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The Divvy Perimeter Ride: Checking Out Bike-Share in Outlying Communities

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

[This piece also ran in Checkerboard City, John’s transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

This year’s Divvy bike-share expansion, beefing up the system from 300 docking stations to 476, has moved at warp speed. As of yesterday, 168 of the new stations have been installed since mid-April; The remaining seven are pending concrete pouring or other factors, and should be in by next month.

As Divvy grows, the city is also trying to make it more equitable. After the expansion, the portion of the population that lives in the service area will grow from about 53 percent to 56 percent, and several low-income communities are getting stations for the first time. Meanwhile, the Chicago Department of Transportation is working on a strategy to provide Divvy access for residents who don’t have credit cards, and they promise they’ll have a major announcement about this by early summer.

To get a sense of how the stations are working out on the terra nova, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, I set out to pedal the perimeter of the completed service area on a sunny afternoon earlier this month. I began my quest at the southeastern-most outpost of the system at Rainbow Beach in South Shore, a mostly African-American community. There was an eerie fog on the shoreline, and the sound of the waves mingled with birdsongs as I undocked my Divvy.

As I made my way clockwise, stopping at every station along the perimeter to snap a photo, plenty of residents approached me to ask about the system. From small children to seniors, the first question was almost always a variation on “How much does it cost to rent those bikes?” I explained that a day pass is $7, and an annual membership is $75, but you have to be careful to check in your bike within a half hour, or else you start racking up late fees.

Outside Comer College Prep, a nice-looking public school at 71st and South Chicago in Grand Crossing, little kids are using a Divvy station as a coat rack, playing with the bungees and bells, and using the cycles like exercise bikes. Diane Griffin, an adult who’s waiting for the bus, is curious about the giant blue cycles.

Like most people I’ve spoken with, she’s unclear on how the system works, such as the fact that you don’t have to return your bike to the same station you got it from. But after I explain, she warms up to the idea. “I think it’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s good exercise, and it beats riding a crowded bus.”

Pedaling along the system’s perimeter turns out to be pretty comfortable, since the docks tend to be located along designated bike routes, many of which have well-marked bike lanes. I make my way west to Englewood, and north to a station at 56th and Halsted.

Bobbie Flowers, a healthcare worker who’s going to the adjacent hardware store, asks me about the system and is pleased to learn that you can use it 24/7. Although it’s been a while since she’s ridden a bike, she’s curious to try a Divvy. “It seems like a nice alternative to sitting in the car and burning gas,” she says.

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CTA: Belmont Bypass Necessary to Accommodate Current and Future Riders

The Chicago Transit Authority published on Tuesday its federally mandated environmental assessment for the Red-Purple Bypass project, better known as the Belmont flyover. The bypass is part of the Red-Purple Modernization project, which will rebuild all of the tracks from Belmont to Linden station in Wilmette, and reconstruct several stations to add elevators and other amenities.

This bypass would eliminate the intersection of northbound Brown Line trains with Red and Purple Line tracks north of the Belmont station in Lakeview, increasing capacity on the system’s busiest lines and reducing delays. The structure would allow the CTA to boost the number of trains they run each day – especially during rush hour – in response to the current growing ‘L’ ridership. It would also allow the system to accommodate new residents as more people move into North Side neighborhoods in the future.

The flyover is controversial because 21 buildings on 16 parcels of land would need to be relocated, demolished, or partially demolished. The buildings, an array of commercial, residential, and mixed-use structures, contain 47 homes and 18 active businesses. Per federal law, the CTA would pay “just compensation” based on fair market value for the properties, and pay for relocation assistance for all homeowners and tenants. While the EA mentions the number of residences, it doesn’t include the number of residents who would be affected.

Residents have also argued that the new concrete overpass would be an eyesore. Of course, this is a matter of opinion: One person’s blight is another person’s ride to work. The anonymous website Coalition to Stop the Belmont Flyover recently compared the structure to neighborhood-devaluing elevated freeways. However, while highways often take people past neighborhoods without stopping, transit always adds value to communities because it brings people to them.

