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West Garfield and Austin Got Divvy Bikes Last Week. Will Anyone Use Them?

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Rob, an Austin resident and substitute teacher, by the new Divvy station at Austin Park. Photo: John Greenfield

[Last November the Chicago Reader launched a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership allows Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We syndicate a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

Imagine if the Chicago Transit Authority, a public transportation system that’s subsidized by taxpayer dollars, were mostly serving wealthy white folks. That would be messed up, right?

Last year the Chicago Department of Transportation admitted to a similarly lopsided situation with the publicly funded Divvy network, which was launched in 2013. Its survey of annual members revealed that, as is the case with most U.S. bike-share systems, membership skewed heavily white, affluent, well educated, young, and male.

That finding was no surprise. Arguably, Divvy got off on the wrong foot from a social justice standpoint in 2013, when the city concentrated most of the first 300 docking stations in dense, well-off areas downtown and on the near-north lakefront in an effort to make the system financially sustainable.

And while stations in these areas were generally installed with tight quarter-mile spacing, making it easy to walk to and from the docks from many destinations, the rest of the city typically got less-convenient half-mile spacing. Moreover, the $75 (now $99) annual membership fee and credit card requirements were financial barriers to low-income and unbanked Chicagoans.

To its credit, CDOT has recently taken steps to address Divvy’s equity problem. When the system added 175 more stations last summer, many of them went to low-to-moderate-income, predominantly African-American and Latino communities on the south and west sides.

And last July the department rolled out the Divvy for Everyone (D4E) program, which offers onetime $5 annual memberships to Chicagoans making $35,310 or less a year and waives the credit card requirement. More than 1,300 residents have signed up so far, well over CDOT’s target of 750 for the year.

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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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CDOT Will Roll Out “Learn to Ride” Adult Bike Handling Classes This Summer

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An adult bike handling class taught by Dave “Mr Bike” Glowacz for the Active Transportation Alliance. Photo: Active Trans

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The city’s Divvy for Everyone (D4E) equity program, which offers one-time $5 annual memberships to low-income Chicagoans, is a great opportunity for residents to enjoy the the mobility, health, and economic benefits of bike-share. But the big, blue bikes don’t do you much good if you don’t know how to ride or don’t feel safe navigating city streets on two wheels.

A new initiative from the Chicago Department of Transportation called “Learn to Ride” will address that problem. CDOT’s Bicycling Ambassadors outreach team will teach one-time, one-to-two-hour bike handling classes to adults every weekday for six weeks this summer in two locations on the South and West Sides. The schedule and the locations, which will be parking lots, will be announced in the near future, CDOT bike and pedestrian safety and education manager Charlie Short said yesterday at a meeting of the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council.

Divvy bikes, which are one-size-fits-all, slow, and easy to ride, plus helmets will be provided as loaners to class participants. In the future, the department may offer free helmets to class attendees, Short said.

“Something that we’ve heard from the folks that are [issuing the D4E memberships] is that people are curious about Divvy, and it’s certainly an appealing thing,” Short said. Over 1,300 people have signed up for the discounted memberships. “But there are folks who haven’t ridden a bike since they were a little kid, or they have a fear of riding. We want to make sure we are providing every level of service.”

There will space for 250 people to take the classes during the six-week period. “We’re not going to educate a whole lot of people, but there will be a 1:2 teacher-to-student ratio, so if you show up you will really get a hands-on-education for each class,” Short said.

If the initiative is successful, more classes may be added this year, or the program may be expanded next year, Short said. “It’s a pretty cool thing,” he said. “It’s something we’ve never done, but we know there’s a desire for it.”

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Popular “Transit” App Now Enables Bypassing the Divvy Kiosk

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If you’ve got a 24-hour pass for Divvy and you don’t want to wait in line behind these folks to retrieve your next ride code, pull out the updated “Transit” app. Photo: John Greenfield

A new partnership between Divvy and Transit app, you can now get 24-hour Divvy passes and ride codes via smartphone. This means that people who have just signed up for an annual membership won’t have to wait for a key to arrive in the mail before they can start using the blue bikes. It also means that folks who want to use bike-share for the day won’t have to wait in line at a kiosk to sign up for a pass and check out a bike.

