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“Divvy for Everyone” Aims to Boost Ridership in Low-Income Areas

A Slow Roll Chicago ride in Bronzeville. Divvy provides loaners for Slow Roll events. Photo: John Greenfield

Divvy bike-share has been a resounding success on many fronts, with 476 docking stations installed and more than four million trips taken since the system launched two years ago. However, like most bike-share networks across the country, there’s plenty of room for improvement when it comes to access and ridership in low-income communities. Thanks to a $75,000 grant from the Better Bike Share Partnership, announced last week, the Chicago Department of Transportation will be taking steps to help close the bike-share gap with a campaign called "Divvy for Everyone."

Bike-share user surveys in other cities have revealed that membership tends to be disproportionately young, white, male, affluent, and college educated. While the CDOT has stats on age and gender based on Divvy membership applications, it has yet to release a full report on demographics. However, when the first 300 stations were installed in 2013, they were concentrated in parts of the city with a high density of people and destinations, which meant that downtown and relatively wealthy North Lakefront neighborhoods got the lion’s share.

A few low-income communities on the South and West Sides did get Divvy stations in the first round, and many more – such as Woodlawn, Washington Park, Canaryville, and East Garfield Park -- got access to the system when 176 stations were added this spring. That expanded the number of Chicagoans who live in bike-share coverage areas from about 33 percent to 56 percent.

Meanwhile, CDOT has dispatched its Bicycling Ambassadors outreach team to talk up the benefits of bike-share to local merchants and give residents tips on using the system effectively. However, when I recently visited most of the stations on the perimeter of the new coverage area on a nice day, I only saw one person using the system.

Plenty of people I spoke with on the South and West Sides said they were glad to have access to Divvy, but weren’t clear on how the system works. A credit card is also required to buy a $7 day pass or $75 annual membership, which also serves as a barrier to unbanked individuals.

The BBSP money, along with $75,000 in matching funds from BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois, the Divvy sponsor, will allow CDOT to work on removing barriers to bike-share use, and to shift its outreach efforts into high gear. The Chicago grant is part of nearly $375,000 in grants that the BBSP is awarding to recipients across the country working to make bike-share more equitable. The partnership is a collaboration between the City of Philadelphia, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, the PeopleForBikes Foundation and the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

Other grants will go to improve bike-share access in New York City, Washington, D.C., Boston, Austin, and Charlotte, North Carolina. The BBSP is also providing funding to researchers from Portland State University who will study Philadelphia’s Indego system to see how perceptions of bike-share, barriers to use, station siting, and specific interventions to increase use influence ridership. The PSU report will determine best practices for expanding access that can be used in other cities.

A Divvy station on 26th Street in Little Village. Photo: John Greenfield

The news release from the BBSP partnership stated that Divvy for Everyone will involve a citywide program of subsidized memberships and facilitated enrollment through the Local Initiatives Support Coalition’s Centers for Working Families. The release also mentioned that Slow Roll Chicago will assist CDOT with outreach, education, and engagement in Bronzeville, a mostly African-American, low-to-moderate income community on the Near South Side, at events, demonstrations, and community bike rides.

CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey declined to provide more details, but said the specifics of the equity program will be finalized in the near future and they expect to launch it this summer. “This is very exciting news for the Divvy program and the City of Chicago,” he said. “We’ve expanded the reach of the Divvy… and we have also been working hard to make the program more viable and affordable for Chicagoans with limited income and who lack access to the banking system.”

According to Zoe Kircos, a People for Bikes staffer who is managing the grant program, CDOT’s application for the grant said Divvy for Everyone would provide $5 annual memberships to qualifying low-income Chicagoans. An individual's membership charge would go up to the standard $75 rate after his or her first year, but the fee would be payable in monthly installments. Low-income bike-share members would also be invited to participate in the Centers for Working Families' financial literacy program, where they would learn strategies for saving money and building credit.

According to the CDOT grant application, residents would be able to sign up for Divvy in person at one of the 13 CFWF locations and pay with cash. “It can be intimidating or confusing to enroll at a bike-share kiosk or online,” said Kircos. “The partnership with Slow Roll and LISC will allow them to do this face-to-face, so they’re not doing it all by themselves at a computer at the library.”

Kircos said CDOT and LISC will be putting together a fund to cover liability in case Divvy bikes checked out by unbanked members are not returned. Cities like Boston and Philadelphia both have options for registering for bike-share without a credit card, with the primary guarantee being that members are registering their names and addresses. In the event that a member racks up excessive overtime, access to the system is cut off. “There has been very little loss,” said Kircos. “People are not stealing bikes.” Perhaps CDOT should consider trying the honor system in the future as well.

Slow Roll Chicago cofounder Oboi Reed (a Streetsblog Chicago board member) says the group is excited to work with the city to increase Divvy for low-income and unbanked residents. “We believe intensely in the transformative power of bicycles as a form of transportation, and we consider Divvy a public resource that all Chicagoans should have equitable access to,” he said. “We look forward to helping the system grow even more and connect in a deeper way with Chicagoans in underserved communities across the city.”

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