The bypass structure is shown without any redeveloped buildings. The CTA said it would work with Alderman Tunney and the city's planning department to create a redevelopment plan. Image: CTA

A CTA rendering of the flyover with no redevelopment. The CTA said it would work with Alderman Tunney and the city’s planning department to create a redevelopment plan.

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Eyes on the Street: Seeing Spots at the Lincoln Hub

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Looking southeast from the north side of the intersection. Photo: John Greenfield

Chicago’s first painted curb extensions are starting to take shape. Workers recently spray-painted the outlines of green and blue polka dots at the Lincoln/Wellington/Southport intersection as part of the “Lincoln Hub” traffic calming and placemaking projects. The street remix is part of a larger $175K streetscape project that Special Service Area #27 and the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce are doing on Lincoln from Diversey to Belmont.

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St. Alphonsus Church is on the left side of this rendering.

Flexible plastic bollards that extend the intersection’s six corners, planters, round seating units, and café tables and chairs have been in place for a few weeks now. These treatments have already improved pedestrian safety by shortening crossing distances by 34 percent, eliminating several slip lanes, and discouraging speeding. Residents have also been enjoying the additional seating on nice days.

However, now that the outlines of the dots are in place, it’s more obvious that the asphalt outlined by the posts is intended as space for walking and sitting, and it’s easier for motorists to understand the new configuration. The painting project had been delayed by recent rainy weather, according to SSA program director Lee Crandell. Pending warmer, sunny weather, crews will fill in the dots, creating an Oriental carpet-inspired design that will unify the intersection. After the paint is dry, additional seating will be added, completing the project.

DNAinfo reported that, at a recent South Lakeview Neighbors meeting, there were complaints that the new layout requires drivers to queue up behind left-turning motorists, since there is no longer space to pass on the right. I’ve hung out at the intersection a few times during rush hours and haven’t seen any major issues. “One of the goals of this project is to slow down cars to improve safety for pedestrians,” Crandell told me. “We think there are some significant improvements here for pedestrians.”

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The view from St. Alphonsus Church. Photo: John Greenfield

Crandell has talked to the Chicago Department of Transportation about the possibility of tweaking the design, including relocating bollards and adjusting signal timing for Southport to allow more drivers to move through the intersection. “But I’ve emphasized to the community that we need to see how this works when it’s completed,” he said. “After we let it settle in for a few weeks, we can make decisions based on what impact it’s having.”

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Chicago Gets First Curb-Protected Lanes; Many Other Bike Projects on Deck

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The curb-protected bike lanes on Sacramento Drive in Douglas Park. Photo: CDOT

In a surprise move, the Chicago Department of Transportation recently began building the city’s first curb-protected bike lanes on Sacramento Drive through Douglas Park. This morning, assistant director of transportation planning Mike Amsden provided an update on this game-changing facility, plus a slew of other bikeways projects slated for 2015.

Four years ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel pledged to build 100 miles of physically protected bike lanes within his first term. Later the goal was revised to include buffered bike lanes — which don’t offer physical protection from cars — as wells as PBLs. The city currently has 71.5 miles of BBLs and 18.5 miles of protected lanes, for a grand total of 90 miles, according to Amsden.

Since Emanuel was inaugurated for his second term this morning, the 100-mile target has obviously been pushed back a bit, but it’s likely CDOT will exceed that goal by the end of this year. “When we get there, [Streetsblog] will be the first to know,” Amsden promised. “Our focus this year is really going to be on bridging the gaps in the bike network.”

The new curb-separated lanes run on both sides of Sacramento, a curving roadway within the Southwest Side green space, on a quarter-mile stretch between Douglas Boulevard and Ogden Avenue. The curbs are about six inches high and two feet wide, with breaks at drainage basins, and wherever park paths cross the street.

The Sacramento protected bike lanes were originally installed in 2012 on a section that included some truly awful pavement – a counterproductive practice that CDOT has since discontinued. The new curbs are being put in as part of a resurfacing project.

