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Did Chicago Bike Commuting Really Dip in 2013?

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The Census Bureau released American Community Survey estimates for 2013 last week, which report that the number of people biking to work in Chicago has decreased from 1.6 percent in 2012 to 1.4 percent in 2013. This could well prove to be a one-year blip against a broader, multi-year trend that has seen bike commuting nearly triple since 2000.

Other cities have also seen temporary declines in this key statistic, then went on to see strong gains. In New York City, the Census reported that the proportion of workers commuting by bike dropped in 2008 and 2009, but then doubled in subsequent years. Streetsblog Network’s earlier story on the data release included a chart from Bike Portland showing the growth of bike commutes in various cities, with substantial year-to-year fluctuation across all of them. For instance, Portland’s commute rate dipped in 2007, then rocketed by 50 percent in 2008 — and that gain has stuck ever since.

It’s easy to overstate the importance of the Census’ bike-to-work statistic. This number is widely reported mostly because the reliable Census Bureau updates it annually, and makes it easy to find and compare. Ultimately, though, national advocates acknowledge that it’s a woefully incomplete measure of bicycling, and not just because it only measures commute trips.

The particular dataset released last week, the American Community Survey one-year estimate for 2013, is particularly unreliable because it draws from a very small sample: The total number of Chicagoans who told the Census they biked to work last year numbers around 400. A shift of just a few dozen people, for reasons like poor weather or pure chance, can impact the final tally. Due to the small sample size, the survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 0.2 percentage points. So, the true mode share in 2013 could have gone up relative to 2012, decreased even more, or stayed the same.

The American Community Survey also reports estimates based on several years of surveys, which are more reliable but which would be even slower to pick up on rapidly changing phenomena. Bicycling in Chicago is improving quickly, and even the 2013 survey (which is administered monthly) wouldn’t have captured the full impact of many miles of new protected or buffered bike lanes and a huge bike-sharing system – both of which should meaningfully increase the number of Chicagoans biking to work.

The more reliable multi-year estimates from the American Community Survey are due later this year, and in 2015 a new National Household Travel Survey will give us a better look at bicycling for non-work trips. Chicago doesn’t have to wait for the feds to tell us about what’s happening on our own streets, though. The area can always do its own measures of bicycling, for instance through in-depth travel surveys (perhaps piggybacking on the NHTS, as other areas do) or through on-street counts.

Updated with a clarification about the survey’s margin of error.

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Pullman Pouter: Konkol Gripes That His Neighborhood Is a Transit Desert

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Mark Konkol

It’s always a chuckle to read DNAinfo.com columnist Mark Konkol’s misguided musings on transportation issues.

When the city installed protected bike lanes on Kinzie, in front of the Sun-Times office where Konkol worked at the time, he wrote a series of articles blasting the PBLs as “bunk” that caused gridlock for drivers. “They’re a giant waste of money that probably don’t protect anybody,” he fumed. “Not bicyclists. Not drivers. Not pedestrians.”

Actually, a city traffic study found that, because the bike lanes helped to better organize car traffic, rush-hour travel times for drivers generally improved after the PBLs went in. Meanwhile, morning rush-hour bike ridership increased by 55 percent. And, while we don’t have safety stats for Chicago’s protected lanes yet, a study found that New York’s 9th Avenue PBL led to a 56 percent reduction in crashes for all road users.

More recently, Konkol blamed protected lanes, as well as a bike-share station, for the temporary closure of his favorite eatery, River West’s Silver Palm. “The addition of protected bike lanes and a Divvy bike station coupled with Milwaukee Avenue construction gobbled customer parking spots and had shooed diners away,” he wrote in a DNA piece. In fact, the Divvy station was installed on the sidewalk, so it eliminated zero car parking, while adding 12 bike parking spaces that the restaurant’s customers can use.

Since Konkol had previously claimed that Divvy stations can drive merchants out of business, it was amusing to read yesterday that he’s bummed that bike-share hasn’t come to his neighborhood yet. That complaint was included in a column arguing that many affluent Chicagoans don’t understand the challenges faced by people in low-income, high-crime areas.

That’s a worthwhile topic, but Konkol approached it in a dubious manner. First of all, he conflates the Pullman Historic District, the picturesque, safe, middle-class-and-gentrifying enclave where he lives, with the besieged communities that surround it. “If I’m honest, living there… has always been something of a struggle,” he writes.

This summer, instead of spending his vacation money on a long beachfront getaway, he subleased a $2,440 a month condo in Streeterville. Ironically, he used that experience to write a “Tale of Two Cities”-style narrative, preaching about how privileged his North Side neighbors were.

