Now That Rockford Has Dockless, When Will The Technology Come to Chicago?

Officials finally confirmed that they met with vendors and may be launching a pilot soon

Rick Nielsen
Rick Nielsen

After months of radio silence about whether Chicago will let dockless bike-share come to town, last week city officials finally confirmed that they met with vendors and are considering launching a pilot in the near future. And earlier this month San Mateo-based dockless purveyor LimeBike rolled out a 500-cycle system in Rockford, Illinois, best known as the home of power-pop legends Cheap Trick, giving Chicagoans a chance to test-ride the technology.

Dockless bike-share, aka DoBi (“Dough Bee”) lets members use a smartphone app to locate and check out cycles and park them anywhere in the service area. The dockless companies, propped up by venture capital, offer cheap rental rates, generally $1 for a half-hour trip, compared to $3 for a single Divvy journey.

The Chicago-based transportation justice group Equiticity has argued that dockless technology should be deployed immediately to bring shared bikes to outlying communities that don’t yet have Divvy stations. “How soon are y’all able to bring [dockless] bikes to our city to address the unmet need for black and brown people to have bikes in their neighborhoods?” Equiticity founder Oboi Reed asked at last December’s Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting.

During that hearing, Chicago Department of Transportation deputy commissioner Sean Wiedel said the city planned to invite dockless vendors to present their business models within a month or two. I asked the department for updates several times after that, but it wasn’t until last week that spokesman Mike Claffey confirmed that officials recently met with DoBi companies

LimeBike staffers Gwen Jones and Will Piper on the East State Street business strip. Photo: John Greenfield
LimeBike staffers Gwen Jones and Will Piper on the East State Street business strip. Photo: John Greenfield

“We will be assessing their operational impacts and their business models to ensure that we can advance the city’s transportation goals of providing safe and affordable transportation options for all Chicagoans,” Claffey said via email. In addition to preventing dockless cycles from becoming tripping hazards or eyesores, officials doubtless want to keep DoBi vendors from undercutting Divvy and driving it out of business.

To that end, former Active Transportation Alliance director Randy Neufeld, now with the SRAM Cycling Fund, has asserted that dockless bikes should be confined to parts of Chicago that don’t currently have bike-share. It looks like New York City may take this approach.   

The current Active Trans leadership doesn’t share Neufeld’s opinion that dockless should be limited to non-Divvy neighborhoods. But they do feel that the Chicago should charge the companies for use of the public way and use the revenue to fund new bike infrastructure, especially in neighborhoods with few relatively few lanes and racks, said governmental affairs director Kyle Whitehead.

According to a dockless bike-share professional who asked not to be named, in March CDOT staff hosted a meeting with representatives of several DoBi companies, including Santa Monica-based CycleHop, Jump Bikes from NYC (which was recently purchased by Uber), LimeBike, Beijing-based Ofo, San-Francisco-based Spin, and Zagster, from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

LimeBikes by the Rockford Rescue Mission homeless shelter. Photo: John Greenfield
LimeBikes by the Rockford Rescue Mission homeless shelter. Photo: John Greenfield

Gabriel Scheer, director of strategic development for LimeBike, told me that at the info session city staffers asked the vendors how they planned to serve all parts of Chicago equitably, and how they would provide access for people without smartphones or credit cards. The officials also asked how the companies would ensure their bikes didn’t create conflict with other public space uses. “Basically they wanted to know, do you play well with others,” Scheer said.

Ofo spokesman Taylor Bennett also confirmed that his firm had a rep at the meeting. Ofo and Jump have provided cycles for the low-tech “bike libraries” that Equiticity and neighborhood groups will be launching on the far south side and in North Lawndale this spring. “We continue to work closely with the city to build on this effort, and we’re eager to extend our affordable and accessible bike sharing platform to even more Chicagoans,” Bennett said. Jump and Spin didn’t return messages, and I learned of CycleHop’s and Zagster’s involvement shortly before press time.

LimeBike has an exclusive three-year contract with Rockford, but the service also coexists with other dockless companies in cities like Seattle, Dallas, and Washington, D.C., which, like Chicago, already had a thriving docked system. Scheer said his company is open to either model in Chicago.

