For Whom the Bike Bell Tolls: Oak Park Kills Its Divvy Program

A Divvy station by the Oak Park Green Line stop. Photo: Brian Crawford
A Divvy station by the Oak Park Green Line stop. Photo: Brian Crawford

Last night a slender majority of Oak Park trustees bowed to rising anti-tax sentiment in the increasingly pricey village, voting to pull the plug on the community’s two-year relationship with the Divvy bike-share system.

“For the $300,000 that we lay out for this program, we could buy every kid in town a free bicycle every other year,” said trustee Deno J. Andrews. “We could buy every adult a new bicycle every several years. We could buy our own fleet of bicycles and just let them be around town, for less money than we’re spending.” In the end, Divvy was doomed by a slew of disappointing statistics stemming from low ridership. Among them:

Divvy cost taxpayers $17.48 for every ride, Andrews said in a Facebook post. Trustee Andrea Button clarified that Divvy was subsidized by parking fees, not by taxes, but the high cost was hung around the program’s neck: a $35 subsidy for each round-trip bike ride.

• Each of Oak Park’s 130 bikes saw 0.25 rides per day, according to trustee Dan Moroney.

• When Oak Park implemented a 40 percent-off sale on Divvy memberships in July, trying to invigorate the program, only 20 residents signed up.

“We have two years of data,” Andrews said. “We had two of the mildest, longest, most beautiful summers in Oak Park history. People aren’t using this.” During the most recent summer, only 34 people in Oak Park used Divvy each day, he said. “Less than one percent of the Village uses Divvy. The village is screaming: We don’t want this or need this.”

The trustees who voted to kill Divvy: Geno Andrews, robert Tucker, Simone Boutet, and Dan Moroney.
The trustees who voted to kill Oak Park’s Divvy program: Deno Andrews, Robert Tucker, Simone Boutet, and Dan Moroney.

Trustee Simone Boutet suggested redirecting the parking money to other projects recommended in the village’s 2008 Bicycle Plan and its 2014 update. Bike-share is the only recommendation in the update that has been implemented, said village engineer Bill McKenna. Other ideas include intersection improvements, signs and striping to create a network of low-stress “neighborhood greenways.”

However, Button argued against scuttling a program without having its replacement ready. One of three remaining board members who originally approved Divvy, Button pleaded for one more year. “I’m not ready to call it a failure just yet. I think Divvy is still new in Oak Park,” she said, pointing out that it’s the village’s only sustainable transportation program.

Oak Park mayor Anan Abu-Taleb argued that beneficial programs shouldn’t necessarily be expected to pay for themselves. “If we take that logic and apply to the health department, we would not have a health department. If we apply it to the Building Department, we would not have a building department,” he said. “I believe we have not given this program enough time and enough management skills for it to succeed.

Oak Park partnered with Evanston and Chicago in 2013 to apply for a federal grant to expand Divvy to the two suburbs. In Spring 2016, 13 stations were installed at the village’s six CTA stations and destinations including the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, the village hall, and the visitors center. For the most part, stations were not placed in residential neighborhoods. During the same Divvy system expansion, Chicago installed 18 stations extending west from Garfield Park to connect to the fledgling Oak Park system. 

By November 2016 Divvy had signed up 353 members in the village of 50,000. A year later, that number had grown to 431. Kelly Goldthorpe, director of marketing for Motivate, the company that runs the system, characterized that as a 20 percent increase in membership. But Andrews pointed out that ridership had dropped 11 percent over the same period.

Oak Park pays Motivate to clean, maintain and rebalance its 130 bikes and the 207 docks in its 13 stations. How much that costs remained unclear during the meeting. Trustees expressed confusion about the total expense and frustration over the confusion. Village staff brought them a contract to continue the program through 2018 for no more than $170,000, expecting to subsidize $129,000 of that.  But the monthly expense trustees were quoted—$24,068—adds up to much more: $291,216.

The village had asked Motivate for a discount and to provide more docks to invigorate the system. Motivate offered a 10 percent discount but no more docks.

Goldthorpe promised to launch a marketing campaign targeting Oak Park specifically. She said that the city of Chicago would share sponsorship revenue of $500 to $700 per bike after its current sponsorship with Blue Cross/Blue Shield expires at the end of this year.