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CDOT Previews Chicago’s Next Round of New Bikeways

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New protected bike lanes on Lake Street. Photo: John Greenfield

The quarterly meetings of the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council are a good place to get up to speed on Chicago’s latest bike developments. Wednesday’s meeting was no exception, with updates on bike lane construction, off-street trails, Divvy bike-share, and more. The sessions take place during business hours, but if your schedule allows you to attend, you can get on the mailing list by contacting Carlin Thomas, a consultant with the Chicago Department of Transportation’s bike program, at carlin.thomas[at]activetrans.org.

CDOT Deputy Commissioner Luann Hamilton kicked things off by introducing MBAC’s four new community representatives. All four are seasoned bike advocates, so they’ll likely be an asset to the meetings, bringing on-the-ground knowledge of their respective districts.

Anne Alt, who works at the bike law firm FK Law (a Streetsblog sponsor) and volunteers with Friends of the Major Taylor Trail, will represent the South and Southwest Sides. Kathy Schubert, the founder of the Chicago Cycling Club who successfully lobbied CDOT to start installing non-slip “Kathy plates” on bridge decks, will cover the North Side.

Miguel Morales, a former networker for the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago’s Children and current West Town Bikes board member, will represent the West Side. And Bob Kastigar, a longtime activist who launched petition drives in support of fallen cyclist Bobby Cann and the proposal for a safety overhaul on Milwaukee Avenue in Gladstone Park, will cover the Northwest Side.

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Kastigar, Morales, Schubert, and Alt. Photo: John Greenfield

CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld somberly noted that Chicago has seen seven bike fatalities this year, up from three by this time last year. The crashes generally took place on the Southwest and Northwest Sides. All but one involved a driver, and the victims ranged in age from 20-year-old Jacob Bass to 59-year-old Suai Xie.

CDOT Assistant Director of Transportation Planning Mike Amsden provided an update on the department’s efforts to put in 100 miles of buffered and protected lanes by 2015. So far, 67.75 miles have been installed, with 19.5 miles built this year, Amsden said. An additional 23.5 miles of federally funded lanes are slated for construction in spring 2015. These include Lawrence (Central to Central Park) and Milwaukee (Lawrence to Elston).

Currently, 14 miles of bikeways are going through the approval process and could be built this fall or next spring. These include Elston (Webster to the northernmost intersection of Elston and Milwaukee, near Peterson), Kedzie (Milwaukee to Addison), and Pershing (King to Oakwood). Another 7.5 miles are tied to street repaving projects, and are slated for construction this fall or in spring 2015. These include Armitage (Western to Damen) and Augusta (Central Park to Grand). Presumably, the lion’s share of all of these upcoming bikeways will be buffered bike lanes, rather than protected lanes.

Amsden reported that recently built buffered and protected lanes on Broadway in Uptown have been getting positive reviews from business owners, pedestrians, and cyclists. A brand-new stretch of PBLs and BBLs on Lake Street from Central Park to Austin means you can now ride five miles from Damen to the city limits on next-generation lanes, albeit it under the shadow and noise of ‘L’ tracks. Buffered lanes were recently striped on Marquette, from Cottage Grove to Stony Island, and from California to Damen.

“Next we’re going to start focusing on closing the gaps in our network,” Amsden said. “We’re really trying to create a cohesive system by looking at areas of concern, like difficult intersections.”

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Ridership Profile Shifts Slightly After Divvy’s First Full Summer

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Trips on Divvy bike-share peaked during July of this year.

The monthly count of bike-share trips in Chicago peaked this July at 410,392 trips, according to a new data release from Divvy. Trips then declined by five percent from July to August, which is traditionally a slow month due to vacations. While there’s now a full year of trip data on Divvy, the staged rollout last fall (through October) kept ridership relatively low during the first few months.

Nearly two-thirds of Divvy trips in the first half of 2014 were made by subscribers, up from 53 percent in the second half of 2013. This could be an indication that local residents, now familiar with the system, have switched from occasional day passes to annual passes, or it could be tied to the shift in seasons.

The number of annual-subscriber trips taken by women remains low — below the level of women who commute by bike in Chicago (as counted by the Census) and the number of women who use bike-share in other cities. In 2013, women subscribers made just 21 percent of trips, which increased to 23 percent of trips in 2014 through June.

Women who subscribe continue to take longer trips than men who subscribe. This year, up to June, female subscribers on average cycled 14 minutes and 23 seconds, while male subscribers cycled 11 minutes and 33 seconds.

