CDOT Provides an Update on Efforts to Ensure Divvy System Is Equitable

Checking out a new Loop docking station. Photo: Steven Vance

Imagine if almost everybody who rode the Chicago Transit Authority, a public transportation system subsidized with taxpayer money, was Caucasian. Denver found itself in an analogous situation last year, when a survey revealed that, in a city where almost half of residents are people of color, 89.9 percent the people using the publicly funded Denver B-cycle system were non-Hispanic whites.

“Our demographic profile is nothing to be proud of, and we know that,” acknowledged Parry Burnap, director of Denver’s bike-share program. “We are mostly male, mostly white, mostly wealthy, mostly well educated.” That year a study found Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare is largely being used by a similarly narrow demographic of District residents.

Chicago Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Scott Kubly helped launch Capital Bikeshare along with CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein, and Kubly is helping to manage Chicago’s upcoming Divvy system. At a community input meeting for the bike-share program last November in Bronzeville, he promised attendees he’d work hard to create a system that is accessible to Chicagoans of all backgrounds and income levels. “Since we’re using public dollars, it’s important that the folks who are using the service reflect everybody in the community,” he said. “It’s a challenge but we’re going to crack it.”

Bronzeville resident Bernard Loyd discusses bike-share with CDOT bike program coordinator Ben Gomberg at a community meeting last fall. Photo: John Greenfield

There are a number of reasons why bike-share use might potentially be low in poor neighborhoods and/or communities of color. Nationally, cycling is more prevalent among non-Hispanic whites, according to a recent League of American Bicyclists report, although the study also found the fastest growth in bicycling over the last decade is among Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans. Although the annual fee for Divvy is only $75, less than a monthly CTA pass, a credit card is required, which is a barrier for unbanked individuals.

Bike-share works best in densely populated areas with many destinations like retail and job centers, but low-income communities are often isolated by physical barriers like expressways and industrial zones, and density is often lower due to economic disinvestment. This is the case in many poor neighborhoods on our city’s South and West sides. “Growing bike share will be easy in some parts of Chicago,” Kubly said last fall.  “I’m really focused on building membership in parts of town where it will be hardest.”

The city released a map of planned docking station sites in May. While the coverage area is split fairly evenly between the North and South sides, most of the stations are located within three miles of the lakefront, and station density is higher on the more affluent North Side. University of Chicago grad student Moacir P. de Sá Pereira, a fan of Paris’ Vélib’ system, argued on his blog that, in their quest for density, the Divvy planners disproportionately favored wealthier parts of the city and overlooked poor neighborhoods.

Divvy docking station locations; stations will be installed in phases through 2014; 380 are shown, but there will be 400. View in a larger map.

Last week I asked Kubly for an update on CDOT’s efforts to ensure Divvy will benefit all Chicagoans, including those who live outside the planned coverage area. “We absolutely want to serve as many areas of the city as we can,” Kubly said. “But with this initial investment [$22 million in federal and local funds] it may be hard to reach as many areas as we’d like.” He noted that all transportation systems, including the ‘L’, focus on areas with the highest population density. “But we’re also shooting for equity – that’s why we’re going from 6300 North to 6300 South.”

While poor neighborhoods on the West Side will generally not be getting docking stations in the near future, a number of low-income South Side neighborhoods are getting them, including Little Village, Pilsen, Douglas, Bronzeville, Grand Boulevard, Washington Park and Woodlawn. However, while many parts of the North Side will have stations spaced every quarter-mile or so, on the South Side spacing is generally every half-mile.

“Even in areas where we will have less station density, they’re still as dense or denser than any other American bike-share city, except maybe New York,” Kubly said, noting that half-mile distribution means you’re never more than a ten-minute walk from a station. He added that barriers such as the South Branch of the Chicago River, the Dan Ryan and Stevenson expressways, railroad tracks and industrial areas made it harder to incorporate some South Side neighborhoods.

This bus shelter ad promotes bike-share as affordable transportation.

Kubly said in the future CDOT may be awarded additional funding to expand to communities that aren’t getting bike-share this round, and they hope to double the system in size from 4,000 to 8,000 bikes. The department has applied for a $3 million federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement grant that, along with a $750,000 local match, would bankroll 65-70 new stations. The local money could potentially come from Tax Increment Financing dollars, aldermanic “menu” money, and/or corporate sponsorship. “Once we’ve launched a successful system it will be easier to attract sponsorship,” he said.

