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
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.

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

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

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.

After-the-fact outreach meetings on the new pricing

Perversely, CDOT’s and Lyft’s community outreach plan about the new pricing system was to explain to the public how it works after members were already being charged the new e-bike fees. This public engagement process included three online public meetings, with the earliest one taking place on May 12, two days after the new time surcharges and non-station fees kicked in.

Lyft chose not to record these meetings to “allow open and sincere conversations” according to a Lyft representative. The Spanish forum held on May 25 was attended by 10 people, mostly residents of Southwest Side communities like Little Village and Northwest Side neighborhoods like Belmont Cragin. A bilingual consultant from MUSE Community + Design presented the information to the participants in Spanish. A Lyft representative was also available but did not speak Spanish, so the consultant served as an interpreter between attendees and the Lyft staffer.

The presenter showed a map highlighting parts of the current coverage area in purple, to show that they only have E-stations, not full-service docking stations, and therefore blue bikes can’t be used in these areas. Meeting attendees were unhappy about the changes and voiced their disapproval throughout the forum.

In the purple areas, Lyft has only installed E-stations, so the non-electric blue (“Classic”) cycles can’t be used there.

Yes, the blue bikes are being phased out

One resident asked if the blue bikes would continue to be available in the future. The Lyft rep responded that “the plans are to be determined.”

However, that’s not actually the case. Back in 2020, when Divvy was being expanded into the South and West sides, Lyft explained during a stakeholder meeting that the company would eventually phase out the non-electric bikes. When asked for clarification, a representative said that when a blue bike wore out, it would be replaced with a new e-bike rather than a new non-electric cycle. While Divvy’s blue bikes are very durable and can remain in service for years, that meant that eventually the entire flee would consist of e-bikes. At that point, anyone using bike-share anywhere in the city will get charged an additional per-minute fee for every ride.

Interestingly, Block Club Chicago recently reported that Lyft spokesperson Colin Wright “said the company has no plans to eliminate the classic blue bikes and ‘continues to keep them in top shape and available for riders to enjoy.'” That suggests a change in policy since that 2020 stakeholder meeting.

However, Wright indicated to Streetsblog on Monday that nothing has changed. “There are no plans to phase-out the [non-electric] bikes,” he insisted. But he also confirmed, “As [non-electric] bikes become beyond unrepairable, we will replace them with e-bikes.” So, in effect, there are plans to phase out the blue bikes.

Asked about the fairness of making such radical changes to how the bike-share system works without getting public input first, Wright responded, “We are living up to the terms of our agreement with CDOT,” referring to a nine-year contract extension that passed Chicago’s City Council in April 2019.

What’s wrong with the new fee structure

What’s most upsetting about the pricing change is that Divvy had previously been providing a low-cost mobility options for people in with poor transit access. While less station density and bike availability on the South and West sides has been an issue, Divvy has still introduced many people, especially those who cannot afford their own bicycles, to cycling for transportation in Chicago. Instead of walking 20 minutes or waiting for sometimes-unreliable bus or train service, you could simply hop on a bike to finish your trip. 

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Equiticity’s Oboi Reed rides a black electric bike (with a trailer!) during a West Side community ride. Photo: Ruth Rosas

But last month Streetsblog noted that some working-class Chicagoans who live in parts of town without blue bikes, but make too much money to qualify for D4E, have complained that the new per-minute fees for e-bikes make the system unaffordable for daily commutes.

A few days ago Lyft sent some members this message on the app: “CDOT is providing a $5 bike credit for rides that start in recent expansion areas, one credit per rider every 30 days for a limited time. Credit can be used for bike unlock, minutes, out of station parking and on multiple rides.”

“Credits are our way to bridge the gap for anyone who feels priced out of the system,” Wright explained. However, not all members received the a notification about this offer. And $5 doesn’t even pay for a single half-hour e-bike ride for a regular member, which costs $5.80.

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

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.