Bike share, not white share: can Chicago’s program achieve diversity?


B-Cycle, a small-scale bike share system that launched here in 2010. Photo by Michael Malecki.

[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in print on Thursdays.]

There’s a common misconception that transportation biking is only for privileged white folks. Recently Tribune columnist John Kass expressed this attitude when he dismissed cyclists as “the One Percenters of the Commuter Class,” but in reality people from all walks of life use bikes to get around. Many of these folks are the so-called “invisible riders,” low-income individuals who ride, not because they’re looking to get exercise or save the planet, but because they need cheap, efficient transportation.

Chicago’s new bike-sharing system, slated to launch next spring and grow to 4,000 vehicles by the end of the year, is a great opportunity to broaden the demographics of cycling here to include more residents from underserved neighborhoods and communities of color. By providing cycles for short-term use, to be ridden from one automated rental kiosk to another, it will function as a second public transportation system and remove some of the major obstacles to cycling: the need to purchase, store and maintain a bike, plus fear of theft.

The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) will first install rental kiosks in the Loop and nearby neighborhoods, but coverage will eventually expand to serve an area generally bounded by Devon Street, California Avenue, 63rd Street and Lake Michigan. The roughly 400 kiosks will be located at transit stations, retail and employment centers, schools, hospitals and other convenient places. Citizens can suggest locations at


CDOT deputy director Scott Kubly stands next to a Bixi bike with a Barclay’s Cycle Hire paint scheme (from London). 

The cycles will be heavy but comfortable three-speeds with upright bars, wide saddles, generator lights, a front carrying rack and flat-proof tires, plus fenders and chain guards to keep your clothes clean. The city is bankrolling the initial setup costs with $22 million in federal transportation grants plus a $5.5 million local match; operating expenses are expected to be covered by user fees, corporate partners, naming rights and advertising.

Chicagoans will be able to purchase a daily pass for $7 or a yearly membership for $75 (a CTA monthly pass is $86), entitling them to an unlimited number of free rides of thirty minutes or less. To encourage turnover, a fee will be charged for the next half hour and rates rise steeply after that. You’ll need a credit card to buy a membership, and if you don’t return the bike your card will be charged $1,200.

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 call to ask how he’ll ensure bike-share membership here mirrors our city’s ethnic and economic mix, he acknowledges 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.”


Bernard Loyd and CDOT bike program coordinator Ben Gomberg.

Kubly has a couple of strategies to make certain the new system benefits all Chicagoans. Before the launch CDOT will run an internship program where inner-city youth from bike-education centers like Humboldt Park’s West Town Bikes and Blackstone Bicycle Works in Woodlawn will learn how to assemble the kiosks and maintain the bikes. “This will help ensure our workforce reflects the diversity of the city and help create a sense of ownership,” Kubly says. The bike-share program will eventually create about 150 full-time, permanent jobs.

“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.

Eboni Senai Hawkins, founder of the local chapter of Red Bike and Green, a group that promotes cycling among African Americans, recently met with Kubly to discuss the diversity issue. “He definitely seems concerned and he wants to see an equitable distribution of bike share across the city,” she says. Hawkins notes that, in many black and Latino communities on the South and West Sides, destinations are farther apart than in dense North Side neighborhoods, which makes bike commuting more challenging. She adds that the city needs to do more outreach to educate Chicagoans about how to use bike share, choose comfortable cycling routes and combine bike trips with transit. “That kind of thing doesn’t come easily to everybody.”


Harold Lucas test rides a bike share vehicle.

CDOT recently held community input meetings around the city to introduce the new system and solicit suggestions for kiosk locations. I attended the final session at the Charles Hayes Center, 4859 South Wabash in Bronzeville. As CDOT and Alta staff outlined various aspects of bike share, the handful of locals present stressed the importance of making sure the program is implemented fairly.

“I want to see as many bike assets on the South Side as possible,” says Bernard Loyd, a real estate developer who lives in the neighborhood and pedaled to the meeting. “Bike share can potentially make cycling much more accessible to people in Bronzeville.”

