Should Chicago Roll Out the Red Carpet for Dockless Bike-Share?

LimeBike cycles in D.C. Photo: Payton Chung
LimeBike cycles in D.C. Photo: Payton Chung

Dockless bike-share has been booming in other bike-friendly burghs like Seattle and Washington, D.C., but so far there has been a notable radio silence from the city of Chicago as to whether it’s open to this new technology coming to our town. With dockless bike-share, there’s no need for expensive docking stations to secure the bikes. Customers use a cell phone app to find and access bikes distributed around a city and secured with built-in wheel locks. As such, it’s relatively inexpensive and easy for private companies to introduce fleets of the bikes to cities – if they can get the blessing of the powers that be.

Today the Chicago Department of Transportation broke its silence on the subject. Spokesman Mike Claffey provided this statement:

As you are well aware, the City of Chicago has consistently demonstrated a strong commitment to providing diverse affordable transportation options, through Divvy and other means. City ordinance does not currently address dockless bike share. We are aware of this as an emerging business model and have seen other jurisdictions start to explore the concept, for example, in Washington, DC, which recently launched a pilot program. We are monitoring this closely to observe the benefits it offers residents and any impact it has on their conventional bike share system.

Claffey declined to comment on whether the city has been in talks with any dockless bike-share providers.

With a president in power who has announced plans to eliminate federal funding for sustainable transportation, dockless bike-share could potentially be a cheap way to bring this transportation mode to outlying Chicago neighborhoods that don’t yet have Divvy docks. The new technology could also generate much-needed permit and tax revenue for our city. It may also create jobs, since workers will be needed to “rebalance” the cycles, maintain and repair them, and possibly do outreach and marketing for the services.

But dockless bike-share could also be a double-edged sword. CDOT has invested tens of millions of dollars in Divvy infrastructure, with much of the cost coming from the docks. While dockless could be a good short-term solution for neighborhoods like Beverly, Morgan Park, and Pullman, where residents have been pushing for Divvy service, it’s likely that vendors would be more interested in high-demand areas like downtown, the West Loop, the Near North Side, and the Near Northwest Side. This would create competition with existing Divvy service, which might actually lead to a net loss of revenue for the city. Recently CDOT has been using Divvy funds for bike infrastructure projects such as the recent complete streets overhaul of Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park/Bucktown.

Other unintended consequences of dockless bike-share could include the new bikes clogging bike racks or littering the streets (which is why Amsterdam recently banned the technology.) In a big city like Chicagos, theft of free-locked bikes could be an issue, and it’s even possible that scrappers may try to fence the cycles to metal recyclers.

Various types of bike-share available in D.C. Photo: Greater Greater Washington
Various types of bike-share available in D.C. Photo: Greater Greater Washington

Former Streetsblog editor-at-large Payton Chung tells me that in D.C., where several different dockless systems have recently launched to complement the traditional Capital Bikeshare system, with the city’s encouragement, things seem to be going reasonably smoothly so far. “#DocklessFail has become a pretty popular hashtag, but in the grand scheme of things maybe 80-90 percent of the ones I see are properly parked,” he says. “Availability [of CaBi cycles] seems to be a little bit better since hundreds of new bikes launched.” On the down side, Chung says the dockless bikes are highly bunched downtown, and scarce in the neighborhoods.

So the it seems like the city of Chicago should seriously consider allowing dockless bike-share to debut here. But rather than having a Wild West scenario with private companies “disrupting” the successful Divvy system, the rollout should be done with care, so that this new technology does more good than harm.

  • Jacob Wilson

    Could Divvys be retrofitted to be dockless? If the technology is sound make it part of the public system rather than some shady, opaque venture capital startup.

  • Asher Of LA

    “The new technology could also generate much-needed permit and tax revenue for our city.”

    Making cycling – an inherently cheap, socially beneficial travel mode – into a revenue generation opportunity would be extremely counterproductive. This narrative is also insane – first we’re told that biking is so important that it must be subsidized by taxes, now it’s a piggy bank that can tolerate taxes reducing its use? Taxing something desirable is not sensible.

    Thankfully, the permitting fees have been modest enough in cities that have allowed them, and were mostly for covering city costs incurred by the bikes. It’s plausible that zero fees would be socially optimal, to maximize the use of bikes and minimize things like emissions, obesity, car crashes, etc. Instead of fees, I wonder about cities negotiating benefits for better users of the technology – better bike quality, lower prices, etc, especially in small cities where only one operator will enter.

  • Could Divvy provide the service in addition to their current servive?

