judged a moron.

  • eric299

    You seem to do a lot to get your opinion out John, and I respect that. But I live on Lake Shore Drive. In the summer the bike path is teaming. In the winter almost nobody is out there. The same seems to be true of all these bike lanes they’ve installed on main streets, just based on what I personally see.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “You seem to do a lot to get your opinion out John.” Indeed, as the editor of a transportation news and advocacy website and a columnist for a free weekly paper, that is my job description.

  • eric299

    I didn’t zero in on any of that John. I don’t think you and I would agree on some things. But I respect what you do, as well as the right of everyone in this country to fight for the cause they believe in.

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