“The challenge is how do we empower the longtime residents of Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods through the bike-sharing program?” adds Harold Lucas, head of the Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council and a lifelong cyclist. “How can we use bike sharing as a tool for economic development?”

“My number-one priority is getting a membership that reflects the diversity of the city,” Kubly assures them. “Since we’re using public dollars, it’s important that the folks who are using the service reflect everybody in the community. It’s a challenge but we’re going to crack it.”

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John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

41 thoughts on “Bike share, not white share: can Chicago’s program achieve diversity?”

  1. Alta is focused on one color, green.

    Alta is for-profit and will be focused on where customers exist who can spend $75 a year for one-way convenience/fun trips. The working poor already use bicycles as a transit mode at a higher rate than more affluent customers. Poor workers have figured out by necessity that you can buy an old reliable bike for $75 and cap your commuting costs at the value of your time + a cheap lock + keeping tires on your old beater bike.

    There are potentially large potentially large hidden costs with bike-sharing, costs that will be obvious and really painful if you are poor. If you ride longer than 30 minutes more than a few times you could quickly double your expenses using this service.

    So Alta/CDOT is marketing a relatively expensive service to people who know they can own a bike for $75 and never worry about hidden costs. Despite whatever good intentions the people involved with this project may hold, people in poverty aren’t going to use this service because A) Alta won’t locate a significant number of kiosks in poor neighborhoods (of any color) despite what is being said and B) the poor aren’t stupid and can see this isn’t a good value compared to walking, CTA, or owning their own bike.

    1. Example of hidden costs: Returning a share-bike you rode to work at the end of your 8-hour shift instead of before your 8-hour shift will cost you more than $75 in fees (using MPLS bikeshare penalties).

      1. No one will do this. If you do this, you are not using bike sharing correctly. To use it to get to work, you do the following:

        1. Check out a bike near home.
        2. Bike towards work.
        3. Return the bike to a kiosk near work.
        4. Walk to work.
        5. Work.
        6. Walk to nearest kiosk and check out bike.
        7. Bike towards home.
        8. Return the bike to a kiosk near home.

        That involves two checkouts/trips. If steps 2 and 7 don’t take longer than 30 minutes, both checkouts/trips are free.

        1. This seems like this would only work in dense locations where you can locate bikes close together. Will the bikes have locks or do they expect people to just ride between official docking stations?

          1. You’re right: a bike sharing system works when bikes are close together. The Chicago RFP stated that bike kiosks in denser parts would be ~300 meters apart and kiosks in less dense parts would be ~500 meters apart. The bikes will not have locks and you must return it to a kiosk.

            There are some bike sharing systems with bikes that don’t need kiosks and can be unlocked with a code you receive over SMS.

          2. The latter, although you could always bring your own lock if you need to make a stop somewhere between dockings. Some other bike share systems, like Denver’s, include an integrated locking cable that can be used to secure the bike elsewhere, but in Chicago it would probably be common for these cables to get snipped by thieves.

          3. For me, one of the great advantages of biking, as opposed to busing, is making “pit stops” and being on my way again as soon as possible – without waiting 20 minutes for another bus, without paying a transfer fee. But who’s liable if my bike-share bike is stolen while I’m in a store, bank or post office, despite being locked up?

          4. I believe you’ll be able to bring your own lock and lock the bike at pit stops, but you’ll be liable if someone cuts your lock and steals the bike, whereas you won’t be liable if the bike is stolen after you dock it in a kiosk.

          5. See my comment to Anna I just left. I read the Capital Bikeshare user agreement. It doesn’t explicitly prohibit members from using their own locks to make pit stops away from kiosks.

    2. People will spend $75 a year for unlimited trips on a bike (to work, school, shopping, etc.) they never have to maintain or worry about being stolen.

      I imagine that workplaces will buy memberships their staffers can use to bike between the office and a meeting, to save on taxi reimbursement.

      If you have a trip longer than 30 minutes, do this: return the bike at a kiosk along the way, check out another one.