“Over the past four years, we’ve put in a lot of bike lanes in a short time, but it was always our goal to upgrade them over time,” said Amsden. “We’re piloting curb separation here. Experimenting with concrete is something we want to do moving forward whenever we can.”

While CDOT and the Illinois Department of Transportation announced plans for curb-separated bike lanes on Clybourn Avenue in Old Town last summer, there was no public announcement about the Sacramento curbs, Amsden said. However, 24th Ward Alderman Michael Chandler signed off on the plan. In early 2013, Chandler asked CDOT to downgrade an existing PBLs on nearby Independence Boulevard to buffered bike lanes.

While Amsden said he has heard reports of drivers parking in the Sacramento PBLs south of Ogden, near baseball diamonds and soccer fields, he doesn’t anticipate problems with cars blocking the curb-protected lanes, which are about eight feet wide. “I wouldn’t say anything is impossible, but one of the goals of the concrete separation is to encourage drivers not to park in them.”

IDOT had previously prohibited CDOT from installing PBLs on state roads within the city. However, the state transportation department lifted the ban after an allegedly drunk driver struck and killed cyclist Bobby Cann at Clybourn and Larabee Street in 2013, and is actually spearheading and funding the Clybourn curb-protected lane project. CDOT has been helping out with design input and public outreach, Amsden said.

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The Way Forward: Gas Tax, Vehicle Miles Traveled, or Value Capture?

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Blankenhorn, Skosey, Puentes, and Porcari. Photo: Ryan Griffith Stegink, Metropolitan Planning Council

Local leaders agree that Chicago region’s public transit system, and Illinois transportation infrastructure in general, are sorely underfunded. However, it’s clear that the traditional strategy of relying on gas tax revenue to fund projects is no longer working. The state gas tax has been stuck at 19 cents a gallon since 1990, and due to inflation, the buying power of the revenue it generates has fallen over the past few decades.

Given the fact that Governor Rauner plans to cut almost $170 million from state funding for Chicagoland mass transit, and gas prices that are at their lowest point in years, it’s time for lawmakers in Springfield to show some backbone and approve a gas tax increase. Meanwhile, we need to consider creative ways of funding rail, roads, and bridges, such as a vehicle miles traveled tax and real estate value capture.

Transportation experts discussed these topics earlier this week at a panel titled “The Long and Winding Road,” part of the Metropolitan Planning Council’s symposium for Infrastructure Week 2015, “Broke, Broken, and Out of Time.” Panelists included former U.S. Department of Transportation deputy secretary John D. Porcari, the Brooking Institute’s Robert Puentes, and the Metropolitan Planning Council’s Peter Skosey. The Illinois Department of Transportation’s acting secretary Randy Blankenhorn moderated.

“Are we going to continue to fund infrastructure with smoke and mirrors?” Blankenhorn asked. “Are we going to continue to fund transportation on cigarette taxes and gambling? Let’s talk about user fees versus some of these more innovative or different types of revenue streams.”

Porcari argued that the political courage and innovation for raising money for transportation projects is more commonly at the local and state level nowadays, and not the federal level. “There a number of states that have raised the gas tax, indexed it, added new funding sources, used sales tax for transportation revenues, and they’ve all lived to tell the tale,” he said. “Those governors have actually survived.”

Puentes, pointed out that it’s not just Democratic states that are raising their gas taxes, but also Republican states like Wyoming. “So I think there is a myth that the gas tax is unpopular,” he said. “[Former Governor] Ed Rendell said that when they raised the gas tax in Pennsylvania, not one legislator who voted for the increase lost their election in the next cycle.”

Puentes noted that it’s easier to raise gas taxes at the local or state level than at the federal level. “The lower you get, the bigger the connection, a brighter line between the money that’s being raised, the projects that are being invested in, and then the [economic] outcomes at the end of the day,” he said. “People are willing to invest if they know what they’re getting.”

