In the news this past week was the unveiling of Chicago's new bike sharing program called "Divvy." This service, available for a basic membership fee of $75 and an advanced membership of $125, allows Chicago area residents to rent bicycles for short trips of 30-90 minutes for a minimal fee. Daily rentals are also available. Bike stations are currently being installed throughout the city. At the moment, most of these locations are in the loop and its immediate surrounding areas.
As an avid bike rider and one time commuter cyclist, I'm always glad to see initiatives that help encourage Chicagoans to get in the saddle and use peddle power instead of fossil fuels. However, Divvy seems like another public-private partnership boondoggle.
For starters, a bike sharing program was already unveiled in 2010. Part of a national chain, it was called Chicago B-Cycle and run by the owners of Chicago bike rental behemoth Bike and Roll. Bike sharing stations were installed at various sites throughout the city such as the Buckingham Fountain. Tourists seemed to be the target audience for this program as few stations were set up in the business district or in the neighborhoods farther away from the loop and the lakefront park system.
From what I can tell, B-Cycle is no longer in operation in Chicago. Their local website is still up but Chicago no longer appears on the national webpage for the company. Additionally, Bike and Roll has introduced a new "Bikes @ Work" membership, which suggests that the company has severed its relationship with B-Cycle in the Chicago area.
Without access to rental data from the company, its hard to tell how successful B-Cycle really was during its short life span. But that it is no longer part of the current bike sharing discussion seems like an important detail missed by the city, Divvy, and local media outlets. Success tends to make a business pretty visible. Failure too. The invisibility of B-Cycle suggests that it was too lackluster to turn a profit while at the same time being too successful to qualify as a total failure.
Perhaps Divvy has found a way to get around this problem, but I doubt it. The Chicago bike rental market is saturated, particularly by companies like Bobby's Bike Hike and Bike and Roll who cater to visitors from out of town. These providers remain the best source of a bike rental for local residents who aren't likely to need a bike for just a few hours over the course of a year.
Even more concerning than the boondoggle-like nature of this deal is the total lack of discussion about bike safety. Divvy follows the procedure common to most rental companies of placing all liability on the shoulders of the renter. Unlike car rental companies, however, they don't seem to plan offering an optional liability insurance. No helmets or other safety equipment will be provided to Divvy renters. There also has been no discussion about providing Divvy members a guide (in print or online) informing them of the rules of the road, including the city's new fines for bikers who violate those rules.
Apparently neither the city nor Divvy bikes is worried about the prospect of sending groups of cyclists out into the Chicago streets unprepared to ride. This tells me one of three things: they expect this project to flop and only really wanted T.V. time, the city is salivating at the thought of more cyclists to fine, or they really believe that old adage that "it's easy as riding a bike."
I have ridden Chicago's streets on a bike and can tell you that the last of these assertions is simply untrue. While following all the rules of the road, I have been hit by a car twice. The first time nearly led to permanent paralysis. It's only a mixture of luck and/or divine intervention that kept me from meeting Bobby Can's fate. He too was following the rules of the road when he was struck and killed by a car in the city's Old Town neighborhood.
Only time will tell if the other two assertions are true. I just hope no one riding one of these toy bikes gets killed.
There are plenty of ways to encourage cycling in Chicago Mr. Mayor. This isn't one of them.