Americans travel a lot. And, usually, doing so costs money. After housing, families in the United States spend more on transportation than anything else—about one in every six dollars of annual household expenditures, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But for some residents of Chicago, this statistic soon may change. In the Windy City, the country’s largest bike share network—Divvy—is launching a program aimed at providing ultra-affordable transportation to hundreds of thousands of residents.
If the initiative has a valuable impact on our urban transportation policies, however, it probably won’t be because of the bikes themselves. Instead, the program’s real innovation is how it approaches the idea of urban mobility itself: not as a privilege, but as a right.
Bike Share, with a Difference
The design of Divvy for Everyone (D4E), as the program is known, is simple. Chicago residents who aren’t currently members of Divvy and prove they earn less than three times the Federal Poverty Level can purchase one year of membership for just $5—a 93 percent discount from the normal cost. Perhaps most significantly, D4E will not require a credit card or bank account to join, opening membership to tens of thousands of “unbanked” Chicagoans.
From the perspective of encouraging use among low-income residents, the measures are among the most progressive ever introduced to an urban transportation system in the U.S. But it remains an entirely different question whether D4E will actually improve accessibility and reduce commuting costs for the Chicagoans who need it most.
As Eric Jaffe and Matt Yglesias wrote recently, bike share users tend to skew whiter and wealthier than the urban population generally, due in large part to the bank account/credit card requirement and the geographical placement of stations.
Divvy was able to solve the first problem by having D4E’s underwriters assume the financial risk of lost or damaged bikes, for which the system can charge standard members up to $1,200. The fix is only temporary, though—D4E participants will need to purchase a standard membership after their first year.
Location, Location, Location
But the location of Divvy stations remains a persistent issue, with a noticeable socioeconomic divide between areas that have bike share access and those that do not. According to a Century Foundation analysis, this has remained the case even after the system’s most recent expansion, which added 176 locations. While there are some wealthier neighborhoods with relatively few stations (such as North Center) and poorer areas that are well-served (Chinatown), on the whole, census tracts with no Divvy stations tend to be significantly less wealthy than those with one or multiple stations.
How is Chicago bike share divvied?
Source: Author’s geocoding of Divvy 2014 Q1 & Q2 station data (https://www.divvybikes.com/data) and 2015 expansion map (http://divvybikes.tumblr.com/post/95362930905/expansion-map-2015). Income data from Census Bureau table B19013, All Census Tracts (or parts) within Chicago city, Cook County, Illinois, accessed via American FactFinder.
This disparity is not itself an argument against D4E. But it is an indication that planning professionals and elected officials must be honest about what the discount program—and bike share in general—can and cannot do.
After all, a big reason that Divvy stations are more plentiful in wealthy neighborhoods is that the system is designed as much for tourists as it is for locals. Visitors to Chicago tend to stay within the higher-income census tracts near the Loop and the lakefront, a major reason those areas have a greater density of stations. (Chicago is not unique in this regard—stations in New York’s Citi Bike system are similarly concentrated.)
In addition, issues inherent in the design of bike share infrastructure limit the benefits of expanding Divvy to new neighborhoods, even when done with the best of intentions.
Most Divvy stations only provide space for ten to twenty bikes. This limits the system’s ability to offer reliable service in residential neighborhoods where inbound bike traffic during the morning rush is too scarce to replenish the bikes ridden out of the neighborhood by early-bird commuters. In the evening, the opposite problem occurs, as a station can only accommodate the first ten or twenty Divvy users returning to the area; any additional cyclists must find other stations at which to park.
The recent Divvy expansion added one station to tract 6811, for example, which is in Englewood, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Every day, about a thousand workers leave tract 6811 for jobs located mostly in the Loop, while just forty-seven people commute to it from other places, according to Census Bureau data.
As a result, only a very small percentage of the area’s commuters would need to use Divvy to make the system useless for everyone else in the neighborhood. (While there are other Englewood stations, the nearest is a fifteen minute walk away.) Assuming Divvy’s ability to “rebalance” bikes across the city doesn’t vastly improve, this problem could be avoided only by increasing the density of stations on a far greater scale than the city government or its private-sector partners are likely to fund.
A Transit Solution
All this is to say that while bike share is a valuable urban asset, it is not a particularly effective means of using transportation policy to improve social outcomes.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be. Chicago already has some 11,000 bus and “L” stops within the city limits, a vast mass-transit infrastructure that could significantly improve mobility for Chicago’s poorest through a D4E-like fare discount program.
This is not as radical an idea as it sounds. There is little doubt that financial barriers exist for poor people that make transit more expensive than it should be—a recent WNYC exposé, for instance, concluded that low-income transit users in New York often pay more per ride than wealthy riders because they cannot afford the $116.50 lump sum required for a thirty-day pass. And as Henry Grabar wrote in Salon last year, free access to mass transit often prompts increased ridership, which has been declining in Chicago.
What’s more, access to transit is not nearly as socioeconomically skewed in Chicago as access to bike share. Though the city’s “transit deserts” have received attention lately, the fact remains that bus and “L” stops are much better distributed among rich and poor neighborhoods than Divvy stations:
Socioeconomic distribution of Chicago bus and ‘L’stops
Source: Author’s geocoding of City of Chicago datasets “Ridership – Bus Stop Boardings (October 2012)” and “System Information – List of ‘L’ Stops” (stops with no ridership and/or outside Chicago city limits removed)(https://data.cityofchicago.org/Transportation/CTA-List-of-CTA-Datasets/pnau-cf66). Income data from Census Bureau table B19013, All Census Tracts (or parts) within Chicago city, Cook County, Illinois, accessed via American FactFinder.
The number of stops in a census tract is not an indication of the quality of transit service, of course, but it at least demonstrates the potential of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) to provide access to the region far beyond Divvy’s capability.
Ideally, the two systems would work in tandem, with a reduced-price Ventra Card that could be used both at Divvy stations and on CTA services, allowing low-income residents to use bike share for the “last mile” of their commutes similar to the way Los Angeles is planning its bike share program.
Assuming such cooperation is unlikely, however, the CTA program would be the more effective of the two. Compared to CTA ridership, the increased commuting capacity provided by Divvy is a rounding error—a single six-car train on the Red Line, which runs on the edge of Englewood, fits about fifty Divvy stations’ worth of passengers.
A Great Idea with a Great Unknown
So what’s stopping the CTA?
The cultural aversion in the U.S. to giving poor people ultra-low-cost transportation, for one. While the idea is old news in other global cities—London and Paris, for example, both provide transit discounts for low-income riders seeking employment—it has not caught on in American cities, with the notable exception of Seattle. (A few others, such as Salt Lake City, discount fares for all municipal residents.)
Then there is the notoriously convoluted design of the Regional Transit Authority (RTA), which oversees the finances of Chicago-area transit agencies. The RTA’s planning practices are so balkanized that the OECD—an organization that mostly studies national-level policies—took it upon itself to write an entire report about it.
But the main obstacle to a low-income CTA fare program is money. If the only residents to use the program were already CTA riders, the agency would be foregoing farebox revenue that it currently collects. A large influx of new riders, on the other hand, would require costly service increases in order to meet demand.
Given the agency’s dire funding situation, neither outcome is particularly desirable from a short-term financial perspective. But few would dispute that the long-term social benefits would be immeasurable—the Platonic ideal of mobility as a right of citizenship. With Divvy for Everyone, Chicago’s leaders are bringing the city one small step toward this goal. A similar program for mass transit would push it forward by leaps and bounds.