Divvy’s getting scooters, but will eliminating the fee waiver zone make the system less equitable?

Rendering of a Divvy station with bikes and dockable scooters.
Rendering of a Divvy station with bikes and dockable scooters.

Update 4/11/22, 2:15 PM: From Active Transportation Alliance spokesperson Kyle Whitehead’s blog post, here’s the full passage on the new Divvy per-minute pricing, which was later deleted:

Divvy members will continue to receive unlimited free unlocks, free rides up to 45 minutes on classic blue bikes, and significantly discounted per minute and out-of-station parking fees for e-bikes and scooters through their existing memberships. Non members will pay $1 to unlock and 39 cents per minute and members will pay 25 cents per minute with no unlocking fee.

After the publication of this piece, Whitehead clarified that the statement “referencing 25 cents per minute was intended to apply to Divvy scooters – not e-bikes. We haven’t yet been able to confirm the full new e-bike pricing but have heard the per-minute price will be 16 cents.” He noted that ATA had previously tweeted out this clarification.

We’ve reached out for Divvy for details on the new pricing structure for both e-bikes and scooters, and a spokesperson said they will provide more info shortly, which we’ll share with our readers, so hopefully that will clear up the confusion.

There was some good news about micromobility on Thursday when the city announced the three privately-owned vendors for Chicago’s first permanent, citywide electric rental scooter program, as well as the introduction of e-scooters to the publicly-owned Divvy bike-share program. The Divvy scooters will be able to be parked at existing docking stations, which city officials say will create the first docked bike- and scooter-share system in the nation.

But there was also cause for concern, as the city said Divvy will be getting rid of the electric bike fee waiver zones west of Western Avenue (2400 W.) and south of Pershing Road (3900 S.) That means that people in lower-income Black and Latino neighborhoods on the South and West sides will need to start paying per-minute charges and out-of-dock parking fees, which could make the system prohibitively expensive for many residents. More on that it a bit.

The citywide scooter program

According to a statement from the city, the three selected private companies Lime, Spin, and Superpedestrian (am I the only one who thinks that sounds like an early Nineties Soundgarden album title?) will each be allowed to deploy 1,000 dockless e-scooters, with the launch slated for early May. In October 2021, the City Council passed an ordinance to create a new business license category to allow up to three firms to operate scooters here on a permanent basis. Six companies then applied for the three slots – Lime, Spin, Bird, Helbiz, SuperPedestrian – and half of those made the final cut.

“A scooter program offers another easy way for residents and visitors to choose active transportation to get around Chicago,” said Mayor Lori Lightfoot in a statement. (Are rental e-scooters really active transportation? You typically have to walk a bit to check one out, and they can replace driving trips so, sure, let’s call them that.) “As transportation costs go up, it is critical that we support micromobility solutions like shared bikes and scooters, which provide affordable ways to travel in Chicago without needing a car.”

Riding scooters on the Lakefront Trail. Photo: John Greenfield
Riding scooters on the Lakefront Trail. Photo: John Greenfield

Divvy, which is overseen by the Chicago Department of Transportation and run by concessionaire Lyft, will also be adding 1,000 scooters to its existing fleet of roughly 16,500 bikes, using special docking scooters that will be able to park at 230 stations in or near downtown, officials said. (There are currently more than 800 Divvy stations citywide.) Divvy members, including those enrolled in the $5 Divvy for Everyone (D4E) membership program for low-income Chicagoans, will be able to check out the scooters via their current plans.

All of the privately and publicly owned scooters will have built-in cable locks, and must be secured at bike racks, poles, or docks. Streetsblog Chicago advocated for that policy, and during the most recent 2020 pilot program this “lock-to” requirement proved successful at reducing 311 complaints about poorly parked scooters blocking sidewalks, as well as vandalism eyesores. The devices must also have sidewalk-riding detection technology to discourage sidewalk riding.

The scooters can be ridden anywhere in the city, except the Lakefront Trail, Navy Pier, the Chicago Riverwalk, or the Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606. The privately-owned companies are required to deploy half of their fleets in designated Equity Priority Areas on the South and West sides.

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The Equity Priority Areas from the last Chicago scooter pilot in 2020. Image: CDOT

Initially only the dockable Divvy scooters will be allowed downtown, and there will be incentives to park those devices in docks, rather than locking them to racks or poles. By mid-summer, the private firms will also be allowed to deploy scooters downtown if they hit performance goals.

Lime, Spin, and Superpedestrian are free to set their own prices. However, they must all offer discounted rates for low-income residents, plus options for using scooters for people who lack credit cards or smartphones.

In a blog post, Active Transportation Alliance spokesperson Kyle Whitehead applauded the news that 4,000 more micromobility devices will be coming to Chicago. But he noted that the main reason sidewalk riding has been an issue with scooters (and Divvy bikes) is that many people don’t feel safe riding in the street. “To make scooters a realistic transportation option for the average person, Chicago desperately needs a community-informed plan to build a citywide network of concrete-protected bike lanes on major streets.” He argued that Chicago should take advantage of the billions of local, state, and federal infrastructure funds currently available to make this goal a reality.