      1. It’s my opinion that 1 ) no workplace is going to buy a $75 perk for workers making a poverty wage and 2) workers running late will fear being late to work more than penalties from a bikesharing company.

        From Alta’s perspective, you are using the system correctly if you are paying a large amount of late fees. The late fees look much better on their balance sheet than people who people who use the system a lot and never incur the fees. I’m pretty certain that the fees (penalties) will not be as heavily marketed as the $75 annual membership and “free” rides.

        I’m not interested in what is possible under the terms of the agreement, I’m interested in how people will actually behave. My guess is the actual usage seen in earlier implementations of bikesharing (system usage skews affluent and white) will be duplicated in Chicago because of socioeconomic realities and the profit-seeking motives of Alta, no matter what CDOT says to the contrary.

        PS – Happy belated Thanksgiving. I’m thankful for GRID!

        1. It’s relevant to bring up motivations of profit, as both the operating company and the city will share in them (if they exist). If it becomes profitable, it will take several years. Check out the profitability of bike sharing in Washington, D.C. Perhaps Alta Bicycle Share would be willing to share some data about the percentage of customers who incur fees, and what kind of memberships they had (daily, weekly, monthly, yearly).

        2. It’s pretty clear that if bike share continues to not be equitable, it won’t be sustainable. So far bike share depends on a public subsidy, so if the service continues to be most used only by a narrow demographic in various cities, I think it’s going to be difficult to get political support for a maintaining existing systems and creating new ones. No one would advocate using taxpayer money to run the CTA if it was only being ridden by white, affluent folks.

          So I don’t think it’s a question of whether the city or Alta want to achieve diversity in the bike share system. It’s a political necessity, as well as a moral imperative. I’m encouraged that they understand the importance of this issue, and I’m optimistic they’re going to be able to find a solution.

    3. The big advantage of bike share is eliminates the need to buy, store and maintain your own bike, and you don’t have to worry about your own bike getting stolen. And if you’re commuting to your Loop job during rush hour by Red Line, say, you wouldn’t be allowed to bring your own bike on the train. With bike share, you’ll be able to check out a bike from a kiosk at your downtown station and pedal it a mile or tow to another kiosk near your job.

      The up-front $75 cost will be a major deterrent for low-income folks, though. Reduced-cost memberships, or preferably free ones, should be made available to low-income folks, perhaps subsidized by nonprofits or charitable donations from corporations. The liability issue, describe in the article, is going to be the other big challenge.

      1. Do you know if they’ll accept Visa- and MasterCard-backed debit cards? Or are they insisting on true credit cards? And does a person need a $1,200+ credit limit as well? I doubt I’m the only person in the city who can easily afford $75 a year and use plastic to pay but doesn’t have a credit card.

        1. I’m reading the user agreement for Capital Bikeshare members (the Washington, D.C., system). It doesn’t make a distinction about debit and credit cards. It says it accepts Visa and MasterCard only. I presume that you can use a debit card but it will not be a PIN-based transaction.

          You are not required to have a credit limit of $1,000. It places a hold of $101 on your debit or credit card that is “unheld” when you return the bike.

          As for bringing your own lock and making a pit stop, the user agreement doesn’t explicitly exclude that. It does say, though, that you can not use your own locking mechanism to secure the bicycle to the to kiosk.

          Here’s the agreement:

    1. Thanks for the feedback. This is a question of apples and oranges. $200 bikes aren’t durable and there would be no one to maintain them or keep them from getting stolen. Many of them would get abandoned after the first flat tire, and many would wind up for sale at the Swap-O-Rama. Public bike programs where citizens aren’t accountable for the bikes don’t work. Think of the infamous white bike initiative in Amsterdam, where anarchists painted bikes white and left them in the street for public use. A lot of those bikes were thrown in the canals by drunks.

  2. A bicycle sharing system inherently has the problem of allowing someone to take something that cost several hundred dollars to replace. If there is no financial committment from the user to pay for the bike if is damaged, or not returned, then there it is much more likely to be abused. Lowering the price to rent the bike can make it more appealing, but the financial guarantee from those that use it must be retained to keep the system running smoothly.

