Divvy Deal Passes, and Uber Fails to Buy the Future of Chicago Bike-Share

A worker collects  Divvy bikes for redistribution to empty stations at the Wilson 'L' stop this morning. Photo: John Greenfield
A worker collects Divvy bikes for redistribution to empty stations at the Wilson 'L' stop this morning. Photo: John Greenfield

Unfortunately for Uber and JUMP bikes, in the end the tens of thousands of dollars they apparently spent on a propaganda campaign against the Divvy/Lyft expansion deal, including buying flattering coverage in local media, thousands of dollars in Facebook ads, and a full-page ad in the Sun-Times, failed to kill the deal.

Today the City Council approved the Divvy contract amendment, which will add 10,500 publicly-controlled electric-assist bikes; expand the system citywide, generate a guaranteed minimum of $77 million for the city over the remaining nine years of the contract; invest $10 million for the Divvy for Everyone equity program; and include several other financial and social justice benefits for Chicago.

After the month-long misinformation campaign by Uber and its subsidiary JUMP (read a summary of the saga here), including passionate testimony by people on both sides of the issue at previous hearings, the final vote at the City Council chambers today was a bit anticlimactic. Rather than taking taking a roll-call vote on the Divvy/Lyft contract amendment, which would have required the 50 aldermen to state “yea” or “no” on the deal, the Council simply voted to approve a full docket of ordinances that had been previously been approved by the Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety, including the bike-share deal.

During the brief  “voice vote” on the Divvy amendment, committee chair Alderman Walter Burnett (27th) stated that over the past few days he has pushed Lyft to increase the amount of minority-owned subcontracting firms they hire to fulfill the contract. He acknowledged that, to Divvy’s credit, its workforce is mostly made up of Black and Latino residents, and is unionized. Burnett said that he is requiring Lyft to increase its minority subcontractor participation, and said the company will provide reports on their progress in this area.

The lone voice of dissent against the passage of the deal was Alderman David Moore (17th), who asked that he be recorded as a “No” vote. He cited a letter that 43 South Side clergymen, including civil rights legend Jesse Jackson Sr., had signed, supporting Uber’s competing bike-share proposal. This scenario would have privatized part of Chicago’s bike-share system and used non-union labor. (So far, no one has been able to tell me why all of these faith leaders suddenly took such a keen interest in bike-share.) Moore also said he’s disappointed that the new Divvy bikes won’t be manufactured in Chicago, noting that our city was formerly home to the Schwinn bicycle company.

In the Council chambers, transportation chief Rebekah Scheinfeld lauded the passage of the contract amendment, which also relieves the city of the burden of covering part of Divvy’s operations losses and includes a job training program for youth and ex-offenders, as a “great day for Chicagoans and a great day for Divvy.”

“We’re building on this fantastic system that we have with our very strong partner Motivate,” Scheinfeld said, referring to the Lyft subsidiary that runs the publicly owned Divvy networ for the city. “We are delivering on our longstanding commitment to bring Divvy citywide in a very short period of time, starting this summer.” The city plans to expand the bike-share coverage area, which currently stops at 87th Street, to include the Far South side by the end of the year, and Lyft is required to achieve citywide coverage by the end of 2021, if not sooner.

So does Scheinfeld feel that Uber’s campaign against the deal, which included broadcasting plenty of misleading and downright false information, was unethical? “I understand that there is tight competition between private providers in the transportation market,” she said diplomatically. “In the end, the merits of [the Divvy/Lyft deal] is what carried the day.”

Alderman Anthony Beale (9th) told me he’s pleased with the outcome. “We’ve been trying to get Divvy on the Far South Side for over eight years now, and to finally get this expansion is a huge win for the South and West Sides,” he said. “Lyft made a lot of concessions in order to get there.”