Trip duration for both genders increased slightly from 2013 to 2014, which could be due to the growing reach of the station network (making longer trips possible) and the growing subscriber base.

The top ten stations where riders – both subscribers and 24-hour pass holders – began their trips pretty much stayed the same, with several changing ranking, and only two dropping off from 2013 to 2014. Of these top ten stations, the number of trips starting at Navy Pier increased by 32 percent and trips from Theater on the Lake, at Fullerton Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, increased by 69 percent. The other stations increased by less than six percent, while the Museum Campus and Millennium Park stations saw declines in trips begun of 25 percent and 28 percent, respectively.

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Divvy Is No Cautionary Tale — It’s a Model for Other Bike-Share Systems

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City officials unveil Bublr bikes at a ceremony in Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park last week. Photo: city of Milwaukee

Yesterday, the Tribune ran an opinion piece slamming the Divvy funding model, written by Diana Sroka Rickert from the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank. Rickert argued that Milwaukee’s brand-new Bublr bike-share system, named after the local term for a water fountain, used a superior method because much of the funding came from private donors, largely corporate sponsors.

Rickert claims it was foolish of Chicago to launch Divvy solely with public money. She quotes Milwaukee developer and Bublr sponsor Gary Grunau as implying that Chicago’s method of lining up funding was fiscally irresponsible. “Milwaukee is a little more conservative… which is probably explained in the fact that Illinois and Chicago have a much more unstable financial picture,” he said.

The problem with Rickert’s thesis is that she’s making an apple-to-oranges comparison. The total startup cost for the first 475 Divvy stations and 4,750 bikes was $31.25 million, according to Divvy general manager Elliot Greenberger. $25 million came from federal grants, while local funds are covering the remaining $6.25 million.

Meanwhile, Midwest BikeShare, the nonprofit that runs Bublr, has raised about $3 million in public funds, plus roughly $1 million in private donations, which should pay for installing about 60 stations and 600 bikes, according to launch director Kevin Hardman. MWBS needs to raise another $3 million privately in the next two to three years to pay for operations for these stations, Hardman said. The system launched last week with ten stations and 100 bikes.

Obviously, it’s easier to cover the start-up cost of a small system than one that’s nearly eight times as big. To reach the same 1:3 ratio of private-to-public funding as Bublr, the city of Chicago would have had to raise almost $8 million in private donations prior to launching.

And Chicago did eventually snag a $12.5 million sponsorship deal for Divvy with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, about a year after the system launched. By that time, bike-share was already a proven success here, and the sponsor got an immediate payoff by getting its logo plastered on every Divvy bike and rebalancing van.

Rickert also writes that systems in Denver and Minnesota have a “better business model” because they’re run by nonprofits and were launched with private funding. Again these are much smaller systems than Chicago’s. Denver B-cycle has only 84 stations and 700 bikes, while the Twin Cities’ Nice Ride has 170 stations and 1,550 cycles.

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The Pros and Cons of Divvy’s New Expansion Map

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The new Divvy expansion map with new coverage areas in pink. View a larger version.

In mid-July, Alta Bicycle Share’s Mia Birk told Marketplace that, due to pipeline issues, new bikes for the systems Alta runs probably wouldn’t arrive until 2015. At the time, I predicted that the Chicago Department of Transportation would soon announce that it wouldn’t be able to expand the Divvy system from 3,000 to 4,750 cycles this year, as previously planned.

More than a month later, CDOT finally announced yesterday that Chicago won’t be getting new stations until early next spring, but they cleverly softened the blow by releasing the locations for the 175 docking stations that will be added to the existing 300. Roughly 3,100 additional docks will be added, according to Divvy general manager Elliot Greenberger.

In the news release, CDOT also boasted that, with 475 stations spread over 87 square miles and 31 wards, Divvy will have the largest number of stations and the widest coverage area of any North American city. However, New York’s Citi Bike system will still have far more bikes, with 6,000.

The delay in getting new bikes for Alta-run systems was caused by the bankruptcy of Montreal-based supplier Public Bike System Co., also known as Bixi. CDOT spokesman Pete Scales told the Chicago Tribune that the department is confident that the expansion won’t be further postponed. “Alta is in the final stages of vetting multiple supplier options, all of whom have committed to spring delivery time frames.”

Chicago’s new map of planned stations was influenced by hundreds of suggestions residents made via a station request website. The new coverage area will stretch almost to 79th Street on the South Side, as far as Touhy Avenue on the North Side, and a bit west of Pulaski Road. Infill stations will also be added downtown, and on the Near South Side, the North North Side, and in Hyde Park.