CDOT is also working on providing Divvy access for unbanked Chicagoans. “This is one area where I think we can really break ground,” Kubly said. In D.C. this issue was addressed via the Bank on D.C. initiative, in which low-income residents received a free Capital Bikeshare membership after completing a financial literacy course, but bike-share participation was relatively low. Other cities like New York are offering discounted bike-share memberships to public housing residents.

“Bank on D.C. was a good first step, but bike-share was an add-on to a financial literacy program,” Kubly said. “Instead of doing that or reaching out through the public housing department, we’ll be doing more of a grassroots partnership with community groups and churches.” CDOT is currently in talks with neighborhood organizations about providing them with group discounts on memberships for their clients or parishioners, similar to a corporate account. The city would share the liability for lost or stolen bikes with the church or community group.

Meanwhile, Kubly says CDOT is spreading the word about the benefits of bike share in low-income neighborhoods. They’ve asked aldermen to help with outreach, including distributing 24-hour passes so that their constituents can try the system for free. Kubly said 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell, who checked out bike facilities in Denmark last year as part of a fact-finding trip sponsored by the advocacy group Bikes Belong, is particularly enthusiastic about promoting Divvy in her Near South district.

Divvy bike sharing at Bike to Work Day Rally
A Divvy employee discusses the system at Friday's Bike to Work Rally. Photo: Steven Vance

The Divvy outreach tent, offering info about the system, sample bikes and the opportunity to sign up for a membership, is appearing at community events like a health and wellness fair this Saturday at the Chicago Urban League, 4510 South Michigan. There will be ads for the system in bus shelters around the city. Participants in the Go Bronzeville transportation demand management program, launching later this year, will get information about how to use Divvy as part of their training on options for getting around the city without a car.

Kubly says another way bike-share is benefitting low-income Chicagoans is through employment opportunities for adults and apprenticeships for teens. CDOT committed to hiring ten percent of the Divvy workforce through Skills for Chicagoland’s Future, a job-training program for unemployed individuals, and wound up hiring about twenty percent of its crew, around 20 people, through the program. Some of the employees on the Divvy launch staff are also graduates of the city’s Greencorps Chicago program, which trains ex-offenders and people recovering from substance abuse in environmentally oriented fields like landscaping and urban agriculture.

The Divvy contract with Alta Bike Share includes a requirement for a youth internship program, which is being launched through Greencorps. About 600 young people, ages 16 and up, selected by schools and social-service organizations in violence-prone neighborhoods, will receive six weeks of training in urban agriculture and bike safety and repair at 16-18 schools. After completing the program, it’s likely that 10- 20 of the graduates will get part-time permanent work with Divvy, doing bike repair and distribution, and station maintenance, Kubly said.

“There’s a whole economic development element to the bike-share program,” he said. “We’re saving people money on transportation and hiring local residents.” In the near future, Streetsblog Chicago will provide reactions to Kubly’s comments from community leaders and cycling advocates on the South and West sides.

  • JZ

    Great story! Thanks for highlighting this issue.

    So what do the other 580-590 students who don’t get part-time jobs do once the program is over?

  • Thanks JZ. Good question, but bike shop and urban agriculture jobs will certainly be an option.

  • JZ

    What bike shop and urban ag jobs? My buddy with a master’s degree can only get seasonal employment at a bike shop here.. and he’s in his late 30s. It would’ve been nice to make the Divvy bikes here in Chicago, especially in the old Schwinn factory on the west side. That would’ve produced a lot more jobs – and we could make them for other cities.

  • Well, I’ve notice a couple of new bike shops opening up lately, and once thousands of new people get introduced to urban cycling through Divvy, I think we’ll see a lot more people buying helmets and, eventually, their own bikes. All those new riders will also boost the safety-in-numbers factor, encouraging still more people to ride, so this is a great time to open a new bike store here.

    That’s a great idea, but some people are already balking at the $1,200 replacement fee for the bikes, and it seems unlikely they could be made as cheaply here. On the other hand, Heritage Bikes sells locally made bikes that aren’t outrageously expensive, so perhaps it’s worth giving your idea some more consideration.

  • Ryan Wallace

    All can think of with this article and the Ventra debit missteps is that there is some really low hanging fruit out there for a local bank or credit union. Create a consumer friendly touchless credit/debit card that can be used to link to Ventra and Divvy accounts. Even if it had minimal-to-no fees (thus less revenue positional for bank/credit union) the positive public reaction and press could generate enough additional business to make it worth it.

  • Adam Herstein

    While the coverage area is split fairly evenly between the North and South sides, …station density is higher on the more affluent North Side. University of Chicago grad student Moacir P. de Sá Pereira, a fan of Paris’ Vélib’ system, argued on his blog that, in their quest for density, the Divvy planners disproportionately favored wealthier parts of the city and overlooked poor neighborhoods.