Did Uber try to lobby him to vote against the Divvy contract amendment? “Of course they tried to come to us with their own deal,” he replied. “It’s a competition — naturally they’re going to come in and try and conquer. But in the end I think we wound up with a great deal”

Unsurprising, Lyft is stoked about the vote. “The expansion of the Divvy system to all 50 wards of Chicago will make this world-class bike-share system truly equitable, and we are eager to get started,” said spokesperson Julie Wood. “We’re committed to working closely with leaders across the city to bring bike-share, as well as new investment and opportunities, to their communities.”

Uber and JUMP didn’t respond to a request for comment.

So there you have it. After a monthlong, rather one-sided battle between the two ride-hailing titans, and half a dozen Streetsblog articles documenting Uber and JUMP’s trickery, the future looks bright for Chicago bike-share.


  • TB

    Nice…. Any details on when we should start to see the e-bikes? I really want to try one out.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    This summer, although there may be some one-off demos before then.

  • Erik Swedlund

    The deal proposed by Lyft a month ago came as a bit of a surprise. What was the motivation? Their impeding IPO? A rush to sign a long-term contract before PPP-friendly Rahm left office? Nevertheless, they offered some very sweet terms, with the city retaining ownership of the physical assets and a release from operating losses. Uber’s johnny-come-lately advertising campaign was so much smoke and mirrors. This looks to be a great win for Chicago. I hope it’s managed responsibly and equitably.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Yes, the timing of this, and the IPO and, of course, Emanuel’s exit from the 5th floor of City Hall, was probably not coincidental. But I predict that this will go down as one the few good things the mayor did on his way out the door.

    Note that none of the progressive aldermen who opposed the Lincoln Yards and The 78 TIF deals was interested in speaking out against the Divvy deal during the full Council meeting. Scott Waguespack, one of the leaders of the Progressive Caucus and the TIF, who was one of the few people to vote against the parking meter deal, told me he would check out the Divvy contract amendment, and he didn’t seem to have a problem with it. On the other other hand, David Moore, who voted for the TIFs, was the only person to vote no against the Divvy deal.

    (Funny line from Waguespack to Emanuel at the start of his short speech denouncing the Lincoln Yards TIF: “I’ll keep this brief, since I know you’re in a hurry to get this passed and get out of here.” Emanuel just frowned and looked the other direction.)

  • Jim Green

    I can’t figure out why more people don’t seem to be concerned with this dramatic shift toward e-assist bikes. It looks like all the new bikes will be ebikes, and they will be compatible with the rest of the docks in the city. Which means Divvy users will often face a scenario where e-assist bike is the only option. E-bikes are much heavier, so they are impractible for peddling. Exercise is the main reason I use Divvy. I’m really concerned that this aspect of the system is being eroded, and that Divvy will switch entirely to e-bikes in the future.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    You are correct; the plan is to eventually switch to an all-electric-assist fleet as the traditional Divvy bikes wear out.

    “E-bikes are much heavier, so they’re hard to pedal; I’m also afraid that I won’t get enough exercise” sounds a bit like “The food is terrible — and such small portions.”

    Kidding aside, I’m with you that the fact that e-bikes don’t require as much exertion to pedal them represents a downside of the plan for those of us who like to save time by combining our commute with our daily workout.

    The upsides of the plan included making the bikes more accessible to seniors, people with disabilities, and smaller adults who complain that Divvies are hard to pedal. They’ll also be good for people on the South and West sides who have longer distances to cover, and they’ll attract new users who are afraid of showing up to destinations sweaty, or are just plain uninterested in getting physical activity while commuting. If we can get some of those people out of private cars or ride-hailing vehicles, that’s a good thing.

  • BinoyK

    I am also excited to ride the e-assist bikes.

  • BinoyK

    I think you will find plenty of normal Divvy bikes available. I think it’s a good balance.

  • BinoyK

    I am one of those Divvy Gold members who bikes long distances. This will be a big boon to me. And I am looking forward to sweating less in the summer. :-)

  • BinoyK

    Do you have a timeline as to when we can start seeing these e-bikes and the new docks?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    CDOT didn’t provide any more details than that the bikes will be on the street by this summer, although there may be some demo events before then.