In order to ensure the system would be financially viable, CDOT officials said the first round of 300 stations was concentrated in areas with a high density of transit stops, retail, employment nodes, and other destinations. Although low-income communities like Little Village, Pilsen, Bronzeville, and Oakland did get stations, some commenters and residents argued that the system was overly focused on affluent parts of town, and that too many poor neighborhoods were overlooked.

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“Walk To Transit” Targets 20 CTA Stations For Quick Safety Fixes

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Passengers arriving at the Clinton Station often can’t find the Greyhound, Union, or Divvy stations.

A new “Walk To Transit” initiative by the Chicago Department of Transportation will target 20 CTA stations for a slew of simple pedestrian infrastructure upgrades. People walking to several Blue Line stations on the west side and along Milwaukee Avenue, along with stations on the south and north sides, will see safety and usability improvements like re-striped zebra crosswalks, curb extensions, repaired or widened sidewalks, and new signage.

Suzanne Carlson, pedestrian program coordinator at the Chicago Department of Transportation, said at the Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council meeting to weeks ago (theme: connectivity) that construction on a first phase of ten stations should begin in the spring of 2015. CDOT has grant funding for another ten stations, yet to be identified. She said that the designs [PDF] were published in March “at 30 percent,” but only one minor design element has changed since then. 

Some stations will get new and improved wayfinding signage. New signs outside the Blue Line’s Clinton station, hidden underneath a Eisenhower Expressway overpass, will direct CTA riders to Metra, Amtrak, and Greyhound, and vice versa. Even among the majority of American adults who carry smartphones, figuring out where to go from the Clinton station can be a puzzle: The other stations aren’t immediately visible from any of the station’s four dark exits. Adding “breadcrumb” sign posts along the way would help. CTA and CDOT managing deputy commissioner Sean Wiedel have had conversations about adding Divvy wayfinding signs within stops like Clinton, where Divvy is similarly hiding around the corner from the station entrance, “but we haven’t reached a definitive agreement at this point.”

This is where Divvy signage should be displayed

Signs within the Clinton Blue Line station point CTA riders to Greyhound and Metra, but not Divvy — and once above ground, no further clues are available.

Above the Blue Line station at Grand-Milwaukee-Halsted, CDOT proposes reprogramming the signal with “leading pedestrian intervals,” which will give people walking across the street a green light before drivers can make a turn. New curb extensions (bulb-outs) at Ohio Street, between the station and Milwaukee’s bridge over the Ohio Street Connector, will slow down drivers and prevent them from driving down Milwaukee’s faded bike lane.

Around the Pulaski Blue Line station in West Garfield Park, which is within the median of the Eisenhower Expressway, recommended improvements include curb extensions to slow turning drivers at all corners of Harrison and Pulaski, a pedestrian refuge island within Pulaski at Van Buren, and signs that will direct bicyclists to and from the station from Keeler Avenue — a nearby “neighborhood route” under the Streets for Cycling 2020 Plan.

Outside the 63rd Street Red Line station in Englewood, new trees will enliven a dull corner at Princeton Avenue — and also replace a dangerous gas station driveway, which eliminates the conflict between cars turning across the sidewalk into the gas station, right by a bus stop. Such dangerous curb cuts are not forever, since they have to be renewed annually.
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3 Big CDOT Projects Have Been Postponed, But the Delays Are Reasonable

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Sorry, Chicago won’t be getting any new Divvy stations until 2015. Photo: Steve Chou

In early June, I dubbed this the Summer of the Big Projects. The Chicago Department of Transportation was planning to start construction on, and/or complete, a slew of major infrastructure jobs this year. Now it seems more like the Summer of the Big Postponements.

Over the last month, we’ve gotten word that three major initiatives – the Bloomingdale Trail, the Central Loop BRT, and now the Divvy expansion — have been put on hold until 2015. That’s disappointing, but most of the reasons given for the delays are completely understandable.

When I interviewed CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld back in May, she expressed confidence that these projects would move forward as planned. The Bloomingdale, also known as The 606, is currently in the thick of construction, as you can see from photos Steven Vance and I took on a recent tour. The 2.7-mile, $95 million elevated greenway and linear park was slated to open in its basic form this fall, with additional enhancements being added next year.