However, Porcari asserted that depending on gas tax to pay for roads, bridges, and rail won’t be sustainable in the long run. “That’s arguably a good thing, in the sense that what’s driving that are things like efficiency in the corporate average fuel economy and electrification of the fleet. Those are important for the nation but are accelerating the decline of [the gas tax] as a stable funding source.”

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Here’s How New CTA Technology Helps Reduce Bus Bunching

Demonstrating CTA's new bus bunching-fighting technology

Mike Haynes demonstrates sending an instructional message to a CTA bus driver using the new Bus Transit Management System.

If you ride Chicago Transit Authority buses, you’ve probably had the infuriating experience of waiting an eternity at a stop, only to have two or more buses show up at the same time. This phenomenon, known as bus bunching, is the bane of most big-city transit systems in the U.S.

To address this issue, the CTA is rolling out a new two-way bus communication system, and it’s already helping to reduce bunching on a handful of routes that have received the technology. The Bus Transit Management System, created by Clever Devices, the company that makes the CTA’s Bus Tracker system, pairs an on-board device with new software at the transit agency’s control center.

The software gives supervisors a heads-up when two buses are closer or further apart than they should be, and provides more information to help determine the best way to close the gap. If the supervisor wants more info from the bus driver – why they’re behind schedule, for example – at the next stop, he or she can send a series of text messages that require “yes” or “no” responses from the driver. The text messages appear on a device installed at the top left corner of the bus’ windshield.

Without the system, supervisors would continue having to drive around in their SUVs to see what’s happening and then intervene by catching up to a bus driver and giving them instructions.

At a demonstration of the system on Monday at the agency’s headquarters, CTA president Forrest Claypool said the technology is already making a difference in Chicago. Nine of the busiest South Side bus routes, based out of the 77th and 103rd Street garages, have seen a 40 percent reduction in “big gaps” between January and March. The agency defines big gaps as larger-than-scheduled periods of time between buses.

The new system gives supervisors several options for improving bus timing from the control center, according to CTA spokeswoman, Tammy Chase. The supervisor can order a driver to:

  • Hold the bus back by waiting at a stop
  • Run the bus express for a few stops
  • Leapfrog a leading bus
  • Temporarily follow a new route

“In some cases, an extra bus can be put into service to fill a big gap,” Chase said. “The software allows us to identify small issues before they become big ones.”

However, there’s a limit to how effective this technology can be for fighting delays on typical CTA routes that lack dedicated bus lanes and have stops every eighth of a mile. “As traffic rises, even small, random events like a double-parked car can cause buses to lose time,” DePaul transportation researcher Joseph Schwieterman told the Tribune. “That makes fixing the problem more difficult and it will test the limits of the technology.”

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Sawyer Hopes State Street Road Diet Will Revitalize Struggling Business Strip

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A buffered bike lane and new diagonal parking spaces will reduce the road width, discouraging speeding.

State Street between 69th and 79th, in Park Manor and Chatham, is currently a pretty grim roadway. Located just east of the Dan Ryan, it’s essentially a frontage road, which drivers treat as an extension of the expressway. The pavement is a moonscape, and the street is lined with a motley mix of retail.

However, 6th Ward Alderman Roderick Sawyer is optimistic that a complete streets overhaul on State will jump start the business strip and bring positive activity to the corridor. “The alderman wants to slow down car traffic and make the area more friendly to pedestrians,” said Sawyer’s chief of staff Brian Sleet. “We’re trying to get the ball tolling to change the image of State Street from a barren ex-warehouse district to something that fits the residential nature of these communities.”

Sleet said the alderman asked the Chicago Department of Transportation to address the speeding problem, improve the pedestrian environment, and add more car parking spaces as part of a project to repave the 1.3-mile stretch. According to CDOT, this section only sees 5,000 motor vehicle trips per day, and the excess road capacity encourages speeding. There were 504 reported crashes on this section between 2009 and 2013, with seven serious injuries and three fatalities.

Meanwhile, the Red Line’s 69th Street and 79 Street stations, located next to the strip in the median of the Dan Ryan, see 5,177 and 6,931 average daily boardings, respectively. However, there are few accommodations for pedestrians at these crossings.