  • Jim Green

    I bike six or seven 40-minutes a week on Divvy and it’s essential to me for combining exercise and destinations. Once they switch to all-electric, I’m out. This news that all Divvy bikes will be going electric is a huge disappointment to me. Something that has transformed my experience living in Chicago is now going to be killed.

  • PDX Rider

    This is great to hear! Expanding Divvy city-wide will be a great option for people and help address concerns about undeserved communities.

    Here in Portland, we haven’t expanded our system since launch. We’re still stuck at 1,000 bikes only serving the wealthier areas of town. It seems the city has basically given up on the program, as many of the bikes are non-functional. They switched to a “dockless” system last year and it has made it harder to find a bike at the areas previously meant to be docking hubs. The city also expanded the service area without adding any more bikes (since system is based on each bike having it’s own GPS, this is literally just drawing lines on a map). This “expansion” has only resulted in diluting the system, and since I am near the edge of the service area, the closest bike is usually half a mile away (the city didn’t add any more docking hubs, and the bikes are not recirculated in my area, so I am at the mercy of whoever used the bike last).

    Chicago has been doing very well on the bike share front. The fixed docking stations make it easy to find a bike when you need one. Portland’s “dockless” system is a poor model – cities would do well to copy Divvy instead of getting lured in by Portland’s false bike-friendly narrative.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Thanks for the info. Yes, Divvy is a pretty solid system (other than the theft crisis that happened last summer, which they totally brought upon themselves by removing a dock security component, but that’s resolved now.) The main issue with the system, as it currently exists, is that docks are too far away from each other in low-density neighborhoods, making the system less useful. Switching to bikes that can also be locked to racks will help address that.

  • PDX Rider

    Be careful for what your wish for on that though. While dockless can have some benefits, in my experience the drawbacks far outweigh them. It is nice to be able to lock up anywhere, often right at the front door of your destination. But going dockless as a cost-saving measure to get away with building less physical docks is not a good idea. Docks are always at the same corner every day, like the bus stop or ‘L’ station. If the city is doing its job, you can rely on there always being bikes available at the same spot. With dockless, you are often left to the mercy of the people who used the bikes last. You may be half a mile or more from a bike. GPS is not super accurate either, do you end up searching for a bike. More times than a few, they’ve been behind locked gates or in someone’s backyard too. This may not be a problem downtown or in denser neighborhoods, but is a critical flaw near the fringe areas that don’t get as much turnover.

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  • duppie

    Anyone know if they are pedal-assist or just plain electric bikes? Will a user be required to pedal?

    Also, what is the top-speed of the e-bike?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The former, yes, no faster than 20 mph (NYC’s top out at 18 mph, but Chicago is using a different model.)

  • duppie

    Personally I think 20-mph is too fast, especially for the skill level of the target audience.

    We should expect to see an increase in ER visits, based on experiences in the Netherlands (where e-bikes top at about 16 mph)

  • johnaustingreenfield

    How did the increase in ER visits compare to the increase in bike mode share — was there just an increase in the number of injuries, or an increase in the injury rate?

  • ChicagoCyclist

    All the electric-assist bikes that I have tried have a switch to set the level of assist (3-4 levels). Will the Divvy e-Bikes have that? E-assist bikes still provide (significant) exercise, but the “experience” of riding is very different. The fact that they are not purely “human powered” has a physical, psychological, and an ideological dimension. Plus, the manufacturing and charging of batteries mean that these devices are less sustainable. Maybe, if a lot of folks ride who didn’t ride before (seniors, physically unfit, etc.), it’ll be worth it. But not sure that will happen…

  • ChicagoCyclist

    So, there will be no fee for ending a trip at a rack or pole, right?

    Even in higher-density neighborhoods, I find the density of Divvy’s docking stations less than desirable. A rule of thumb that Paris and other large city, large bike share systems follow is: One should be able to see a docking station pretty much wherever one is standing in the (core) city. I.e. every ‘major’ intersection, every school, every transit station — almost every everything — should have a docking station nearby.

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