But Moroney, who had campaigned on a promise to create a sustainable community, said he had no data to suggest ridership would improve. “I wish I had the data to say let’s renew this program. I just don’t, and I refuse to make decisions that are not based on sound data.”

In the end it was one of the original supporters of Divvy, trustee Robert Tucker, who cast the deciding vote. He said he entered the meeting uncertain how he would vote. He read from a Chicago Tribune editorial supporting Divvy with the argument that “Profits aren’t the only measure of success.” But he conceded that the financial argument was hard to overcome. In the end trustees voted 4-3 not to continue their contract with Motivate. Andrews, Boutet, Moroney, and Tucker voting against the program and Abu-Taleb, Button, and trustee James Taglia voting to save it.

“So we don’t have a contract,” Abu-Taleb told the Motivate representatives. “We tried. Thank you. We wish you the best of luck. And we have some bikes to sell.”

As Motivate General Manager Michael Critzon was leaving the meeting, I asked him how the company would cope with the sudden loss of revenue from Oak Park. “I don’t think we’ve thought that far yet,” he said. “We were being optimistic that we would still be in Oak Park.”

Oak Park resident Ron Burke, the executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, had urged trustees to look at how much the village spends to subsidize driving—on roads, on signs, on parking garages. After the meeting, he went into some detail. “I’d like to see a similar level of outrage over $25,000 parking spots,” Burke said. “There’s $400,000 in this year’s budget for parking signs. $400,000 for signs alone. That just goes to show you where the priorities are.”

Update: 1/17/18 2:45 PM: According to Divvy general manager Michael Critzon, the bike-share system is working on a transition plan for Oak Park’s 13 stations and 130 bikes. He provided the following statement:

The Divvy program continues to grow not only in Chicago but throughout Chicagoland, with growing ridership from Chatham to Evanston every year.  While it’s unfortunate that the Oak Park community will no longer participate in the Divvy program, we continue to be committed to providing the best possible system to our riders—one which is equitable, safe and fun—and we look forward to a strong peak riding season in 2018.

  • rohmen

    I live in OP, and was sad to see the vote. I personally feel that in terms of what we subsidize for parking and vehicle use in general $200K a year wasn’t enough of a cost to kill Divvy, especially for a community that says it prides sustainability. That said, the usage numbers were horrible, and it’s pretty clear the majority of residents out here simply weren’t using the system.

    I’d say the fault was that it was designed and implemented more for visitors than real residents. I think there is a demand if people can use a the system to get from their homes to the trains and shopping areas, but that’s not how it was rolled out.

  • Cameron Puetz

    The Oak Park numbers for DIvvy are really bad. I generally support Divvy, but I can’t see how Oak Park could have justified spending that much on more of the same. To justify continuing the contract, there needed to be some plan to try boosting ridership. The contract extension needed a proposal to try something different, like locating stations in residential areas, rather than more money to continue doing something that wasn’t working.
    Beneficial programs don’t have to pay for themselves, but they do need to be people using program to demonstrate the benefits.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Looking at the map, the station placement seems odd. Most trips start or end in a residential area, so having so few docks in residential areas seems like a pretty major flaw. I wish that Motivate and ATA had come in with proposals to try to boost ridership to justify giving Divvy more time to attract riders.

  • rohmen

    Yeah, the only way it really made sense if you lived in OP is if you needed to get from OP Downtown to another commercial area, like the Harrison Art District, or Oak Park and Lake. Otherwise, the stations were mostly by the el stations, which for actual residents isn’t very useful.

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    Nothing wrong with placing the stations near L stations, but they probably needed double or triple the number of stations to have everyone live within a short walk of one at home which would obviously cost more money, whether or not that would attract enough additional users to lower the subsidy per person, I’m not sure.

  • Are they using membership numbers for people who actually live in Oak Park to measure how much it’s being used or…actual usage statistics? People who live in Oak Park can probably already afford a nice bike or 3. At the same time the idea of people biking back and forth between Austin and Oak Park did strike me as being very un-Oak Park-like. Like almost the opposite of Oak Park’s mission which is to be extremely Oak Parky at all times.

  • johnaustingreenfield
  • Cameron Puetz

    Yeah, docks near L stations can provide residents with last mile connectivity to trains, but only if they’re paired with docks in residential areas.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Good coverage of the transit stations and the commercial corridors along Madison and Lake, but very limited coverage of residential areas. No stations south of the Ike or north of Augusta, and only 3 stations north of downtown.