    The most important aspect to being able to pedal is access to a bike. Commuters in the Netherlands will park their bike at the train station and then have another bike at the station where they get off. But what if they want to go somewhere on the train that is not in their daily commute? The Dutch railway system provides a bike rental system at the train stations for occasions like this.

    It would seem to be much more difficult to get strong community support for taking out motorized travel lanes to put in bike lanes if the great majority of the people drive instead of at least occasionally using a bicycle for their utility trips. Why would they be in favor of taking out lanes that can be of benefit to them and replace them with something that they won’t use? Putting in a bicycle sharing system entices adults to give cycling a try without having to go to the trouble of working out the logistics of where to put the bike when they get there, and also not having to buy a bike first before knowing whether this would be something that they could handle.

    This can have a positive indirect effect for poor people by getting support to put in more bicycle infrastructure. People that have used the bicycle sharing system will notice the deficencies in bicycle infrastructure and will be more likely to be more favorable to putting in more, and of a higher quality. A bicycle sharing system may be limited to people having a credit card in order to function smoothly, but putting in bicycle infrastructure is something that can be done throughout a city.

    1. Lots of good points Dennis. It’s worth noting that there may be ways to work around the credit card issue by having community organizations co-sign memberships for low-income residents and take financial responsibility for the bikes that are checked out. For example, if you get your membership through your church, the church would be on the hook for the $1,200 if you don’t return a bike. But if you’re part of the congregation, you’d know you wouldn’t be welcome back to the church after this happened, so there would be social pressure to use your membership responsibly.

  3. It’s good to have the topic of biking in Chicago and how it does or doesn’t reflect the racial demographics of Chicago. It’s hard to change things if it is rarely talked about. With that said, it’s going to be very hard for this bike sharing to meet a membership goal over the long haul. Too many communities of color haven’t had much reason to embracing more biking for decades. You don’t have to believe me. Just let your eyes prove to you. Google it. John didn’t you write an article about the lack of bike shops on the South Side or communities of color? Let me be clear. I do want more people of color riding bikes more often. The City, the Bike Industry and nonprofits have to continue to invest and commit to these communities. Then a future outcome will be a bike share program membership that reflects the demographics of Chicago.

    1. Keith, thanks for the feedback and thanks for all your great work to promote cycling in diverse communities, previously with Active Trans and now in Milwaukee. I think that South Side and West Sides potentially have the most to gain from bike share, and their lack of bike shops is a big reason for this. Bike share allows members to use high-quality, practical, dependable bikes without having to worry about purchasing or servicing a cycle at a bike shop. In turn, by popularizing cycling in these areas, bike share may be able to make these neighborhoods more attractive to new bicycle stores.

  4. Thank you John, for continuing to bring issues to light around the equitable distribution of cycling infrastructure. There are two points that I would like to add to the thread, however: CLASS & CULTURE.

    First & foremost, we should be very careful that we do not conflate “CLASS” with “race” or “underserved.” There are plenty of people of color who can afford & will take advantage of bike share. The demographic question then becomes – how does one make bikshare attractive to a group that can and would simply hop in a car and pay for parking or hail a taxi? This is where the visual aesthetics of the bikeshare campaign is important. This is where Chicago could learn from the example of Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Columbia and his push to rebrand bike commuting as an attractive option across class.

    Secondly, there’s CULTURE – or to borrow from the lexicon of creative placemaking – “vibrancy”. A vibrant neighborhood, one that invites activity both from pedestrians and cyclists, day and night, is and should continue to be a concern for community developers fighting for bikeshare locations. If bikeshare is to be utilized to its maximum capacity by Chicagoans and not just for tourists, the level of commercial activity needs to match. People need to have a reason within a geographic area to use a bike for trips of 1 hour or less. I strongly believe that aligning and assigning dollars from Chicago’s Cycling Plan to its Cultural Plan will be key in achieving this goal.

    1. Thanks for the feedback Eboni. Yes, as I tried to make clear in the article, underserved communities and communities of color are not the same thing. The issues you bring up will be key to broadening the demographics of cycling here.

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