However, another dockless professional who requested anonymity (who knew that the DoBi biz was so cloak-and-dagger?) said there’s concern among industry members that if Chicago wants to have an exclusive dockless concessionaire, LimeBike might have an unfair advantage. Former Rahm Emanuel advisor David Spielfogel, who, as the mayor’s right-hand man, was nicknamed “Mini-Rahm,” sits on the company’s advisory board. In addition, ex-CDOT deputy commissioner Scott Kubly left his post as Seattle transportation chief in March to run LimeBike’s government operations. (Former CDOT commissioner Gabe Klein is on Spin’s advisory board.) “Companies are hoping that there would be a transparent [request for proposals] to shine a light on the process,” the professional said.

Will Piper relocates an errant LimeBike. Photo: John Greenfield

LimeBike spokeswoman Emma Green called the concern a “non-issue,” claiming that neither Spielfogel or Kubly is lobbying in Chicago, and added that Kubly left CDOT more than four years ago. CDOT’s Claffey declined to comment on the subject.

The company launched its Rockford fleet on April 7. To check out an example of a midwestern dockless system, and get a sense of what issues might arise when DoBi first comes to Chicago, I hopped a Van Galder bus from O’Hare to this former tool-and-die center of roughly 150,000 people, affectionately nicknamed Screw City.

I met up with local LimeBike staffers Will Piper and Gwen Jones at the 1927 Coronado Theater, a striking blend of Art Deco and Spanish Baroque architecture, for a bike tour. As we pedaled, several pedestrians and motorists called out questions about what the bikes are for and how to rent them.

After chatting with a few LimeBike users, who seemed stoked about the service, in the hipster-friendly East State Street retail strip, we took a spin north on the lovely path along the Rock River. We stopped for the obligatory photo op at Alexander Liberman’s tomato soup-colored “Symbol” sculpture. As we returned south, a jogger yelled “Go LimeBike! Making Rockford better.”

Riding LimeBikes along Rockford's riverfront trail. Photo: John Greenfield
Riding LimeBikes along Rockford’s riverfront trail. Photo: John Greenfield

All is not peaches and cream, however. A couple times during our journey Piper stopped to relocate bikes that were partially obstructing the sidewalk. And the next day I saw local news reports of pranksterism: LimeBikes have been spotted stuffed into a planter and hanging from a tree.

Still, there’s one guy who’s confident that LimeBike will be a shot in the arm for the city: Cheap Trick lead guitarist Rick Nielsen. He still lives in Rockford and is a bike enthusiast himself. He sponsored Olympic gold medal-winning triathlete Melanie Valerio by commissioning a carbon fiber cycle for her, plastered all over with the band’s logo, of course. He’s planning to loan the bike to Republican ambassador to New Zealand and Cheap Trick superfan Scott Brown, with whom Nielsen is friendly despite political differences.

Nielsen told me he plans to start using bike-share soon. “LimeBike should be great for Rockford once people know what it is,” he said. “Anything that brings positive attention to the town is a good thing in my book.”

Dockless bike-share could have similarly beneficial effect for Chicago neighborhoods that don’t have Divvy docks. So “Come On, Come On” CDOT, let’s give it a try.

  • Courtney

    Eh, considering how often I’ve been walking out to an empty Divvy station I’d be happy to take a Limebike for my morning commute.
    I feel like it has been mentioned that there is technology available to ensure bikes are not left in inappropriate spaces or some sort of digital corral can be created.
    I understand the desire to not want to udercut Divvy and as a Divvy member I support that. Limebike is propped up by venture capital and Divvy isn’t. I do think Divvy could do more to bring in more revenue: multi-day passes, for instance.

