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Divvy’s new pricing is unaffordable to many residents, and therefore inequitable

Riding non-electric bikes in the Loop. While blue bike rides are still free for members, all e-bike trips now carry a per-minute charge, and eventually they will be the only type of bike available. Photo: John Greenfield

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In early May, Lyft, the concessionaire for Chicago's publicly-owned bike-share system Divvy, quietly and significantly changed the network's pricing structure. The most important difference was the elimination of the electric bike "fee waiver zone" in parts of the city south of Pershing Road (3900 W.) or west of Western Avenue (2400 W.)

How the pricing system previously worked

Chicagoans who live north of Pershing and east of Western, previously known as the "fee zone," tend to have relatively convenient access to both the older, blue non-electric bikes (Divvy calls these "Classic" bikes), as well as the newer, black or gray electric bikes, from their homes. Divvy annual members, who were paying $108 a year before the price change, can take as many up-to-45-minute trips as they like on the blue bikes, which can only be checked out or parked at full-service docking stations, for no additional charge. But prior to the pricing change, members living in the fee zone who choose to ride the e-bikes paid a per-minute surcharge, as well as a non-station parking fee if they ended their trip by securing their cycle to a rack or pole using its built-in cable lock, rather than parking at a station.

The current Divvy coverage area including the waiver zone (green), and the fee zone eat of Western and north of Pershing.
The Divvy coverage area as of April 2022, including the waiver zone (green), and the fee zone east of Western and north of Pershing, plus Evanston (gray.) Note the generally lower density of stations in the waiver zone.
The current Divvy coverage area including the waiver zone (green), and the fee zone eat of Western and north of Pershing.

In contrast, parts of town outside those boundaries haver fewer full-service stations, or none at all. In outlying communities, Lyft is only installing "E-stations," glorified bike racks where only the electric bikes can be checked out or parked, and these are spaced farther apart than stations in more central neighborhoods. So residents south of Pershing or west of Western generally have less convenient, or nonexistent, access to the blue bikes from their homes.

Since theses Chicagoans often have no choice but to use the e-bikes, Divvy's old pricing system helped level the playing field by waiving the time surcharge and non-station fee for trips beginning or ending in the waiver zone.

The changes are announced

On April 11, the Chicago Department of Transportation, which oversees the system, and Lyft announced the upcoming changes, as well as the impending launch of Divvy's dockable e-scooters.

Under the new fee structure, the waiver zone would be eliminated, meaning that the special e-bike charges would apply everywhere in the coverage zone. The regular Divvy annual membership fee would be raised to $119, and the per-minute surcharge for e-bikes for regular members would go up by a penny to 16 cents (although the non-station parking fee would go down from $2 to $1.)

In an effort to reduce financial hardship for people with Divvy for Everyone (D4E) $5 memberships, available to Chicagoans making $35,310 or less, D4E members would be given $10 in free credit, good for surcharges and parking fees, each month for the next year.

The old Divvy pricing structure and the new one as of May 10, 2022 (highlighted.) Image: John Greenfield
The old Divvy pricing structure and the new one as of May 10, 2022 (highlighted.) Click to enlarge. Image: John Greenfield
The old Divvy pricing structure and the new one as of May 10, 2022 (highlighted.) Image: John Greenfield

However, no community meetings were held to explain the new, somewhat complex, pricing structure to the public before it went into effect. And residents certainly weren't asked whether the changes were acceptable to them.

The changes (quietly) go into effect

On May 10, CDOT and Lyft held a ribbon-cutting at the downtown Thompson Center to celebrate the scooter rollout. But the press release for that event included only a brief, rather euphemistic reference to the fact the new fee structure was also kicking in that day. "In tandem with this launch, Divvy will be implementing a simplified pricing structure. Divvy and D4E 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."

An e-bike-only Divvy e-station on the Southwest Side. In communities that lack full-service docking stations, non-electric bikes are unavailable. Photo: Ruth Rosas
An e-bike-only Divvy e-station on the Southwest Side. In communities that lack full-service docking stations, the blue non-electric bikes, which are free to ride for members, are unavailable. Photo: Ruth Rosas
An e-bike-only Divvy e-station on the Southwest Side. In communities that lack full-service docking stations, non-electric bikes are unavailable. Photo: Ruth Rosas

The news release's language emphasized that members would pay lower e-bike time surcharges and non-dock fees than non members. But it glossed over the fact that previously trips to and from the waiver zones didn't involve per-minute or out-of-station charges at all. 

That day, many Divvy members were unpleasantly surprised to see they were getting extra charges for e-bike trips that didn't exist before. Lyft later said they sent Divvy members advanced notice of the new fee structure via email and the app. However, as a regular Divvy user, I never received an email or a notification on my smartphone. I asked other Divvy members and they said they didn't receive any warning either.

How will the new pricing affect Chicago transportation?

Lately I've been thinking about how all these changes will impact Chicago's transportation cycling landscape. North Side Divvy members used to be able to ride e-bikes for free any time their trip started or ended west of Western. Now that they have to pay a per-minute fee for these rides, are they using blue bikes more often? And because, thanks to higher station density, North Siders have better access to non-electric cycles, has it become harder for South and West siders to find blue bikes at docking stations in their communities?

A few people have asked me to explain Divvy pricing, but decided not to sign up for a membership because they found the system too confusing. I wonder how many people will forgo or not renew Divvy memberships because the cost of riding is now too high. How many potential bike trips will instead be made by car as a result?

Riding a gray electric bike on the Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606, last April, when there was no per-minute fee for members to do so. Photo: John Greenfield
Riding one of the newer gray electric bike on the Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606, last April, when there was no per-minute fee for members to do so west of Western. Photo: John Greenfield
Riding a gray electric bike on the Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606, last April, when there was no per-minute fee for members to do so. Photo: John Greenfield

In a 2020 blog post Lyft's head of bike, scooter, and pedestrian policy Caroline Samponaro, formerly with the New York advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, claimed the company is “committed to providing affordable, reliable transportation in Chicago and our cities across the country.” I wonder how Lyft defines "affordable," and why they would make major pricing changes with minimal communication to members. I also wonder what CDOT’s role was in these changes, and how we can hold them accountable to their Strategic Plan and Climate Action Plan that highlight equity challenges and call for expanding the city’s walk, bike, and transit options.

The Lyft representative closed the forum I attended by stating that nothing is set in stone and that they are looking for suggestions and feedback. Please send feedback to them at divvyoutreach@lyft.com.

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