I’ve been using the Transit app for over a year because it’s handy for figuring out the most convenient car-free travel options from wherever you are. It displays the next bus or train departure times for the three stops or stations closest to you in the iPhone notifications area, and many more in the app itself.

If you’ve just signed up for a Divvy membership and want to start riding now, you can download Transit to Android and iPhone, enter your Divvy account username and password, and request a ride code.

If you're at Rogers Park Social and open Transit, you'll see a result for the nearby Divvy station. If you're signed in to your annual membership account you'll see a button to get a ride code to unlock the bike without a key fob.

Let’s say you’re at the bar Rogers Park Social and want to check out travel options. The Transit App provides bus and Red Line arrival times, and also shows you there’s a Divvy station nearby. If you’re signed in as a Divvy member, the app will offer a ride code to unlock a bike.

You can then enter that three-digit code into the keypad of a Divvy dock to release a bike, just as you would if you’d signed up for a day pass at the kiosk. Even if you’re a longterm member, you can get ride codes via the app, which is handy if you need a bike but don’t have your key with you.

The Transit app allows you to enter payment information within and purchase a 24-hour pass, or use a promotional code.

Use the Transit App to enter payment information and purchase a 24-hour pass, or use a promotional code for a free pass.

Transit will also be timesaver for short-term Divvy users. It eliminates the need to ever wait in line to register for a day pass, as well as the need to re-insert your bank card into a kiosk every time you want to check out a bike during that 24-hour period.

The sign-up process at the kiosks is time-consuming due to slowly responding touch screens, and sometimes there are long lines at the kiosks at popular locations and after special events like music festivals.

A newsletter sent to Divvy members this morning said, “We hope this new feature makes it easier when you forget your key at home, when it isn’t convenient to bring your key out, or if you just prefer to do everything by phone.”

When you open the Transit App while you’re in Chicago, a new “Unlock & Pay for Divvy Bikes!” banner appears, which leads you to these instructions. If you’re not signed in as a Divvy member and you’re near a bike-share station, Divvy shows up as a transit option. A button to “Purchase Pass” also appears. If you’re signed in, you’ll be offered the option to get a ride code.

Divvy general manager Elliot Greenberger said that they’ll be upgrading kiosks “later this month and in to June which improves the speed of getting a pass and codes.” He said they’ve redesigned the “kiosk flow” and made improvements to the underlying software.

New software has eliminated a lot of the friction of checking out low-cost public bicycles, but many Chicago streets are still in line for an upgrade.

 

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Bike-Share Equity Study Uses Old Chicago Data, But Divvy Still Needs Work

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A Divvy station outside Comer College Prep high school in Grand Crossing, a mostly African-American neighborhood. Photo: John Greenfield

A new study concludes that most U.S. bike-share cities, including Chicago, have provided much better access to stations for whites than African Americans. The report is based on fall 2014 Divvy station location data, but the coverage area has greatly expanded since then to include many more communities of color, so it’s likely that geographic access has significantly improved. However, it’s clear that more work needs to be done in Chicago before the system can be considered truly accessible to African-American and Latino residents.

Julia Ursaki and Lisa Aultman-Hall from the University of Vermont’s Transportation Research Center conducted the study and presented it in January at the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting. Ursaki and Aultman-Hall compared bike-share access to population demographics in Chicago, Seattle, Boston, New York City Washington, D.C., and Arlington, VA.

Aultman-Hall told me via email that, for the purposes of this study, the terms “equity” and “equality” had the same meaning. “‘Equity’ is a bike share station in all neighborhoods, in the context of this paper,” she said. “That is also ‘equal.’ We had no measure of need, alternatives or destinations. In a more complex [study], one would also have to consider if the activities or destinations needed were accessible by bicycle from the neighborhood.”