CDOT proposed converting one of the three travel lanes on State to a buffered bike lane in order to narrow the roadway, calm traffic, and shorten pedestrian crossing distances. On the extra-wide stretch between 76th and 72nd, existing on-street parallel parking will be converted to diagonal spaces, further slimming the roadway and adding seven or eight new spaces. High-visibility zebra-striped crosswalks and ADA ramps will be added at all intersections.

While CDOT’s Arterial Streets Resurfacing Program will pay for the construction, Sawyer chipped in $30,000 in ward money for a traffic study, Sleet said. “We figured, if they’re going do repave the street, why have them restripe it in a way that would remain ineffective?”

In the future, Sawyer is interested in adding curb extensions at 79th and 69th to further improve pedestrian access to the ‘L’ stops, according to Sleet. The alderman also wants to add a sound-dampening wall by the expressway. “By getting the noise down, that will help make State Street more friendly to pedestrians,” Sleet said. “We hope that will attract retailers and help make this a transit-oriented shopping area.”

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Residents: Car-centric Plan for Vienna Beef Site Doesn’t Cut the Mustard

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The meeting took place in the cafeteria of the Vienna Beef hot dog factory. Photo: Brett Ratner

Last night at a hearing on Mid-America Real Estate Group’s preliminary proposal to redevelop the Vienna Beef hotdog factory site, local residents said they don’t relish the thought of valuable riverfront land being slathered with acres of asphalt. The community meeting, served up by 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack, took place at the sausage emporium, 2501 North Damen, which will be razed as part of a Chicago Department of Transportation project to reroute Elston Avenue.

The developer wants to convert this eight-acre-plus parcel at the northeast corner of the current Fullerton/Damen/Elston intersection to suburban-style big box retail and office space with 437 car parking spaces. CDOT is relocating Elston about a block east of the junction, a strategy they hope will take a bite out of the intersection’s red-hot congestion problems.

The new Elston link will likely feature buffered or protected bike lanes. Plans for the site also call for some new green space, which would provide storm water mitigation, although nowhere near enough to make up for the vast amount of non-permeable surfaces created by the multiple parking lots. As required by a local ordinance, the developer would build a short stretch of river walk just east of Damen, which could potentially include a kayak launch and a water taxi station.

Waguespack said extending the river walk all the way to Fullerton would be contingent on the acquisition of the smaller land parcel to the east of the Vienna Beef property. He said that space would work well for an “REI-type” outdoor recreation gear store. There already is an REI store at 1466 North Halsted, two miles southeast. “We want a plan that will benefit the whole community,” the alderman said. “We want to find ways to capture that space and use it in ways that haven’t been done before.”

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Hellish Big-Box Proposal Would Nix Traffic Flow Gains From Elston Reroute

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Mid-America’s proposal would cover most of the former Vienna Beef site with parking spaces.

There are many productive ways Chicago could use the hump of centrally located, riverfront land that’s becoming available for redevelopment as part of the reconfiguration of the Fullerton/Damen/Elston intersection. The space, currently occupied by the Vienna Beef factory, could accommodate another light industrial business, pedestrian-friendly retail space for local merchants, an apartment complex, and/or some new parkland. Instead, what’s being proposed is a worst-case scenario of suburban-style development that would cover most of the land with asphalt, and likely cancel out any congestion improvements that would otherwise result from the reroute.

The six-way intersection currently sees about 70,000 motor vehicles per day, and consistently ranks among the city’s top-five intersections for crashes, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation, which is doing the $36.3 million street relocation. Delays to drivers at the junction can be as much as seven minutes, CDOT said. In an effort to unclog the intersection, they’re moving Elston about a block east and bypassing it through the land at the northeast corner of the six-way, which was also formerly occupied by WhirlyBall. Construction is slated to begin next month, with the bulk of the work finished by next spring.

