Evanston and Oak Park Explore Participating in Chicago Bike Share Scheme

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.ProposedBikeShareEvanston

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).

Chicago Beats Suburbs for New Google Unit

Motorola Mobility–a unit of Google–announced today that they will be moving their headquarters from suburban Libertyville to the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago.

The company was purchased by Google last May and will be moving 3000 jobs to the historic building.

From an urban development standpoint this move is instructive since the head of Motorola deliberately sited the urban environment as an advantage to their business given the new site’s ample crowds and public transit being a natural laboratory in which to observe how consumers interact with mobile technology.

From an urban planning standpoint it could be used as evidence that the dense, multi-modal environment that you get in a city is an amenity for business and economic growth.  In addition, Motorola sees the urban setting as advantageous to recruit and retain good talent.

Suburbs like Libertyville simply can’t compete with the social and physical infrastructure of Chicago.

Municipalities Routinely Violate Clean Water Act

The New York Times continues its excellent series on US water pollution today with an article on the problems with municipal sewer systems.

The essence of the problem is that older cities like New York have antiquated systems and many newer cities have systems whose capacity is inadequate.  During severe rains the systems can’t process all of the wastewater and consequently dump untreated sewage into lakes and rivers–often in violation of the Clean Water Act.

In areas with combined sewer systems, the problem is exacerbated since these systems route both wastewater and storm runoff to the pipes.  In severe storms, backups can occur and raw sewage can flood basements and buildings.

The EPA gets criticized in the article for not enforcing the law and municipalities are consequently not penalized for their violations.  Although EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has pledged to get tougher on violators, municipalities argue that the problems they face stem from a lack of resources and investment to improve systems that have been neglected.  Fines would result in money simply going to the Feds that could otherwise be used to improve systems.

It seems that a good model would be to have aggressive federal action, but to place the focus on helping municipalities develop better ways to improve handling their capacity.  For instance, municipalities could adopt stronger regulations on stormwater management for development or offer incentives for water mitigation techniques like green roofs or permeable pavement.

One subtext that doesn’t get explicitly mentioned in the article is climate change.  A major problem with the municipalities discussed in the article is that they are seeing a rise in the number of 100- and 500- year flood events.  This comports with climate change science that suggests more severe storms will occur as the planet gets hotter.  Wastewater treatment, in turn, is generally very energy-intensive.

Thus one could envision that climate change legislation in the US could have adaptation money available for water system upgrades and for mitigation policies.  Green roofs, for instance, decrease runoff and they also act as an insulator, improving a building’s energy efficiency; or substituting permeable pavement in a parking lot could both reduce urban heat island effect and reduce runoff.

It is important to recognize that water quality and climate variation are intimately related.

More on Urban Design and Health

This example comes from the Daily Journal of Commerce in Portland, Oregon.  The article, headlined “Can Street Layout Affect Residents’ Health,” talks specifically about the problem posed by emergency vehicles getting to residential destinations in the Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood.

Photo: Portland Ground, Pictures of Portland Oregon
Photo: Portland Ground, Pictures of Portland Oregon

I haven’t been to the neighborhood, but the article describes it as having typical post-war design–a street system lacking connectivity with plenty of cul-de-sacs and dead ends.  This caused a problem recently when emergency vehicles couldn’t reach the scene of a shooting resulting in the death of a high school student.

New Urbanists and public safety departments have been at odds for years, with the latter insisting on wide residential roads and generous, rounded corners to accommodate large fire trucks.   Planners aren’t excited about the ramifications this has for street life and the pedestrian experience.  Streets become too wide, automobile traffic goes too fast, and sidewalks are sacrificed by developers to meet the zoning and infrastructure requirements for emergency vehicles.

The incident in Powellhurst-Gilbert suggests that old-style suburbia also has some problems.

In keeping with the study I referenced earlier, Powellhurst-Gilbert also was found to have issues relating to obesity that have been linked to the neighborhood’s urban design.  What is hopeful from the article is that city officials are looking at ways to change policy and seem to have the support of neighbors–something that is often lacking in other urban and suburban contexts.

Madison, Wisconsin Engaged in Zoning Reform

I don’t know the details about what is going on in Madison, but this article in the State-Journal caught my eye.

Apparently the city is engaged in a re-working of its zoning code with an emphasis on “environmental sustainability.”  Among the changes being discussed in the latest draft:

  • Reducing the minimum parking requirements for commercial buildings.  One of the reasons you see a sea of asphalt surrounding your local Big Box retailer is because traditional zoning codes often require that a minimum proportion of the lot be dedicated to parking.  New Urbanists have been arguing for years that zoning codes should include maximums, rather than minimums.  Too much parking results in a degraded environment and an expectation that automobiles should be the primary mode of transport.

    Photo of Madison: Jon Mallard
    Photo of Madison: Jon Mallard
  • Allowing for urban agriculture and gardening.  According to the article, there will be no prohibition on the siting of community gardens and special permission could be granted for small scale agricultural projects.  This is a nice effort to promote local sustainability and food security.
  • Allows for “granny flats” to be built over garages.  This is another New Urbanist staple.  It diversifies the housing stock in neighborhoods, offers a bit of income to home owners, and can enhance affordability

The process of reform is ongoing, but if this article is any indication Madison appears to be on a positive track.