Ursaki and Aultman-Hall also reviewed previous bike-share studies and noted there are at least three main factors cities have taken into consideration when designing bike-share systems: market viability, health indicators, and economics. One such study found that the “primary market” for Philadelphia’s Indego bike-share system existed chiefly in the central business district.

This CityLab graphic using Ursaki and Aultman-Hall’s data shows the percentage of whites and African Americans who lived within 500 meters of a bike-share station as of fall 2014.

However, a second study found that if the Indego operators were interested in improving public health, they should install bike-share stations in mostly African-American West Philly. A third study asked various bike-share operators how they were trying to address equity. The operators responded that, among other initiatives, they were installing stations and other bike infrastructure in low-income areas.

CDOT spokesperson Mike Claffey told me the department looks at “a variety of equity-related criteria” when choosing station locations, including “median household income, non-white population levels, and educational attainment,” but they don’t consider health indicators such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates.

Ursaki and Aultman-Hall found that, in terms of several socioeconomic factors, Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare stations have the most equitable distribution of the seven cities they studied. That system, which debuted in 2010, is also the oldest. Neighboring Arlington is part of the same system, but its station distribution was reviewed separately.

Divvy launched in summer 2013 with 300 stations. While the initial service area extended about the same distance north and south of the Loop, areas with a higher density of people and destinations received a higher density of stations. Stations were generally placed every quarter mile in these areas, versus every half mile in other areas.

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Divvy Adding More Stations in Black Communities, Fewer Bikes Than Planned

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Photo by Wei Sun.

Back in September 2014, former Illinois governor Pat Quinn announced a $3 million grant to help expand the Divvy system into Oak Park and Evanston, as well new areas on Chicago’s West Side and in the Rogers Park neighborhood. The plan was to install 70 stations and 700 bikes by spring or summer of 2015.

Last summer, Chicago added 175 stations and 1,750 bikes, bankrolled by federal and city money, which expanded the original coverage area in all directions. But the state-funded equipment still hasn’t materialized yet.

Today, after introducing to City Council two intergovernmental agreements with the suburbs regarding Divvy, Mayor Emanuel announced a change to the state-funded expansion plan. Instead of 70 stations and 700 bikes, 96 stations and “more than” 250 bikes will be added to the system, with the roll-out taking place next summer.

Oak Park and Evanston, which are providing a combined $200,000 in matching funds to help fund the expansion, will be getting 13 and eight stations, respectively. Chicago, which is providing $550,000 in matching funds, will get 75 stations within the city.

Adding more stations and fewer bikes means that this year’s expansion will grow the service area faster, to include more Chicago neighborhoods than originally planned. The city had previously announced that the predominantly African-American, low-to-moderate-income Garfield Park and Austin communities on the West Side would be getting stations, as well as new sections of ethnically and economically diverse Rogers Park on the Far North Side.

However, today Emanuel said the expansion will also include several LMI or middle-class neighborhoods on the South and Southwest Sides. These include Burnside, Chatham, Greater Grand Crossing, Brighton Park, and Englewood. All of these are heavily African-American, except for Brighton Park, which is mostly Latino.

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Divvy Is Hiking Membership Fee to $99, Adding an Installment Option

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While Divvy has previously used CMAQ money to cover operations shortfalls, they probably won’t need to in the future. Photo: John Greenfield

The bad news: Divvy’s announced today that their annual membership fee will be rising from $75 to $99, starting on February 1. The good news: The bike-share system will be offering a new option of paying for a membership in monthly installments.

When Divvy launched back in June 2013, yearly memberships cost $75 and 24-hour passes were $7. In July 2015, the day pass price was raised to $9.95. That change didn’t affect most Chicagoans who use the system, since about two-thirds of the passes are purchased by out-of-towners, while the vast majority of members are local residents, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation.

Also in July 2015, the city rolled out the Divvy for Everyone equity program, an attempt to address the system’s lopsided membership demographics. An earlier survey of members had found that, as is the case with most American bike-share networks, Divvy membership skews white, male, young, affluent, and well educated.

