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This morning at City Hall, the Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committee approved an ordinance to enter into a contract with Portland, Oregon-based Alta Bicycle Share, Inc. to run the city’s first major bike sharing system with 3,000 bikes at 300 stations, slated to launch in September. Another 1,000 bikes at 100 kiosks will be added next year. The approval paves the way for fulfilling Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s promise to create a large-scale bike share system in his first term, a move that could dramatically increase Chicago’s bicycle mode share. The full council will vote on this April 18th.

At the committee meeting Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) staff presented the plan to a handful of aldermen. CDOT First Deputy Commissioner Pat Harney, outlined Alta’s qualifications for implementing the program, noting that the company runs bike share systems in several other large cities, including London, Melbourne, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C. and Montreal.

Harney also argued that bike sharing will provide a convenient transportation option and health benefits for many Chicagoans. “The Surgeon General Reports that just 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a day will produce long-term health benefits,” he said. “This means that just a quick ride to the train station or grocery store and back several days a week will lead to improved health for many residents.”

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Capital Bikeshare in D.C. – photo by Jonathan Hawkins

Managing Deputy Commissioner Scott Kubly, who previously worked with Commissioner Gabe Klein to implement bike sharing in D.C. and is overseeing Chicago’s program, laid out the details of the new plan. One-year memberships to the bike share system will cost about $75 while one-day memberships will cost roughly $7. Memberships allow an unlimited number of rides under 30 minutes per day at no additional charge, but in order to encourage rapid turnover of bikes, rates for a single ride rise steeply after the first half hour.

In 2012 the service area will be a region roughly bounded by Lake Michigan, Montrose, Western, 15th, Halsted and 43rd Street, designed to focus the system on areas with a high density of residents, retail, jobs and CTA stations. In 2013 the service area will expand north as far as Devon, west to California and south to 63rd. Residents will have a chance to provide input on kiosk locations at three community meetings, via an online request system, and by speaking to their aldermen.

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The service areas are split more-or-less evenly between the North Side and South Side, and Kubly said the city will work with banks and sponsors to improve access to the system for unbanked and low-income Chicagoans. In addition, inner-city youth will have the opportunity to intern with the program to gain job skills, and Kubly expects the bike share system will create 200 – 300 new jobs.

The bike share kiosks will be solar-powered and modular, which means no digging or electrical work will be required for installation and they can easily be expanded, shrunk or relocated according to demand. The stations require two hours of direct sunlight, which will make it necessary to choose locations carefully in the Loop’s skyscraper canyons.

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Kubly, Harney and Colon

35th Ward Alderman Rey Colon expressed support for the program and asked Kubly for financial details. In the first year of the contract the city is responsible for 90% of any operating loss and receives 90% of any profit that’s generated, Kubly explained. He expects user fees will generate enough to cover operating costs in the first year. The city does has federal funding to use as an operating reserve, but he doesn’t anticipate there will be a need to tap into this money.

46th Ward Alderman James Cappleman was also enthusiastic about bringing large-scale bike sharing to Chicago, but he noted that according to the terms of the contract it appears the bikes will cost over $5,000 each. Kubly responded that the dollar amounts listed in the contract are “ceilings” and that the city is still in negotiations with Alta. “We are confident that we can knock about $1.5 million off of equipment costs,” he said.

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Ald. Marty Quinn (13th), Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th), Laurino’s assistant, Cappleman

28th Ward Alderman Jason C. Ervin, whose West Side district lies outside of the planned service area asked Kubly, “Why should people that live in outlying wards support this?” Kubly responded that residents from all over the city will be able to use the system while working downtown or visiting the lakefront or other neighborhoods, and the system might eventually expand to serve all neighborhoods. “Our goal is to grow this and serve as much of the city as possible,” he said. “But we have to have a starting point, and that starting point, to make it successful, has to have a sufficient density of stations.”

When the floor was opened to witnesses for or against the proposal, Chicago Loop Alliance Associate Director Laura Jones endorsed the plan. “The time is right for Chicago to introduce bike share,” she said. “By implementing this program now, Chicago will still be one of the pioneering cities in the United States, and commuters, tourists and residents will all benefit greatly by having expanded options for getting around the city. And everyone will benefit from reduced congestion and emissions.”

While this latest step in the approval of the bike share contract is good news, last month Bike Chicago, a competing bidder for the contract (and sponsor of this blog) complained that process for selecting the bike share vendor was “tainted” because of Commissioner Klein’s previous ties to Alta and other issues. Before coming to CDOT, in early 2011 Klein was a paid consultant to Alta, providing feedback on the company’s proposal for New York’s bike sharing RFP, but Klein says he recused himself from Chicago’s RFP process because of this. It’s uncertain whether Bike Chicago will be taking legal action in the future, but hopefully this won’t further delay the launch of this exciting initiative.

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