Can Chicago Build a Bike-Share System That Works for Everyone?

It’s an exciting time in Chicago, as the city gears up for a major bike-share launch this spring that will make 4,000 bikes at 400 stations available to the public.

The city of Chicago has been hosting public meetings to determine the best locations for bike-share stations. Photo: Grid Chicago

City officials are thinking ahead, trying to avoid a problem that has plagued other systems: namely, the failure to make bike-share useful to residents from every walk of life. John Greenfield at Grid Chicago describes how local officials are trying to ensure that it’s not just the affluent who reap the benefits of bike-share in the Windy City:

While bike sharing has great potential, the credit-card requirement and other factors have been obstacles to attracting a diverse membership in other cities. In Denver, where roughly fifty percent of residents are people of color, almost ninety percent of bike-share users are non-Hispanic whites, according to a member survey. “Our demographic profile is nothing to be proud of, and we know that,” acknowledged Parry Burnap, head of Denver’s program, at a recent urban planning conference. “We are mostly male, mostly white, mostly wealthy, mostly well educated.”

CDOT deputy commissioner Scott Kubly helped launch Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C., and he’s managing Chicago’s new system. When I called to ask how he’ll ensure bike-share membership here mirrors our city’s ethnic and economic mix, he acknowledged this was also an issue in D.C. “Growing bike share will be easy in some parts of Chicago,” he says. “So I’m really focused on building membership in parts of town where it will be hardest.”

“The big challenge is how do we handle liability for folks who are unbanked,” Kubly adds. In D.C. this issue was addressed via the Bank on D.C. initiative, in which low-income residents received a free Capital Bikeshare membership after completing a financial literacy course. Liability for the membership was shared by the individual, the city, a bank and Alta Bicycle Share, the Portland, Oregon-based company that runs the D.C. system and will be operating Chicago’s as well. He’s currently looking into partnering with community organizations and churches here to provide bike share access for people who don’t have credit cards.

Chicago is also making efforts to supply a broad spectrum of neighborhoods with plenty of bike-share stations, Greenfield reports. In addition, the city has developed a program to train low-income youth for some of the 150 jobs the new system is expected to create.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Spacing Toronto says that erstwhile Mayor Rob Ford’s undoing was simply his inability to follow the rules. The Greater Marin advises readers to just avoid walking in Sonoma County, where not only are the roads dangerous but the police department policy seems to blame cyclists and pedestrians in the event of a collision. And the Political Environment shares an example of what passes for an air quality program in too many government agencies around the country.