The D4E program offers one-time, $5 memberships to low-income Chicagoans, and waves the usual credit card requirement. The program, which is funded by a grant from the Better Bike Share Partnership, plus matching funds from Blue Cross Blue Shield, has been wildly popular, with more than 1,100 residents signing up within five months.

The upcoming price hike for regular Divvy memberships is necessary “in order to maintain the high level of customer service that our users have become accustomed to and to continue to grow the program,” according to CDOT spokeswoman Susan Hofer. She noted that over the last two-and-a-half years, the system has expanded to have the largest coverage area of any North American bike-share network.

Hopefully, the extra revenue will be used to address the system’s growing pains. At a recent Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting, South Side community representative Anne Alt noted that there have been more problems with bike availability this year, as well as maintenance issues like non-functional headlights.

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“Divvy For Everyone” Program Now Has Over 1,000 Members Across Chicago

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This map of Divvy For Everyone members shows a dot for each household, indicating that a good portion of members live outside the coverage area.

The city’s Divvy For Everyone program to get low-income and unbanked residents using the popular bike-share system looks to be gaining popularity itself. Yesterday the Chicago Department of Transportation’s Divvy For Everyone program manager Amanda Woodall discussed D4E figures at the quarterly Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council, a public meeting where the city shares its bicycle initiatives.

Until D4E, Divvy required people to have a debit or credit card to purchase a Divvy membership. The card ensures that Divvy can bill you if you lose or a damage a bicycle, but this policy presented a barrier to unbanked Chicagoans. CDOT, Divvy, and the Better Bike Share Partnership are trying to address this problem, inherent in bike share systems nationwide. The BBSP and Divvy’s sponsor, Blue Cross Blue Shield, are subsidizing the D4E program.

A person must provide proof of residency and low-income status, and pay $5 in cash at one of five service centers to obtain a membership through D4E.

In September, Woodall reported that CDOT had hit 800 sign-ups since the program launched on July 7, already surpassing their goal of reaching 750 D4E members within one year. On Thursday, she reported that 1,107 people have enrolled. There’s no enrollment cap right now.

D4E members currently make up 3.5 percent of the 31,000 annual members. Of those who signed up before November 13, 78 percent have already ridden a Divvy bike at least once and 47 percent have taken at least 10 trips, Woodall said.

The top female and male riders, judging by the number of trips taken, “are both 59 years old,” Woodall said. “That’s not what I was expecting to see.” In addition, the percentage of female D4E members is slightly over half, while the overall Divvy membership skews male, at 62 percent.

When it comes to actual trips taken, D4E gender balance is still better than the overall membership: 46 percent of trips were taken by female members. Overall, from April to June of this year, the latest period for which Divvy has published data on its website, female Divvy members took only 25 percent of trips.

Woodall added that D4E members have used every single Divvy station and presented a map that showed a large portion of the D4E members live outside the Divvy coverage area. She said this shows you don’t have to be in the system area to be able to use the system.

One meeting attendee asked which IDs are acceptable to prove residency. CDOT said that applicants must show an ID issued by the Secretary of State that has their Chicago address on it. The audience member said that this would prevent some populations from accessing D4E.

The next MBAC meeting is on Thursday, March 9, at City Hall, 121 N LaSalle Street, in room 1103. No RSVP is necessary.

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Could Longer Rental Times Help Divvy Appeal to More Chicagoans?

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Vienna’s CityBike Wien system givers users twice as much rental time as Divvy. Photo: Michael Podgers

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While visiting Vienna, Austria, I gave their CityBike Wien bike-share system a spin and found it has a couple of advantages over Chicago’s Divvy system. CityBike Wien is dirt cheap, with a one-time registration fee of only one euro, about a dollar, compared to $9.95 for a Divvy day pass. And the first hour of every ride on CityBike Wien is free, while Divvy users start racking up late fees after the first 30 minutes. That means you can practically ride across the entire city of Vienna without having to re-dock your bike.