  • rwy

    Are the residential station dense enough that the stations would see much use?

  • JEK

    Another bummer about this is that it decreases the chances that Divvy continues westward expansion – it seems less likely they’d set up shop in Forest Park and Maywood without the through- Oak Park connection (without knowing necessarily that those towns have shown interest, or applied)

  • Jacob Wilson

    I’m just going to go ahead and say it; Oak Park is kinda s*** for cycling. It definitely fancies itself a more urban progressive place but the roads are in ill repair, the drivers don’t care and it doesn’t really have any infrastructure. There’s even beg buttons on the busiest downtown intersections! lol

    Evanston and the north shore are a whole different world when it comes to transportation. It wouldn’t surprise me if Divvy does much better there.

  • ““For the $300,000 that we lay out for this program, we could buy every kid in town a free bicycle every other year,” said trustee Deno J. Andrews. “We could buy every adult a new bicycle every several years.”

    Doesn’t that come out to $6 per bicycle or something?

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    Something like that. Oak Park has around 50,000 people. Although you could buy every Divvy member a new bike.

  • rwy

    If there are 12,000 children then it would be $50 per bike.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I wish the aldermen who voted to privatize our street parking had spent even half as as much time and effort researching the topic as Deno Andrews did for a bike share program.

    Agree or disagree, at least OP citizens can see that smart questions were asked. Sounds like OP simply may not be dense enough, combined with it not exactly having a CBD that pulls people in by the thousands who need assistance with that last leg of their commute, or a tourism demographic attracted to the Lakefront and its numerous cultural and recreational attractions.

  • skelter weeks

    Evanston has a huge university, plus a lakefront, so of course Divvy will do better there.

  • skelter weeks

    Great! Now maybe they’ll restore the bike parking Divvy stole at Oak Park Ave & South Blvd.
    Yet another example of the ‘experts’ (looking at you, AT!) knowing next to nothing when it comes to biking around Oak Park. First they put bike lanes on narrow streets filled with moving and parked cars (like Chicago Ave) that nobody uses, then they put nearly all the Divvy bike stations at ‘destinations’ (downtown OP, the library, the pool, FLW, transit stations) while neglecting the places where people LIVE.(the docks on Madison don’t count. They’re there because it’s a half mile from the Green & Blue lines). Traffic doesn’t flow in one direction, duh! Their big idea now is green paint on side streets. What a brain trust!
    The Tri-Villages (Oak Park, River Forest & Forest Park) should get dockless bikes. Then someone could get off the train and ride a bike to their place on Washington St, or a student at one of the universities in River Forest could visit downtown Oak Park after class, or anyone could ride a bike to Madison Street in Forest Park on the weekend, or etc etc.

  • planetshwoop

    Highlights something I’ve felt for a long time: the enormous gap between what Oak Park is and what it would like to be.

  • planetshwoop

    Given how much Oak Park likes to regulate everything, I can’t imagine for a hot second it will embrace dockless bikes. Or how that will even really solve their issues with bike share.

  • BlueFairlane

    The lack of stations south of the Blue Line is what kills me. You’re instantly cutting off half your Blue Line ridership.

    The rest of the stations are close enough to either the Blue or Green Line that they offer no real benefit over a walk. I moved to Oak Park about the time Divvy started here, and I found it useful exactly once. And even then, I still had to dock at Oak Park Avenue and walk another half-mile south.

  • BlueFairlane

    Can you imagine the street sign they’d design to tell you where you can and can’t park a dockless bike?

  • planetshwoop

    Still laughing. Nice one.

    It would likely require an app to decode the zones, like the parking. I mean, Oak Park probably pays 200k just to administer the 477 parking zones in the villag.e

  • Tooscrapps

    I regularly ride on Chicago Ave when in Oak Park. Great E-W route and better than Augusta.

  • Tooscrapps

    So what happens to the already-paid-for docks? Infill or footprint expansion?

  • kastigar

    Oak Park and other cities already have restrictions on where bikes can and cannot be parked. Similarly, there are restrictions where bikes can and cannot be ridden.

    No additional laws are needed for dock-less bikes. Let the various companies bring in as many or as few as they want. Park them legally. Let them be ridden by anybody with an account. When left parked illegally they can be towed and sold as abandoned. Or the company can pay to reclaim them. The city could make money on this.

