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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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Divvy Membership Skews White and Wealthy, But Hopefully Not for Long

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A Divvy station outside Comer High in Grand Crossing, a South Side community. Photo: John Greenfield

Thanks to member surveys, we’ve known for years that bike-share membership in other cities like Washington, D.C. and Denver has been disproportionately white, male, young, educated, and relatively affluent. Now we have confirmation that the same is true of Divvy’s annual members. However, the Chicago Department of Transportation hopes the Divvy for Everyone (D4E) equity program will increase access and help broaden its appeal, so that ridership better reflects the city’s demographics.

At a Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting Thursday, CDOT officials announced some of the findings of a Divvy survey conducted earlier this year. The system currently has about 30,000 annual members.

Of the hundreds of members who responded to the questionnaire, 65 percent were male, and 79 percent were non-Hispanic whites – a group that makes up only about 32 percent of the city’s population. The average age was 34, the majority of respondents had middle-to-upper incomes, and 93 percent have a college degree or more.

Why does this matter? Divvy is a public transportation system, whose infrastructure is subsidized by taxpayer money. “Bike-share is a public amenity, so it should be accessible not just to those who have the means, but also those who might not have the means,” noted Go Bronzeville’s Ronnie Harris at the D4E launch last July. Moreover, low-to-moderate-income neighborhoods and communities of color stand to gain the most from the mobility, economic, and health benefits of bicycling.

One reason the Divvy membership doesn’t look like Chicago yet is station placement. When the system debuted in 2013, the first 300 docking stations were concentrated in parts of the city with a high density of people and destinations, in an effort to make sure the system was financially sustainable. However, this meant the lion’s share were installed downtown and in North Lakefront neighborhoods.

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Take a Free Ride: No Charge for Divvy on Three Days in September

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Every Divvy kiosk now has a sticker advertising the free ride days. Photo: CDOT

Back in July, the Chicago Department of Transportation launched the “Divvy for Everyone” equity program, offering $5 bike-share memberships to low-income Chicagoans. Now they’re trying a social experiment that will answer the question, what if Divvy was, almost literally, for everyone?

Thanks to sponsorship from T-Mobile, Divvy will be offering free rides for 24-periods on three Saturdays in September: the 5th, 12th, and 19th, available to anyone 16 or older with a credit card. Taking advantage of the promotion works just like buying a regular day pass, which usually costs $9.95.

One those days, residents and visitors will be able to simply walk up to a Divvy kiosk, swipe a credit card, go through the sign-process, and check out a bike – minus the normal fee. They can take as many 30-minute rides as they like during the 24-hour period. The usual late fees will apply.

A similar concept has already been tried in New York City, where the Divvy concessionaire Motivate also operates the Citi Bike system. On Thursday, May 14, free Citi bike rides were bankrolled by, curiously, Switzerland Tourism. Motivate talked with T-Mobile about doing a Chicago sponsorship and put them in touch with CDOT.

As part of the deal, the telecommunications company will pay an undisclosed sum, which should cover the projected cost of the three days of complimentary Divvy use, as well as the expenses for beefed-up Divvy valet parking services – more on that later. “We expect we’ll wind up with some additional funds that will help subsidize operations of the system, over and above the three days,” said CDOT Assistant Commissioner Sean Wiedel.

Wiedel is confident that, weather permitting, ridership on each of these free days will shatter the previous Divvy record set last July 4, when about 25,000 trips were taken. On a typical summer Saturday, between 16,000 and 18,000 rides are taken. “This is a grand experiment, so we’re not really sure how many rides we’ll get,” he said.

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More Deets on the Divvy Funding Situation

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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

In an article last Friday, the Tribune’s Jon Hilkevitch implied that the new price hike for Divvy day passes is a desperate measure the city is taking because the bike-share system is bleeding cash, when that’s not the case at all. “The daily fee to rent a Divvy bike will jump by more than 40 percent next week because of a deficit and escalating costs to run the expanding bicycle-sharing system,” he wrote. “Divvy has yet to steer clear of red ink.”

