Chicago Inaugurates Modest Bike-Sharing Scheme for Tourists

Schweizer Platz - Frankfurt

Bike-sharing is one of the smartest trends sweeping urban transportation planning these days. The idea is that you set up kiosks around a city where a number of bikes are parked securely. Riders use a credit card or subscription card to “check out” a bike.  They then ride it to another kiosk and drop it off.

It works great for trips less than a mile.  It is convenient (no waiting for a bus or train) and carbon neutral.

The concept has been around for several decades, but it really took off in 2007 when Paris initiated its Vélib’ system which features 20,000 bicycles and over 1500 kiosks.  Since then cities as disparate as Mexico City, Montreal, and Washington, DC have established programs (for more info on the global bike share movement, I highly recommend the Bike-Sharing Blog).

Beginning Friday, Chicago will be the latest entry into the bike sharing game.  The system has been a long-time coming.   Chicago’s Mayor Richard M. Daley is well known as being a biking enthusiast and advocate of “green” public policy.  After a visit to Paris and testing out their system in 2007, he expressed interest in bringing the concept to Chicago.

Unfortunately the system that will be inaugurated this week is too modest and too geared to tourists to have any significant impact on mobility for the vast majority of Chicagoans.

Last year, I had a group of students look into what makes a bike sharing program successful as part of an effort to give the Chicago suburb of Evanston information on the subject.  Evanston was involved in transportation master-planning and its consultants had recommended bike sharing as a program to possibly reduce congestion.

According to our preliminary research, there are a few essential elements that a bike sharing scheme must have in order to make an impact on mobility choices in a city.

  • It should be convenient.  Kiosks need to be placed near activity centers and bikes should be plentiful.  No one will use the service if it doesn’t allow them to go where they need to be and the reliable supply of bikes is essential to get people in the habit of using the service.  The activity centers need to be varied–cultural spots, residences, workplaces, shopping districts.  This allows many potential destinations as well as helps bikes circulate through the system so you don’t have all the bikes at one station during particular times of the day.
  • It should be cheap.  Bikes are one of the cheapest and most efficient forms of transportation; however, there are still costs involved (maintenance, purchase of bikes & kiosks, IT infrastructure to keep track of bikes, etc…).  The trick is to figure out a way to keep the price point at a level where it costs less for the average consumer than other forms of transportation (driving, cabs, etc…).  In order to meet these costs, many cities privatize the system.  The operators will put advertising on the bikes or–as in the case with Paris–the bike service will be part of the general outdoor advertising franchise that cities sell to billboard companies.
  • It should be integrated with other modes of transport.  Kiosks should be set up next to train & bus stations, car sharing spots, parking lots.  This allows for flexibility in movement for the user and translates into more successful system.  The picture above, for instance, was taken in Frankfurt at a place called Schweizer Platz.  The bike sharing kiosk is located at the top of the steps of a U-Bahn station and at the corner of a tram line.  At this spot you can transfer from bike-to-tram, bike-to-U-Bahn, etc…

So how does Chicago measure up on this metric?  The main problem–at this point–is that the system is extremely small and is not integrated with a wide variety of activity centers.  There are only 6 full-service kiosks where you can drop off and pick up a bike.  Three of them are (more or less) strictly tourist destinations (Buckingham Fountain, the Field Museum, McCormick Place).  For those readers unfamiliar with Chicago, basically these spots are destinations with a single use.  The number of residencies and work places near these kiosks is small.   You are not likely to see the bike share displace many higher-carbon trips since the kiosks are essentially inconvenient.

The cost is another factor.  A temporary pass costs $10 for the first hour and $5 for each subsequent 30 minutes.  You can also get a monthly membership that costs $35 which gives you the first hour free and charges $2.50 for each subsequent 30 minutes.

This is way too expensive and is further evidence that the scheme is designed primarily for tourists who may be willing to pay more for a pleasant bike ride on the city’s lakefront.  Most schemes that are designed to be integral parts of a city’s transport system have a very small up-front cost.  London’s new bike share program (which also starts on Friday) is not only much bigger, but only charges 1 pound for a single day pass with free usage for the first half hour.

As a point of comparison, in Chicago, lets say I work at the Daley Center and want to eat lunch at the Field Museum (no one would ever want to do this by the way, but that’s where the kiosks are).  I would check out a bike for $10, ride the mile or so to the museum in about 15 minutes.  I would check the bike in at the Museum.  After my hour lunch, I would have to check out a new bike for another $10 at the Museum for the return trip to Daley Plaza.  Twenty bucks to go out to the museum for lunch!    Of course, if I had a monthly pass, the $35 that I pay each month would cover both rides.  But because there are only 6 kiosks, I would not be likely to buy a monthly pass.

In London, lets say I get off a train at St. Pancras.  I pay £1 access fee and check out a bike, ride it the 1.5 miles to the British Museum in about 15 minutes.  I hang out in the museum for an hour, check out another bike and take another 15 minute ride to Hyde Park.  Later on, I can check out another bike and ride up to Kensington, etc… For that initial £1, riders get unlimited short rides.

Finally, Chicago’s scheme comes up short as a practical transport alternative because of the lack of integration with the city’s public transit system.   There are a couple of kiosks that are within a block or two from the city’s subway system, but the major Metra commuter rail stations are about a mile away from the nearest kiosk!   The system will be useless for the thousands of commuters who travel into the city center from the city’s western and northern suburbs.

I understand that this is essentially a demonstration project.  However, because it doesn’t even make an attempt to link with the destinations that everyday residents use, it is hard to get too excited about it.  A better model for the city to follow would have been Washington DC, where a small program began in 2008 that linked a couple of select neighborhoods with the city center.  The program was so successful that the District of Columbia is expanding the system to include all of the wards in the city as well as neighboring Arlington, Virginia, creating the first regional scheme in the United States.

Chicago could also learn from Mexico City, which recently started a small neighborhood system in Condesa.  The first stage of the scheme in Condesa began with 85 stations with plans for expansion.

At this stage, it is a bit premature to call Chicago’s experiment a proper bike-sharing scheme in the sense that it will enhance mobility options for the city’s residents.  Rather, it is a nice tourist amenity to help our visitors enjoy the lakefront and our cultural assets.

Update [28 Jul. 2010 1:23pm]

After my initial post, I came across this article by the Active Transportation Alliance explaining the origins of the scheme.  It is not a municipal project.  Rather it is an outgrowth of Bike Chicago–a private firm that rents bikes at various locales along the lakefront.  [They also run the dreaded Segway tours that clog downtown sidewalks & bikepaths–please, no Segway sharing schemes!]

I assumed the city was involved given the fact that they issued an RFP for a bike share program in 2007 and Mayor Daley apparently presided over the ribbon cutting ceremony yesterday for the project.

In reality this scheme is an expansion of the existing bike rental infrastructure targeting tourists and leisure users.  It is premature to call it a proper “bike sharing” program.

2 thoughts on “Chicago Inaugurates Modest Bike-Sharing Scheme for Tourists”

  1. Agreed. I can’t see any non-tourists spending $10 to check out a bike even in the rare case when someone is traveling between two of the few bike kiosks. A taxi would be cheaper.

  2. I was quite surprised that there is absolutely no east-west integration. Having a kiosk at Union Station or Ogilvie should be a no-brainer–hell, even at Sears Tower you could get both tourist traffic and flow from Union Station.

    The other weird thing that I didn’t mention is that they have several drop-off only kiosks, including Millennium Park (which actually would be a natural pick-up spot given the train station) and Navy Pier.

    I have never heard of drop-off only sites! How do you get back to where you came from? Take a cab?

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