Chicago is the bike-share capital of America. Divvy, the city’s bike-sharing system, is adding 1,750 bikes to its fleet this spring, and expanding from 300 to 476 stations. By June, Montreal and New York City will still have more bikes on the ground, but Chicago can boast of being the home of the most bike-share stations and the largest service area of any single system in North America.
It’s an impressive mantle, especially since Divvy has navigated serious setbacks since its 2013 launch. Its Montreal-based equipment provider went bankrupt last year, delaying station expansion. But now, with good design, an inclusive ethic and sheer nerve, Divvy is on its way to serving 86.7 square miles of Chicago, or 38 percent of the city’s total area.
New stations are opening every day. A full 1.3 million people — 56 percent of Chicagoans — will live in neighborhoods with accessible bike-sharing by summer. The program will also add to the density of current stations for a total of 4,760 bikes across the city. Divvy’s success has even inspired the suburban communities of Oak Park and Evanston to join in. Plans are in the making to leverage state funding and university partners to link these outlying communities to the city by next spring: twelve in Oak Park, eight in Evanston and more stations in far city neighborhoods.
The Chicago experiment reveals how quality bike-share programs aren’t just about plunking wheels around town. It requires creative and strategic force. For Divvy, that comes with tech-savvy flair. Divvy announced in April that it will place bikes at the O’Hare and Midway airports that include cell phone charging outlets and video screens that guide users through tours of Chicago. In one elegant move, this will boost the practical appeal of Divvy bikes, plug the system into the city’s most significant transit hubs and encourage riders to interact with local neighborhoods.
Guests could try out a prototype of the new tech-oriented bike model during the recent awards night for the Divvy Data Challenge — itself an innovative program in which the bike-share system invites designers to create visualizations of its usage data. In the most recent contest, nearly 40 contenders submitted illustrations of usage patterns from 2013 and 2014 (3.2 million total rides). Winners in each category (Most Creative, Most Comprehensive, and so on) received a package that included Xbox One, Xbox Kinect, Windows Phone and other offerings. Matthew Shaxted and Shaun Jacobsen shared the prize for Best Overall Visualization. Shaxted created a 3D visualization that beautifully displays the flow between stations (see below). Jacobson’s project explored which was faster — bike-share or public transportation? He concluded that Divvy trips were in most cases faster than transit. That revelation — that Divvy could actually be more convenient than the train or bus — made headlines.
Technology and design isn’t by itself the secret to a quality bike-share. It must come with a commitment to equity. In December, a group of African-American cyclists in Chicago sent a letter to the city, urging it and the state to commit to improving bicycling conditions in predominantly black neighborhoods, especially on the South Side and West Side. Divvy’s current expansion is a gain for equity. More Chicagoans will have more access when the bike-share stretches north to Touhy Avenue in Rogers Park, 85th Street on the South Side, and west to Pulaski Road in Little Village and Avondale. Decisions on where the 176 new stations will go came not from top-down decision-makers, but from the public. Among the neighborhoods that will see their first stations are Woodlawn, Washington Park, Canaryville and East Garfield Park, all on the South and West sides. Oboi Reed of Slow Roll Chicago, which signed on to the letter about bike equity, endorsed the expansion with a statement: “We are especially happy to see Divvy expand to more communities of color and low- to moderate-income neighborhoods. We look forward to helping grow the system even more in underserved communities.”
To encourage people in the expansion neighborhoods to make safe and effective use of them, the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) is sending bicycling ambassadors to do outreach with residents and business owners. In the same vein, Divvy is reaching out to young people by hosting “Design-a-Divvy,” a contest where public high school students in the expansion neighborhoods submit art that reflects their community for bike baskets and fenders. Ten winners will be announced in June, right around the completion of the new stations, and winning designs will be printed on select Divvy bikes throughout Chicago.
Divvy and the city reportedly are planning to ensure that all Chicago neighborhoods will eventually be linked to the bike-share system — though they have no timeline for that. Meanwhile, neighborhoods that will still not have a station after the latest expansion are feeling “like a fifth wheel,” as the Chicago Sun-Times put it. Out of 50 wards, 17 will remain without a station. Frustrated aldermen in those communities proclaim that their residents deserve the health and pleasure benefits of cycling as much as anyone else in the city — and they are right. (At least one of those neighborhoods, Austin, is due to receive a station as part of the expansion next year into the Chicago suburbs.)
Also, while the numbers are ticking upward, female bike-share users are far outnumbered by men. In 2014, only about 24.5 percent of Divvy trips were taken by females. More women sign up for a membership than actually rode the bikes. So, this isn’t just a promotions issue. It may have to do with safety concerns, as well as clothing practicalities. The gender gap isn’t unique to Chicago, but Divvy’s leaders would be smart to face the unique challenges of female riders head-on.
Equity takes a number of other forms. Significantly, Divvy makes its trip data open to the public and explicitly encourages people to “download it, map it, animate it, or bring it to life!” The next step will be for CDOT and Divvy to release comprehensive demographic data on bike-share membership, beyond the current age and gender numbers that it offers, as well as details on how infrastructure and education resources are distributed among different communities. This is crucial to developing an inclusive and transparent program.
On a more brass-tacks level, an annual membership in Divvy — which gives you unlimited rides for a year — costs $75. A 24-hour pass costs $7. Compare that to a pass on the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), where $100 will get you unlimited rides for only 30 days. That’s a persuasive model of improving resident mobility around the city, and also a powerful return on investment for local taxpayers. (The $9.25 million expansion is being paid for through federal and local TIF funds, as well as system sponsor Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois. The original system had a capital cost of $19 million in public funds.) However, as Streetsblog Chicago points out, Divvy requires that users pay with credit or debit card, potentially making it inaccessible to unbanked residents. A “major announcement” on concrete steps addressing this issue is expected in early summer.
So, about two years after bike-share was introduced to the city, it’s still a work in progress. But the momentum is heartening. Divvy describes itself as “Chicago’s newest transit system.” That standard calls for serious scrutiny on how completely the light-blue bikes serve the full diversity of the city’s population. But Chicago should be applauded for committing itself to the highest possible ambitions. The city deserves nothing less.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Anna Clark is a freelance journalist in Detroit. She has written for the New York Times, the New Republic, NBC News online, Pacific Standard and other publications. She is a political media correspondent for the Columbia Journalism Review. Anna is the editor of A Detroit Anthology and author of Michigan Literary Luminaries: From Elmore Leonard to Robert Hayden. A former Fulbright fellow, she is also the director of applications for Write a House. Her website is annaclark.net.