Hilkevitch noted that that the system, which launched in June of 2013, posted a $171,000 operating loss for the remainder of that year, and a $500,000 operating loss in 2014. However, he chose not to include info that Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld sent him in a statement:

The overall system revenue, including the Blue Cross Blue Shield sponsorship [$12.5 million over five years] and advertising on kiosks, brings in income to Divvy and the city’s bike programs. Overall Divvy is not losing money.  CDOT is investing the revenue from Divvy in bike infrastructure improvements such as bike lanes, bicycle safety education and other programs that benefit the entire city of Chicago, not just Divvy users.

Divvy gets guaranteed advertising revenue from the docking station placards via its outside ad vendor Outfront, formerly Van Wagner, CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey told me yesterday. The minimum amount of revenue for the city was $31,250 per month back when the system had 300 stations. Now that Divvy has expanded to 476 stations, the guarantee has risen to about $45,000 per month.

Around the time the bike-share program launched, Hilkevitch and the Tribune published a series of articles disparaging it. However, a few months later, the reporter ran a column that basically admitted he was wrong to suggest no one would use the wildly popular system. Last Monday, I responded to Hilkevitch’s latest Debbie Downer Divvy article with a Streetsblog post.

On Wednesday, the first day of the price hike, the Trib ran another piece by Meredith Rodriguez featuring quotes from bike-share users. Most of them had no problem with the price of 24-hour passes rising from $7 to $9.95. Once again, the article contained Hilkevitch’s misleading statement that the program “has yet to steer clear of red ink.” When I called him out on Twitter for repeating the same claim twice, he had an interesting response. Read more…

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Despite the Day Pass Hike, Divvy Is Already Making Money, Not Losing It

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The Divvy day pass hike will largely affect visitors, not locals. Photo: John Greenfield

In Friday’s Chicago Tribune article about the impending price hike for Divvy day passes, transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch implied that the extra revenue is needed because the bike-share system has been a money loser. In doing so, he ignored a statement he received from the Chicago Department of Transportation noting that, when you factor in sponsorship and ad money, Divvy is actually generating revenue for the city.

Starting this Wednesday, the price of a 24-hour pass will increase from $7 to $9.95. CDOT and Motivate, the Divvy concessionaire, expect this will generate an additional $800,000 per year. The cost of an annual membership will remain at $75, a steal when you consider that a year of monthly CTA passes costs $1,200.

The day pass price hike will largely affect visitors to Chicago, since about two-thirds of the passes are purchased by out-of-towners, according to CDOT. 86 percent of the system’s roughly 27,400 annual members live within the city limits. The $9.95 price for a 24-hour pass also puts Divvy on par with New York City’s Citi Bike, which is also run by Motivate, while an annual membership in NYC costs almost twice as much, at $149.

Hilkevitch spun the news to suggest the higher day pass rate is a fiscal austerity measure for a bike-share system that is hemorrhaging cash. “The daily fee to rent a Divvy bike will jump by more than 40 percent next week because of a deficit and escalating costs to run the expanding bicycle-sharing system,” he wrote. “Divvy has yet to steer clear of red ink.”

The reporter notes that the program’s stated goals include financial self-sufficiency, as well as generating surplus revenue that would help fund other bike infrastructure. He points out that the system, which launched in June of 2013, posted a $171,000 operating loss for the remainder of that year, and a $500,000 operating loss in 2014.

Hilkevitch’s piece is largely based on a statement provided by CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld. She said the department is raising the day pass price “in order to maintain and build on Divvy’s success and maintain the high level of service that our users are accustomed to.”

Scheinfeld acknowledged that the original projections for how much revenue would come in from usage fees, and how much it would cost to run the system, were not 100-percent accurate. “Divvy was launched at a time when big cities were just beginning to launch bike share programs and many of the financial predictions we made were based on other industries, without having a direct precedent to look to in the bike share world.”

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