Smoke and Mirrors To Keep The Canary Seemingly Alive

Background Reading


Cruising the lakefront on Divvy bikes. Photo: John Greenfield

Cruising the lakefront on Divvy bikes. Photo: John Greenfield


BikeShare is a great ‘concept‘. But frankly the problems that beset it are numerous. You have on the one hand a loud and raucous Urban Cycling Community which takes every single opportunity possible to tug at the heartstrings of the electorate with its cries of ‘fear of flying‘. Anyone paying even a tenth as much attention to this group as they do to anything else comes away with the notion that the very idea of riding from the Loop to the Near North or even into Bronzeville to the South is going to encountered hooded demons with large emblems on their foreheads saying Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Range Rover.

The mission of these demons is yank the Messiah-element from our midst and leave us rudderless in our quest to change the world for the better. Satan’s Spawn is aware of your presence and like the hooded Nazgûl riders of the Lord of the Rings are a deadly lot.

The even bigger problem with the concept of BikeShare is the location in which it is being given its wings. North America is fairly flat but its winters are brutal. And here in the Midwest the extremes of winter are exaggerated by our proximity to the Great Lakes. No amount of Urban Cycling Jive Talk can overcome this reality. And even the True Believers in the Church of Urban Cycling admit that streets are often knee deep in un-removed snow and that most likely will be the very location of the Bike Lane.

BikeShare Is Losing Money

I for one think that they have two ingredients that are not properly mixed. Their current emphasis is on the pricing for daily users. So in a way they are ‘counting on‘ tourists to use the system often enough to help keep it afloat. But then the other problem is that the system is pointless if you are not aware of how to use it.

Getting places in Chicago is a matter of knowing the city topography. If you do not have a color-coded matrix of routes that take you to well known destinations and have that information posted along the routes, then all bets are off that people will want to use the system.

And nothing spells bummer like having to check in the bikes on a half-hour basis to keep the overages down. They need to install transponders on these puppies that let you ride while the system itself keeps track of its inventory. These transponders need to be buried in the intersections and thus mean that users of the system do not need to keep stopping in order to get their monies worth.

Think about it this way. If using a bus meant getting off that bus at a corner bus shelter to swipe a rider card and then re-boarding that bus to move on to the next corner bus shelter, would you use such a cockamamy system? I certainly would not.

As a tourist I need to know where I want to go and am able to get the information about which of the color-coded bike routes I need to ride to reach my destination. All along that route I need large colorful signs that say this way to so-and-so and also give me information about where I can stop and eat or use the bathroom if necessary.

Now that would be a good system.

We Evidently Like To Have Our Bad News Sugar-Coated

There are a few journalists in this city who get paid to ‘blow cigar smoke up our dresses‘. And I am fine with that so long as everyone is aware that this is something of a ruse. But come on people, BikeShare is not making money. You can call finding a company that masquerades as an advertising partner part of our projected revenue stream but we all know that every couple of years or so a new ‘sugar daddy‘ will have to be found yet again.

Make BikeShare the ‘only game in town‘. Bike lanes are expensive to make and even more expensive to maintain. They need to have a revenue stream of their own. Let BikeShare be part of that solution. Close off the Loop entirely to motorized traffic. The only game in town should be walking.

Ban privately owned vehicles of any sort from the Loop. If you want to visit the Loop then do it on foot or use a BikeShare vehicle. By means of this simple arrangement you bring about a ‘gently coerced‘ clientele for BikeShare. You keep the Urban Cycling Community honest because they won’t be allowed to just talk about how wonderful bicycling is but will have to dig deep into their pockets and perhaps dislodge some of that beer and reefer money to pay for an annual pass.

And at one feel swoop you deny these folks the ability to scour the city looking for sign poles to lock up their bikes. Instead they have to use BikeShare and that means the parking bit is already taken care of.

Create Summer Jobs Leading BikeShare Tours

Finally, what better way to give a kid a summer job that has some value than to train them to lead tours (‘bike trains‘ if you will) that go in and around the city using BikeShare bikes. Their departure times can be posted and folks can feel safer knowing that the person leading them is familiar with the city and that they will be in a group of people with whom they can talk and perhaps share experiences.

If you stop thinking about BikeShare as some sort of ‘me too‘ thing and see it as honest-to-goodness real transportation (and not just for tourists) you can learn to make some money with this operation. Put up those warming stations (complete with bathrooms and bike shop workers) and you can have people ‘enjoying the weather‘ 365 days a year.

And then maybe we can stop this bullshit idea of trying to call finding a ‘sugar-daddy‘ with deep enough pockets to hide our losses once and for all. But pay close attention. BikeShare is the ‘canary in the mine‘ for bicycling. If it cannot succeed then you can kiss the idea of transportation cycling goodbye.