WhirlyBall has already relocated to a nearby, larger space at 1823 West Webster, and Vienna Beef will soon be moving to 1800 West Pershing in Bridgeport. Now, Mid-America Real Estate Group is proposing building 105,000 square feet of retail space, with a whopping 437 parking spaces on the site. Preliminary renderings show a layout in which the vast majority of the site would be occupied by surface parking spots.

Mid-America wants to bring in a national grocery chain that would occupy a roughly 68,000 square feet of retail with 192 parking spots. Other buildings shown on the company’s drawings include 12,000 and 6,000 square-foot retail spaces, a three-story office building with 15,000 square feet of floor space, and a 4,000 square-foot restaurant. A spokesman for 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack told DNAinfo that the eatery would be that noted bastion of support for LGBT rights, Chick-fil-A.

It’s true that the stretch of Elston between Fullerton and Diversey is already lined with pedestrian-hostile, suburban-style retail, and there are also big box stores north and east of the river from the Vienna Beef site. It’s also the case that many Logan Square, Bucktown, and Lincoln Park would welcome a new a place to buy groceries.

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The Divvy Density Dilemma: Are Stations in Low-Income Areas Too Far Apart?

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This station by Kennedy-King College in Englewood is a 3/4-mile walk from neighboring stations. Photo: John Greenfield

Planning a useful, equitable, and financially sustainable bike-sharing system in a big, diverse city like Chicago is no easy task. You have a finite budget, and therefore a limited number of cycles and docking stations to work with. You want to provide access to the system for as many people as possible, and you’re certain to get complaints from residents and politicians whose neighborhoods don’t get bikes. However, if you spread the available stations across too large a service area, there will be poor station density and the system won’t be convenient to use.

I respect the the fact that the Chicago Department of Transportation has had to make some tough decisions in implementing the Divvy bike-share system. However, a new study from the National Association of City Transportation Officials suggests that the city may have made a mistake by placing Divvy stations too far apart from each other in many neighborhoods, especially low-income communities. The report, titled “Walkable Station Spacing Is Key to Successful, Equitable Bike Share,” argues that cities don’t do residents any favors by creating sprawling service areas that cover large numbers of neighborhoods, but don’t provide a useful network.

Low station density discourages use and undermines equity

The NACTO paper notes that, while bike-share can be an inexpensive, time-saving form of transportation, low-income people are underrepresented among American bike-share customers. In the U.S., poor neighborhoods tend to have a relatively low density of people and destinations, and when bike-share planners respond to this by putting a lower density of stations in these communities, it exacerbates the usage issue.

The study argues that, just as people usually aren’t willing to walk more than ten minutes to a rapid transit stop, if bike-share stations are located more than a five minute walk from a person’s starting point or destination, that person will generally choose a different mode. That jibes with my personal experience. I’m fortunate to live a quarter mile away from a Divvy station, but I find the five-minute walk to and from the station a little annoying, and if it was another block away I’d probably use it less often.

NACTO’s analysis of several different North American systems supports the five-minute rule theory. They found that the number of rides per day to or from a given station increases according to its proximity to other stations. For example, bikes in New York’s Citi Bike system, with 23 stations per square mile, got more than three times as much use as those in as the Twin Cities’ Nice Ride network, with only four stations per square mile.

Therefore, NACTO recommends that stations be placed no more than a five-minute walk from each other, which they define as 1,000 feet, for a density of 28 stations per square mile. I’d argue that average walking speed is a 20-minute mile, so placing stations every quarter-mile (two standard Chicago blocks), for a density of 25 per square mile, should be sufficient.

Low-income people tend to have less spare time and disposable income than wealthier folks, so they are even more likely to be deterred from paying to use bike-share if the station locations aren’t convenient. The study argues that, while efforts to increase bike-share use by low-income people have focused on offering discounted memberships and providing access to unbanked individuals, the density issue has largely been overlooked.

NACTO recommends having a consistently high station density across the service area, including poor neighborhoods with relatively low population densities. Rather than reducing the number of stations in these communities, the number of docking points at the stations should be adjusted according to demand.

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