Lessons for Chicago from London’s bike share crisis

December 11, 2013

Source: Crain’s Chicago Business

( HANDOUT / May 31, 2012 ) The heavy-duty bikes in the Divvy program feature a step-through, one-size-fits-all design; upright handlebars with the gear-changer on the grip and wide, adjustable seats for comfort; hand brakes; a chain guard to protect clothing; and a basket with an elastic cord for storing items.

( HANDOUT / May 31, 2012 )
The heavy-duty bikes in the Divvy program feature a step-through, one-size-fits-all design; upright handlebars with the gear-changer on the grip and wide, adjustable seats for comfort; hand brakes; a chain guard to protect clothing; and a basket with an elastic cord for storing items.

Something is going “badly wrong” with London’s bike-share scheme, the Atlantic Cities reports.

The city’s bike system has been hit by a decline in popularity, with officials in England’s capital blaming everything from the system’s cost to the dangers to cyclists to patchy maintenance. And this week, the system’s major sponsor,Barclays Bank, said it would pull out of its sponsorship deal in 2015.

From The Atlantic:

Launched in summer 2010 to great enthusiasm, London’s 4,000 “Boris Bikes” (so called after Mayor Boris Johnson) were supposed to usher a new age of car-free, cycle friendly streets to the city. This year, however, their popularity has fallen by almost a third.

This January, bike-share prices doubled, from an hourly rate of £1 to £2. While the older rate was a clear bargain, the new rate edged close enough to the cost of public transit to make many wonder if the price was worth the hassle of finding a bike and getting sweaty riding it.

Then there’s the matter of London roads’ increasing deadliness for cyclists. Five cyclists were killed on city roads in just 9 days last month, a death toll that recently sparked a die-in over poor safety protection.

Given London’s struggles, can bike-friendly Chicago learn to avoid similar problems?

Signs are promising. The popularity of the city’s system, Divvy, and of biking in general shows no hint of abating. As of November, Chicago had 200-plus miles of bike lanes and 13,000 bike racks. The city, as Chicago writer Daniel Libit recently noted, is planning a total of 645 miles of lanes by 2020, and census data show the local population of those bicycling to work has increased steadily over the past several years. Some 2,713 more commuters bicycled to work in 2012 over 2011.

Though Divvy has received some criticism because many of its stations are concentrated downtown, there are currently 300 Divvy stations up and running around the city. WBEZ reported last month that 100 more stations are in the works to be installed by next spring.

As for pricing, Divvy offers a $75 annual membership and a $7 24-hour pass. But as Chicago magazine notes, “the system is intended for short trips, meaning both options require you to dock your bike every 30 minutes. ”

There has been some blowback against Divvy and Chicago bicyclists that echo some of the criticisms of London’s bike-share program.

In Chicago, 42nd Ward Ald. Brendan Reilly, whose downtown ward has been at the heart of the bicycle developments, told Mr. Libit that he sees value in Chicago’s bike infrastructure “over the long term, but this is disruptive and there are growing pains that come with it. We have all this infrastructure that a lot of folks frankly don’t know how to use, and there are still many bicyclists in Chicago who aren’t aware you can’t ride on the sidewalk.”

And Chicago cyclists continue to face dangers on the road just like London’s. Last week, a former Marine was killed on the Near West Side while riding his bicycle at night.

Still, Chicago has taken pains to educate the public. In the last year, it has held “enforcement events” with the Chicago Police Department; installed “LOOK!” stickers on taxicabs; hosted a Divvy bike-safety video contest; and held bike camps at Chicago Public Schools. The city’s Bicycling Ambassadors, a nine-person team that goes around town promoting safe cycling, educated some 63,500 people last year.

Along with that, the city this week asked Chicagoans to suggest places to put at least 175 more Divvy bike stations in 2014. “We are going to expand its reach across Chicago,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement. “With new stations to be added in 2014, Divvy will expand north, south and west into new neighborhoods as well as fill in gaps in the current service area.”

And, as the Atlantic ends up concluding, London could end up fixing its bike-sharing problems. For all of its woes, London will introduce 2,000 more bikes and expanding docking stations in other neighborhoods next spring.


The Door Lane © GridChicago

The Door Lane
© GridChicago

Chicago’s Urban Cyclists are hell-bent on trying to “wing it” where bicycling is concerned. The campaign to pass out stickers for taxicabs needed to be bolstered with a re-education campaign for cyclists. We need to know not only that you cannot ride (routinely) on sidewalks, but that we can take pre-emptive care to avoid the Door Zone when riding alongside parked cars. Why that sort of valuable information is not embraced and taught to cyclists is beyond me, but there it is.

We seem to be good at “window dressing” when it comes to doing anything that resembles progress with respect to bicycles. Having a firsthand look at cyclists on Milwaukee, and Dearborn each week confirms my suspicions that most of these folks have returned to cycling after a fairly long hiatus and are learning from their peers how to negotiate city traffic.

What I do not see are people who get the idea that dressing in all black and riding home along Ogden where it intersects with Taylor is dangerous. Yet they do this without a single light or reflector on their bikes and with their skin covered with black scarves. Doing this sort of thing let’s me know that there is a great deal of re-education that is needed.

As for the tourists who ride Divvy bikes, there is little aside from online videos and perhaps promotional training in the Daley Plaza that could really help. Most of these riders are unskilled at bike handling and certainly not dressed for a Chicago winter of slush and icy cold. But we are going to forge ahead in our inimitable fashion making every mistake in the book and ending up with frostbitten hands and feet.

What harm would there be in teaching cyclists how to dress for success on a bike and to learn to signal their intentions when riding in traffic? None that I can fathom. And yet the very idea of having a required training session is anathema in this town. Fine. I just don’t want to hear any more blathering about the Door Zone Collisions that could have been avoided if only the cyclists knew the proper strategies for dealing with them.

Any we had better get ready for ghost sneakers when the first pedestrian gets mowed down by a Divvy rider on the sidewalks.

As for the possibility of sustainable success, evidently the Chicago Cycling Community thinks that it is entirely unnecessary that Divvy pay its way. But if it does not then all that work will be for naught and workers who currently do the yeoman’s job of re-balancing the bikes will have to seek employment elsewhere. But more important is the reaction of taxpayers who were either sitting on the fence or against this boondoggle in the first instance. Their voices will be heard loud and clear when the City of Chicago comes hat-in-hand for more monies.

Stay tuned for the future…