    If dock-less bikes won’t work the private company with back out.

  • Kevin M

    Nice touch with the Hemingway reference in the title!

    Good coverage, overall. I hope the OP-Divvy story is studied for empirical lessons.

  • rohmen

    I live in OP (and conicendantly ride through Austin as a daily commuter, as do several others, but you’re not wrong in general), and my understanding from following the issue is the usage numbers were in total. And though I wish we had kept it, the numbers were very, very bad, even in the summer.

  • rohmen

    Most residential areas out here are as dense as what you’d see in Chicago neighborhoods like Irving Park or Avondale. No, it’s not Gold Coast dense, but for all intents and purposes OP is as dense (if not more so) as any bungalow belt neighborhood. It’s not all SFH out here, except maybe the northern most 1/4 of the Village.

  • rohmen

    Honestly, having lived in the city for a decade, and now having been in OP for 5 years, I tend to agree.

    Our roads are actually not too bad pavement-wise, but they’re very narrow, and the Village allows parking on both sides.

    If you’re with a kid, cars are pretty good and give you space (hence why it sometimes gets a bike-friendly rep). If you’re not with a kid, not so much.

    Don’t even get me started with the beg buttons. It’s inexcusable, really.

  • rwy

    Many of the attractions along the lakefront like the beaches, Dawes Park, the lighthouse, or Harley Clarke mansion don’t have nearby Divvy stations. It seems like the lakefront would be an obvious place for Evanston to locate Divvy stations.

  • Steve Brown

    I’ve been a Divvy member since the program launched in 2013 (even have one of those elite black keys!). I live in Oak Park. I’ve used Divvy in Oak Park four times since it launched, and that probably makes me among the system’s most devoted users. It’s a shame that it wasn’t useful to more Oak Parkers, but it wasn’t, and I’m not surprised the board voted to kill it. I think it was, unfortunately, the right decision for the Village.

    I hope they follow through on the suggestion to reallocate the funds to other sustainable transportation investments.

    I’m apparently in the minority among Oak Parkers on this thread because I think our streets are just fine. I don’t mind narrow side streets because it makes me feel more empowered to take the lane. There are a number of useful bike lanes on the larger street, but what I love about living in this region is that with our grid, I usually don’t have to use a major street in the first place if I don’t want to. And as far as bike parking, it’s generally plentiful and they’ve been adding more all the time. Fewer bike thieves would be nice, but alas.

    What Oak Park really needs is a culture shift away from the kind of suburban motorist entitlement that results in my regularly getting shouted at by my own neighbors for having the audacity to bike in a street or walk in a crosswalk. We may not be as bad as the outer suburbs, but we have a ways to go. Get rid of the beg buttons; start enforcing pedestrian right of way at crosswalks, and encourage cycling to schools and major events around town. We need to promote a bike- and walk-first culture. I tend to think we can start on that for free.

  • skelter weeks

    You’re right, Oak Park does have many good streets for bike riding. Quiet, not much traffic and most are 2-way. But I’ve never had anyone yell at me for riding a bike.on a street.

  • skelter weeks

    Chicago Ave is fine if there’s isn’t much traffic or cars in the parking lane. But during rush hour? No way.
    There are many quiet, traffic-lite E-W streets you can take in Oak Park: Randolph, North Blvd/South Blvd, Erie/Elizabeth/Erie/Superior or Ontario, Jackson, Harvard, Fillmore, Thomas, Iowa, Berkshire, Greenfield, LeMoyne.

  • Tooscrapps

    So just going to just name all the E-W streets in Oak Park? Many of the streets you named are blocks from Chicago and have no signal to get across major N-S streets. Also not a big fan of the alternate stop/no stop system Oak Park has on many side streets.

    I’ve ridden Chicago Ave during the rush and find it much more pleasurable then most Chicago streets.

  • Steve Brown

    Much more common to be yelled/honked at when walking. If I have the audacity to enter a crosswalk when a coming vehicle is ONLY two blocks away and might have to slow down to let me finish crossing, I get berated for it.

    But I’ve also been honked at on my bike for taking the lane on Jackson Blvd, which has a raised median meaning that cars cannot pass for an excruciating ONE BLOCK until the next break in the median.

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