    The north side is denser population and business-wise than the south side, so it makes sense that it has higher Divvy station density.

  • Adam Herstein

    Once thousands of new people get introduced to urban cycling through Divvy, I think we’ll see a lot more people buying helmets and, eventually, their own bikes.

    Which is why it was idiotic for the owner of Johnny Sprockets to successfully protest to get a station in front of his building removed.

  • Pat

    While Divvy is CDOT program, is there any possibility places CTA suburbs like Evanston, Oak Park, and Skokie could be included in the program? Or even the wide range of Metra suburbs. While in many places, the density might not be there, but it could work for some of them. Is Chicago open to sharing the technology/system freely with suburbs that are willing to pay for stations, bikes, and maintenance with their local dollars?

  • There is bike manufacturing happening at the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, also known as Bubbly Dynamics. There’s an open house and Cargo Bike Roll Call there on Saturday, June 29, from 10 AM to 6 PM.

    Here’s the event information on The Chainlink.

  • Seems like a likely future scenario. Capital Bikeshare operates in some D.C. ‘burbs as well.

  • Not Very Good Research

    The Capitol Bikeshare reports aren’t very useful. They only surveyed their monthly/annual members, not the daily users. The reports do indicate that the primary mode-shift is from transit to bikeshare. If the tourist market were also included this would probably be even more the case as most tourists to DC do not have cars. What is the benefit to Chicago of shifting people from CTA to bikeshare? The CTA needs more riders not less.

  • “Idiotic” might be too strong a word but, yes, I predict he’ll be requesting to get the station installed in the near future:

  • Capital Bikeshare members reduced their driving 4.4 million miles per year. I’d love to see Divvy have a similar effect in Chicago.

  • Adam Herstein

    “Silly” or “ridiculous” perhaps? It’s just seems odd that someone who makes a living off bicycles would be opposed to having a bike share station in front of his shop. If anything, it’s convenient for people who are dropping off their bike for service. Divvy can provide a ride home instead of the bus.

    Claiming he wants more room for bike racks is also odd, because there is already an awful wheel-bender/schoolyard style rack adjacent to the building. Why not use that space for a better rack, or request an on-street corral instead of fighting Divvy?

  • To use an old Chicago cliche, “We don’t want no bike-share stations nobody sent.”

  • Paris is also almost *all* wealthy people, with the poorer living in suburbs. It’s a small and insanely dense city. Velib is in some parts of the suburban ring too but not all the way out in the poorest burbs.

  • The cities of Chicago and Paris have roughly the same population, but while Chicago is 227 square miles, Paris is only 40. That’s like if the entire Chicago population was squeezed into the area bounded by 31st, Pulaski, Fullerton, and the lake.

  • mhls

    I’ve always thought that bike share eases crowding on transit because those making short trips shift to bike share/bikes. Fewer short trips reduce crowding and speeds up service for those making longer trips because there are fewer short trip passengers boarding and alighting.

    Could this make transit more attractive for those making longer commutes (less crowding/higher speeds)? I have no data to back this up, but have assumed this is a potential benefit based on my experience in DC through the first few years of bikeshare.

  • Mcass777

    If you are balking on the replacement fee or other Divvy fees, you probably will find Heritage’s $800 bike too expensive. Unfortunately Divvy low end potential consumers see Target and Walmart as their bike shop. They work for a while then they cannot be easily fixed. Too bad the Divvy bike needs to be bomb proof as opposed to be economical.

  • Actually, I think the main person balking at Divvy’s replacement fee is the Trib’s Jon Hilkevitch:

  • Anne A

    I think the potential impact on CTA would vary considerably by neighborhood and time of day. In Loop, it’s more likely to replace some transfers – either from Metra or CTA. In areas where CTA has cut its service hours, it could provide people with a transportation option during hours when the CTA route they need is not operating.

  • Anne A

    I’ve heard that both Evanston and Oak Park are interested in having bike share.

  • Mateo

    I wish they wouldn’t ignore the entire southwest side of the city. Excluding Pilsen and LV, there are no stations west of Halsted on the south side. I’d love to be able to rent a bike to shoot over to the lakefront, or up to Pilsen, or down to Hyde Park, but unfortunately the underserved areas of the city continue to be underserved, and Divvy doesn’t seem to be helping change that.

  • Thanks for the feedback.

  • S A

    Why not make Divvy work with Ventra?


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