My experience with CityBike Wien made me think about what Divvy could do to improve user experience and encourage more ridership. Offering a longer period before late fees kick in might make the system more convenient to use, and there are several other possibilities for making the system more user-friendly.

Bike-share is generally designed for short trips and errands, especially “last-mile trips” between transit stations and other destinations. When Divvy bikes are used this way, 30 minutes is plenty of time. Moreover, customers can take longer rides without accruing late fees by “dock surfing,” briefly checking in the bike at a station every half hour. If you have a membership key, this usually adds only a dozen seconds or so to your trip time.

On the other hand, there are other systems besides Vienna’s that offer a longer free rental period than Divvy. For example, New York’s Citi Bike and Paris’ Vélib’ allow annual members to use bikes for 45 minutes without late fees, although day pass holders can only use them for 30 minutes without extra fees.

So would it make sense to extend the Divvy rental period? Michelle Stenzel, co-leader of the grassroots group Bike Walk Lincoln Park, isn’t convinced that’s necessary.

“Although I don’t want to diminish the needs of users who truly want to ride a Divvy for 45 minutes…I have to ask whether those people have actually tried riding a Divvy for that long,” Stenzel said. “Those bikes are heavy!” She added that she avoids using Divvy for more than 20-25 minutes at a time, but that’s plenty of time for the kind of trips the system is intended for.

However, as the Divvy coverage area grows, customer may wish to take longer rides. This year the network expanded to 476 stations, covering 476 stations and 33 of Chicago’s 50 wards, making it the largest system in North America based on the number of stations and the geographic area served. Next year, Divvy is adding 70 new stations in Chicago, Evanston and Oak Park next year, so the the coverage area will grow significantly.

But Jim Merrell, a campaign director at the Active Transportation Alliance doesn’t think the larger service area will lead to a demand for a longer rental period. “Divvy’s great for the shorter trips, but I have a hard time seeing people using Divvy [for longer trips],” he said. He added that Divvy seems to be most useful for rides within neighborhoods, or when combined with transit. Still, longer rental times could make using Divvy a more relaxing experience by reducing the need to watch the clock and dock surf.

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O’Shea Can You See? Formerly Anti-Bike Alderman Now Wants Divvy

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19th Ward Alderman Matt O’Shea.

DNAinfo’s Ted Cox provided a nice write-up of an entertaining discussion of bike issues that took place at yesterday’s City Council budget hearings. You should definitely check out the original article, but here’s some additional background and analysis.

It’s great that aldermen on the Far South Side are clamoring for Divvy stations in their wards. Currently, the bike-share system’s coverage area only extends to 76th Street. Both 9th Ward alderman Anthony Beale, whose district includes parts of Roseland and Pullman, and 19th Ward alderman Matthew O’Shea, whose territory includes Beverly and Mount Greenwood, asked when their constituents will be getting stations. O’Shea said his constituents are “anxious for Divvy.”

That represents a major about-face O’Shea. At a Chicago Department of Transportation budget hearing back in 2012, he told CDOT, “If you never put a bike lane in my ward, that’s too soon.” However, Southwest Side residents have recently lobbyied to get Divvy, and the Beverly Area Planning Association launched a petition for stations in the neighborhood, which has garnered almost 400 signatures. It’s nice to see that O’Shea has changed his tune and is now responding to his constituents’ desire to make the ward more bike-friendly.

At yesterday’s hearing, downtown alderman Brendan Reilly (42nd) questioned CDOT’s practice of hiring the Active Transportation Alliance to do outreach to residents and businesses in advance of the construction of new bikeways. He complained that Active Trans “targeted” him after he proposed an ordinance to force CDOT to remove the Kinzie Street protected bike lanes removed, at least temporarily, during the construction of a tower at Wolf Point.

In response to Reilly’s move, the Active Transportation launched a petition asking other alderman to oppose the ordinance, which garnered more than 1,400 signatures. They also got almost 50 businesses to sign a letter to Reilly asking for the Kinzie lanes to be left in place but improved. Eventually CDOT and Reilly reached an agreement, and the bike lane was refurbished last summer.

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