However, on June 20, CDOT announced that the Bloomingdale opening was being postponed until June 2015, when the trail and its access parks will open in their completed state. They had a legitimate excuse: cold spring temperatures and frozen soil forced crews to delay the relocation of utilities and structural work. That, in turn, delayed the installation of new concrete in some sections, and forced the department to wait until next spring to do landscape plantings.

The transportation department had also been planning to start building the $32 million Central Loop BRT corridor later this year, with service launching in 2015. The system will run between Union Station and Navy Pier, including dedicated bus lanes on Canal, Clinton, Washington and Madison, as well as a new transit center next to the train station.

In May, Scheinfeld told me CDOT was still planning to start construction this year. However, the timetable seemed a bit optimistic, because the city was still discussing the design with downtown property owners and merchants. Some of them had kvetched that creating dedicated bus lanes would slow car traffic, and that the extra-large bus shelters would obscure their storefronts.

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Alta Chief: Bike-Share Expansions Unlikely in 2014

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There was no shortage of Bixi bikes at this 2012 conference, but there is now. Photo: Dylan Passmore/Flickr

Despite continually growing ridership, Alta Bicycle Share-operated bike-share systems across America will probably not be adding bikes or docks this year. The bankruptcy of Montreal-based Public Bike Share Company, known as Bixi, which developed and manufactured the equipment that Alta’s systems use, has disrupted the supply chain that numerous cities were pinning their expansion plans on.

“New bikes probably won’t arrive until 2015,” reports Dan Weissmann at American Public Media’s Marketplace. Alta Bicycle Share’s founder and vice president Mia Birk told Weissman that the last time Alta received new bikes from Bixi “must have been pre-bankruptcy.” That puts expansion plans for cities including Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, DC on hold. Just those three cities had previously announced fully-funded plans to add 264 bike-share stations in 2014. New York and Boston are also looking to expand their Alta-run systems. Other bike-share systems that purchase equipment from Bixi, like Nice Ride Minnesota, have had no luck buying new kit this year.

The shortage of equipment also means that cities that had signed up with Alta to launch new bike-share systems — notably Baltimore, Portland, and Vancouver – won’t launch until 2015 at the earliest. Ironically, new launches that were planned later, like Seattle’s Pronto system, will proceed sooner, as they were designed with equipment not sourced through Bixi.

The good news is that the troubled supply chain for Alta’s bike-share systems looks like it will be rebooted thanks to an infusion of capital. REQX Ventures, a company from New York City that had bid on Bixi, has been in talks to purchase a majority stake in Alta Bicycle Share, according to a report in Capital New York. This should inject new resources, allowing the bike-share operator to upgrade buggy software and overcome the hurdles imposed by Bixi’s bankruptcy in time for 2015′s equipment orders.

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Mia Birk Praised Chicago’s Bike Gains at Yesterday’s Meet-and-Greet

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Mia Birk talks to Streetsblog readers at yesterday’s meet-up.

It was great hanging with Streetsblog Chicago readers at yesterday’s meet-and-greet with noted bike and pedestrian planner Mia Birk, co-hosted by her planning firm, Alta Planning + Design at Vinyl in River North. Birk also heads Alta Bicycle Share, which runs the Divvy program for the city of Chicago. She served as Bicycle Program Manager for the city of Portland, Oregon, from 1993 to 1999, and helped launch the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Birk recently published the memoir Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet.

Speaking before the group, Birk heralded what she called a sea change in transportation planning across the country in recent years, and in Chicago in particular. “Chicago has already been on the leading edge because of Active Trans and because of former Mayor [Richard M.] Daley,” she said. “This city was already a bright light. But then, in the last few years, some things kind of clicked.”

“In my mind, those cities that are really clicking have some human elements that fall into place all at once,” she said. “They have really great advocacy organizations, but it could also be a blog, and it could also be a bike commuter group, or it could be neighborhood associations, or business associations. It’s leadership at the community level, clicking at the same moment that the political leadership is really not just saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, bikes, I like bikes, bikes are good’ — but is really leading on bikes, loves bikes, wants bikes, gets it.”

She noted that the movement towards a more bikeable Chicago picked up speed after Rahm Emanuel took office as mayor, and appointed former transportation chief Gabe Klein and current commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld. “Amazing things have happened over the last few years in Chicago,” she said.

She brought up the thriving Divvy program, now approaching its one-year anniversary, as proof of the current administration’s success in getting big things done for biking in a short amount of time. “Divvy is really a great example of how game-changing bike-share can be,” she said. “If you’d asked me five years ago where city governments should put their money — protected bike lanes or bike share — I probably would have said protected bike lanes. Now, I would say both.”

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