New Divvy pricing system raises equity concerns

Divvy is supposed to be completing its citywide expansion this year. But to speed up the process, a much lower density of traditional docking stations – the only place where you can park the older blue non-electric bikes – has been installed in outlying communities compared to more central areas. And many of the new stations placed in recent years have been “e-stations,” which are simply bike rack installations where it’s possible to park the newer black or gray electric bikes because they have built-in cable locks. The e-bikes, which can also be locked on racks and poles, will eventually make up the entire bicycle fleet because as blue bikes wear out they are replaced with new e-bikes.

Currently for rides that both start and end in the “fee zone” east of Western and north of Pershing, an area which is generally wealthier, whiter, and has a higher station density than the “waiver zone” beyond those boundaries, there’s a per-minute charge for using an e-bike: 5 cents a minute for D4E members; 15 cents a minute for regular annual members; and 20 cents a minute for non-members. In the fee zone there’s also a charge for parking on a regular bike rack or pole instead of at a station: $1 for D4E members and $2 for regular members and non-members.

The current Divvy coverage area including the waiver zone (green), and the fee zone eat of Western and north of Pershing.
The current Divvy coverage area including the waiver zone (green), and the fee zone east of Western and north of Pershing, plus Evanston.

Meanwhile, there’s currently no per-minute fee or non-station parking surcharge for e-bike rides that start or end in the waiver zone. That’s a good policy because these areas generally have much lower station density and longer distances between destinations, and residents in these neighborhoods are more likely to have lower incomes.

The city’s statement says that, in conjunction with the Divvy scooter launch, the system will be changing to a “simplified pricing structure.” At first glance, that sounds like a good thing, because the current e-bike pricing system is so Byzantine, with so many variables, that when it was first announced in July 2020, I had to draw a five-page flowchart in order to fully wrap my head around how it worked.

Riding Divvy bikes on the lakefront Sunday evening. Photo: John Greenfield
Riding Divvy bikes on the lakefront Sunday evening. Photo: John Greenfield

However, the way Divvy is simplifying things is to eliminate the distinction between the fee zone (generally wealthier with higher station density) and the waiver zone (generally poorer, with low station density.) So that means everyone in the city will now have to start paying per-minute use fees for the e-bikes, and pay a surcharge for parking a cycle outside of a station.

At first blush that seems grossly unfair, since people in outlying neighborhoods often have to take longer rides to destinations due to job, transit, and retail deserts, and there are far fewer stations to park at. Moreover, using the blue non-electric bikes (which still won’t have per-minute fees for the first 45 minutes of a ride) is often impractical in the waiver zone because there are fewer places to park them.

To make matters worse, there are indications that there will be a significant hike in the per-minute charges for e-bikes. While the city’s announcement gave no specifics on the pricing, the ATA blog post originally stated, “Non-members will pay $1 to unlock [there’s currently no unlocking charge for non-members] and 39 cents per minute and members will pay 25 cents per minute with no unlocking fee.” So that would be a 10-cent-higher charge per minute than the current one for regular members in the fee zone, and five times higher than the current one for D4E members in the fee zone.

However, the advocacy group later deleted that information from its post. “We have been asking Divvy/Lyft for more details on the pricing because the press release from the city is very vague,” Whitehead explained. “We got some piecemeal answers via email, but we’re waiting for a more complete breakdown.” He said ATA took down the prices “to avoid confusing folks.” The group plans to gather input from allied community organizations about how the new higher e-bike use charges will impact residents.

But whatever the new per-minute e-bike use prices are, it’s safe to assume they will be significantly higher, and the city says they’ll be applied all over town. According to the current Divvy-Lyft contract, the concessionaire is allowed to raise fees up to 10 percent each year without permission from the city, and can raise them even higher if city officials approve the change.

To soften the blow of the higher, citywide fees, the city’s statement said that “for the next 12 months, CDOT and Lyft are adding a monthly credit of $10 to D4E member accounts to be redeemed for up to 200 e-bike minutes.” But if it’s true that the per-minute fee is going up to 25 cents a minute, that $10 credit would be eaten up by a single 40-minute e-bike ride. And that doesn’t count non-station docking fees.

One of my recent e-Divvy trips.
One of my recent e-Divvy trips.

And aside from any hardships the new e-bike fees may impose on lower-income residents on the South and West sides, there’s the question of whether anyone but those with money to burn will want to use the e-cycles at the higher rates. For example, I’m a regular annual member, and last month a 6.7-mile e-Divvy ride from Uptown to the Loop within the fee zone, parking at a station, took me 28 full minutes and cost me $4.58 ($4.20 in 15-cents-per-minute charges, plus a $0.38 Chicago transaction tax.) That was more expensive than the $2.50 Red Line ride would have been, but I was in a hurry and it was a faster door-to-door trip, plus I wanted to get a little physical activity.

However, if the per-minute charge goes up to 25 cents, the same ride will cost me $7.38, a 61-percent increase, which would probably be a dealbreaker unless I’m really short on time. After all, I ride bikes to save money, not spend lots of it. And for a non-member paying a 39-cents-a-minute rate, that trip would cost a whopping $11.30, possibly not much cheaper than taking ride-hail, which would be a big turnoff for many visitors to Chicago.

So it may wind up that Divvy raising prices in an effort to become more profitable will actually do more harm than good for the system’s bottom line. This week Streetsblog will try to get details from CDOT and Lyft about exactly how the new pricing structure will work.

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