    One of the features of Divvy has been the expansion of bike parking often by reducing car parking, a double benefit for the city.

    Is this another case of attempting to monopolize an existing market in order to profit from under pricing and losing money now only to raise rates greatly later after driving out competition? I don’t know?

  • Kelly Pierce

    Seattle is the only major city with a bike helmet law. With a community having this mindset, how can
    it be heralded as an innovator in bike policy?
    Also, a private company might choose to use cheaper bikes than those
    used by Divvy.

  • Kevin M

    Dockless bikes == bike-clutter in a city == not a good idea when thinking about increasing density while also desiring efficient transportation corridors and cohesive, aesthetically-peaceful public space. Divvy docks keep order in the corridors. Please don’t allow yet another capitalist disruptor into our precious transportation systems.

  • David Henri

    Bring it on. I’m ready to cancel my Divvy annual subscription, as it seems pointless to be begging for some Divvy bikes in the Jefferson Park neighborhood. I’m fed up with Divvy.

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    Don’t forget, they apparently auto renew…

  • hopeyglass

    Oh man, please, please, please do not be the harbringer of yet another tired “Helmet! No helmet!” article/discussion. Please.

  • Courtney

    I have been a Divvy member since its inception and I received an email informing me that my membership was coming up for renewal. It’s not as if they charge you out of the blue like so many other companies do.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I hear you, online debates about whether or not helmets are necessary for bike commuting can be pretty tiresome. But I don’t think there’s much contoversy anymore, among people who have actually looked into the issue, about whether bike helmet laws for adults make sense.

  • Warren Skipper

    What is the logic in introducing dockless bikes to cities that currently have robust bike shares? Divvy bikes are plentiful in downtown Chicago. According to Chung, most of the dockless bikes end up downtown in DC. What benefit would that add here?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Dockless bike-share could be an inexpensive way to bring the service to outlying neighborhoods that don’t currently have docks (and probably won’t be getting them anytime soon, if Trump succeeds in killing federal funding for bike projects), provided that there’s a way to ensure that there will be a good distribution of cycles in these communities. While it wouldn’t address the geographic equity issue — which many people would argue is a deal-breaker — even if all the bikes the bikes wind up in central neighborhoods, adding more public bikes to the city could help with availability issues, such as the fact that many Loop Divvy stations are empty after 6 PM.

  • Davey43

    Two pieces of advice, as seeing how I’m implementing something like this in the Bay Area: (1) Read your audience – and make sure that this values the end user. Otherwise they won’t use it (read: do you think Divvy will be advantageous versus something like limebike). (2) Does the City have an exclusivity agreement with Motivate? If so, then it’s moot.

  • Davey43

    It still comes down to an end user approach, especially when it comes to pricing models and where are those bikes going. It may be functional to have something like this, but you can ill afford to have a ton of bikes stashed in a pile in the middle of Wicker Park.

  • Davey43

    One other item of advice: e-bikes could solve the issue for longer distances, but again, it comes down to end user cost and access for low income folks.

  • Michelle Stenzel

    Chicago DOT has always touted offering choices in methods of transportation, and I hope they continue that with the new dockless bike share systems that obviously would like to come to Chicago. I’m a die-hard fan of Divvy, but there are often times when Divvy bikes or docks are not available where I am or want to be, and I see dockless bike systems as a great back up choice in those situations. My annual $100 Divvy membership would continue, as it’s still an enormous bargain compared to the $30/month or $1 per ride that dockless systems charge.

    As for the concerns about where dockless bikes would be parked: There’s plenty of room in between sign poles, lamp poles, trees, etc along curbs to accommodate them. Too many bikes on our streets would be an awesome “problem” to have. I do agree we shouldn’t have clutter on our transportation corridors but would advocate for getting rid of all the hulking parked cars that clutter up almost every single street in the city first.

  • Michelle Stenzel

    And here is a nice overview of the different systems’ bikes and prices, provided by Greater Greater Washington, to get a taste for what we’re missing. :)

  • Alex_H

    Just a small quibble: you write that taxing something desirable is not sensible, but in fact many “desirable” activities are taxed, such as purchasing goods and services? I get what you are saying about taxing biking though.

  • Asher Of LA

    Generally economists think it’s a better idea to tax things that we want to discourage to reduce their incidence and/or make them pay for the costs they incur to other people (alcohol, gasoline, tobacco, etc), and to tax things that don’t induce people to do something else to avoid taxes, so, moderate land taxes.

    Tax policy aside, with the dynamic I described, government officials are effectively saying “subsidize it if we control it, tax it if we don’t,” which is dubious.