  • Kelly Pierce

    What a thorough report! It should be pointed out that Rockford
    is not charging any special fees or taxes to LimeBike. It will also not impose
    a lengthy list of requirements and fines for not meeting said requirements. This
    would be a good model for bike equity in the communities Equiticity represents. Dockless could
    begin in these areas immediately as oboi advocates while dockless is thought
    through for the Divvy areas. The current Active Trans leadership does not seem
    to understand that Chicago charging fees and generating revenue would jack up
    the costs and likely the prices of dockless. Affordability is one of the key
    aspects of bike equity. The wealth distribution
    scheme backed by Active Trans smacks of socialism. Why must low and moderate
    income people wait for some master plan for the Divvy and heavily biked areas
    when the need is now in communities with no bike share? Bike racks are a public
    good, like trash cans on sidewalks in pedestrian areas or street lights. We pay
    property and sales taxes for these public goods and do not need to hold our breaths
    for dockless bike share for neighborhood bike racks, like Active Trans now

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “The wealth distribution scheme backed by Active Trans smacks of socialism.” I take it you’re not a fan of the Divvy for Everyone program, which provides $5 memberships to lower-income people. It’s one of the most effective things Chicago has done to promote bike equity.

  • globalguy

    Two related (and telling) issues: Today in the NYTimes, “If there is something familiar about these scooter companies’ strategy of just showing up in cities without permission, that’s because that has now become a tried-and-true playbook for many start-ups. In its early days, Uber, the ride-hailing giant, also barreled into towns overnight to launch its service and only asked for forgiveness later. ‘Cities don’t know what it is’, Caen Contee, the head of marketing for LimeBike, said of the arrival of electric scooters. ‘They don’t know how to permit it until they’ve seen it’.” This seems to directly contradict what their The Director of Strategic Development told us last week.

    Second, has anyone gotten a look at the dobi regs CDOT drafted? Again, according to their Director of Strategic Development, a draft was released a week ago. And they supposedly ding Lime Bikes with a prohibition on self-locking bikes.

  • Sally Wright McLinn

    If you read the writeups and reviews for Dallas and another west coast city, these dockless bikes are a mess. People leave them ANYWHERE, ANYWHERE, in front of stores, on sidewalks. Even China doesn’t know what to do with them. When they’re broke, there’s no one to fix them.
    This is not a good idea.

  • Kelly Pierce

    Nope, I like D4E a lot and wished it reached more people. Divvy
    is a fantastic resource and as many people as possible should be able to experience
    it. D4E is funded through private philanthropy, including a grant from Blue
    Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois. Private
    companies, individuals and foundations can do what they wish with their own
    money, including introducing bike share to low income people. This is quite different
    from what Active Trans Seems to advocate. The organization wants to burden
    dockless bike share companies with fees and special taxes, raising the prices for
    everyone. By putting dockless bikes in the Divvy areas, Active Trans says it
    wants the fees to generate revenue for bike infrastructure in low to moderate
    income communities. That’s a silly recipe for affordable, low-cost bike share: Jack
    up fees on bike services very much needed in low income communities causing higher
    prices for the purpose of installing bike racks in the low income communities. Those
    with higher paying jobs will pay the higher prices while others with low
    incomes might be discouraged by the expense. It is forced wealth distribution,
    which is socialism. Besides, there’s money for more bike infrastructure if city
    hall has the will to make it a priority. My taxes paid for a DePaul basketball
    stadium where the team constantly loses and brings in fewer visitors than the
    university claimed. Loyola’s basketball competition space is privately funded on
    private land and the team made it to the Final Four. Another example is the $400
    million spent on an unused underground subway station at State and Lake. The city
    has plenty of money and plenty of financial waste. We can have both low-cost
    dockless bikes and bike infrastructure in underserved areas.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The matching funds for the $75K grant from the Better Bike Share Partnership for D4E didn’t come from a grant from Blue Cross. They came from the fee that Blue Cross paid the city for the the right to display their logo on the public bikes and stations. In effect, money that a corporation paid for the use of public space was redistributed to promote bike equity. That’s pretty similar to charging DoBi companies a fee to use the public way and then using the funds to install bike infrastructure in underserved communities.

    If you’re talking about the unused, half-built superstation under Block 37 (State and Randolph), that cost about $250M.

  • Kelly Pierce

    So D4E is half funded through a corporate sponsorship. D4E
    is still privately funded. The support given was completely voluntary, not
    forced by a government onto a business or an end user. The fee advocated by
    Active trans will be forced corporate extortion. DoBI companies would not be
    able to operate in Chicago unless they paid the fee, even though their business
    models have not been tested for profitability and ability to maintain a
    meaningful service. Active trans acts like money is the only reason in the world
    why underserved communities have little bike infrastructure. I am not this naïve.