It’s been about six weeks since Chicago’s Divvy Bike Share scheme went online. With 144 stations, over 100,000 trips taken and 4,000 annual memberships sold, Divvy bikes are quickly becoming ubiquitous on the streets of downtown Chicago and its inner-ring neighborhoods.
Bike share’s ability to be a cheap, convenient, and environmentally-friendly element of a city’s transportation system is not being lost on a couple of Chicago’s contiguous suburbs: Oak Park and Evanston. According to a staff memo released on Friday, Evanston and Oak Park are teaming up with Chicago to apply for federal money under the Transportation Alternatives Program to fund new Divvy stations.
Divvy Bikes in Chicago, photo: Pam Broviak
Expanding the Divvy system to the suburbs is a positive idea, but there are many questions raised by the implementation plan proposed by Evanston. I have not been able to find any information from Oak Park about their plans, so I will focus on Evanston.
Here are the key points:
- The plan calls for 7 stations and 70 bikes to be placed in the city.
- The TAP grant calls for a 20% share of the total capital project costs from the city which would be $94,000
- While the memo doesn’t explicitly endorse sources of funding, it does mention the Parking Fund as a possibility. The Parking Fund raises revenues through managing the city’s parking infrastructure and currently has a cash balance of around $16,000,000 and has earned about $1.7 million in profit this year. They also plan on shaking down Northwestern University and the “city’s other large employers” for assistance on both the capital and operations side.
- They project annual revenues of $44,000 from casual users and $75,000 from annual members. This comes $49,000 short of their projected costs. It is important to note that it is not uncommon for subsidies to be needed to meet operating costs of bike share schemes (just like subsidies are needed for road infrastructure and public transit).
From the standpoint of applying for a capital grant that will fund 80% of project costs and using the Parking Fund to make up the difference, the plan is laudable. Using funds generated from managing cars–which extract a disproportionate social cost than other forms of mobility–to subsidize a cheaper, lower impact form of mobility is smart.
However, the plan has some serious problems which could negatively impact the program’s effectiveness in Evanston.
First, the location and number of stations is a bit problematic. The memo states that this proposal would “expand bike share north” from Chicago. Read literally, this is true. However, the siting of the closest proposed station to the Chicago border is about 2 miles and four miles to the northernmost proposed Divvy station in Chicago. The distance between the proposed Evanston network and Chicago is too great to really think of it as a network–which is essential for making bike sharing attractive to consumers.
Without being integrated within the larger Divvy network, you will essentially have a stand-alone system of 7 stations. A system this small is very hard to sustain. A feasibility study done by Divvy’s operator for Cincinnati mentioned 10 stations as a minimum. With seven stations, the system loses its attractiveness for potential users. The map at the right shows the proposed locations (click here for the kiosks pinned on a google map).
Three are directly adjacent to transit stations–which is good (Central St. Metra, Central St. CTA, and Davis St. CTA). It is essential to be intermodal. But once you get off the train you have to go somewhere! The four non-transit stop kiosks are 1) on Northwestern University’s campus, 2) near the beach at Lake Michigan (also close to a couple of Northwestern dorms), 3) City Hall, and 4) Downtown Evanston (about 500 feet from the Davis CTA stop and another proposed kiosk).
The idea behind bike share is that it is designed to help cities solve the “last mile” problem. Once a person’s destination–like a transit stop or a grocery store–is more than 1/4-1/2 mile away, the likelihood that they will walk diminishes significantly. You can’t build trains to get within a 1/4 mile of where everyone lives or needs to go. But scattering bikes around most cities is quite feasible.
With only 7 stations, however, you are really limiting the possibilities and attractiveness of the system. Is it likely that someone will choose a bike share to go from the Central St. Metra Station to the Central St. CTA station? The linkages from Northwestern to Downtown Evanston should be popular–especially to the transit hub at Davis. However, key Downtown student destinations like Whole Foods are overlooked in favor of Rotary International. Rotary is a major employer and generates many trips (and singled out as a possible source of funding in the memo). But people who work there are not likely to live close to a bike share kiosk.
We have to be mindful of budgets which is why such a modest system is being proposed and that brings us to the annual revenue generation assumptions: $44,000 from casual users and $75,000 from annual member fees. It is a bit unclear how these numbers were generated. In the feasibility studies done by Divvy’s operator, Alta, I’ve seen for other cities, they normally estimate numbers of users per category rather than revenue generated per type of user.
These assumptions are important as they can help determine the financial sustainability of operations. In tourist-heavy cities like Washington DC large numbers of casual users can help pay for system costs. The data is still premature, but in Chicago I would think that a significant percentage of casual users are tourists. We would not expect the same percentages in Evanston.
It is hard to know how to assess this proposal. I recognize the municipality is working within budget constraints (although that didn’t stop the city council from giving a German company $2 million of Parking Fund revenues last year to build a parking lot for their store). But if there are only 7 kiosks, will there be enough Northwestern student support to make the scheme financially feasible? The fear is that if the roll-out is too modest, it could stain public perception and set bike sharing back in the city.
updated 12 Aug. 2013 13:04 to show correct number of Divvy stations
update 15 Aug. 2013: City Council approved the measure unanimously to apply for the grant. During council deliberations aldermen representing districts that were not included in the pilot expressed concern that their constituents were being left out of the pilot. The City Manager seemed to agree that staff would include at least one additional station on Howard Street and Custer (I believe).