Jackson: Chicago's Proposed Bike-Sharing Program Could Become the Nation's Largest

Josie Ballines Photo by Holly Pennebaker
Columbia College Chicago student Josie Ballines would be among many
Chicagoans who could benefit from a bike-sharing program. (Photo by Holly Pennebaker)

Jackson El Stop GraphicBy Holly Pennebaker
The Red Line Project

Posted: Monday, Oct. 24 2011

Columbia College Chicago Marketing Communications student Josie Ballines commutes to the city from West Chicago, arriving at Ogilvie Transportation Center. From there, she either walks to Columbia or brings her bike along to complete her trip.

With commuters like Ballines in mind, the City of Chicago began looking at a bike-sharing program in 2007. While the program has been slow to get rolling, it's picking up speed and could be in place as soon as next year -- giving commuters like Ballines an alternative to bringing their own wheels along for the ride.

Although the idea was developed four years ago, the concept of a bike-sharing program didn't seem a good fit at the time, according to Public Information Officer Brian Steele.

“It was an infancy market,” Steele said. “The market lacked providers and the financial commitment was too large.”

Four years later, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has stepped in to promote bicycle sharing in Chicago. Bicycle Program Coordinator Ben Gomberg credits Emanuel and City of Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein’s vision and leadership for the development of the program, which should reach Chicago by 2012.

Klein, who previously served on Washington D.C.’s District Department of Transportation, looks to bring his bike sharing program to Chicago. According to Gomberg, Klein’s program is financially self-sustaining after one year of operation in D.C., and each bike gets an average of five uses per day.

“The largest system right now is 1,100 bikes in Washington, D.C.,” Gomberg said. “Chicago is proposing to have 5,000 by 2013, largely due to Emanuel’s commitment to establish a robust system in our city.”

Emanuel reissued a request for proposal for a bike-sharing system on Sept. 21, Steele said.

 “We feel that because there are more players in the market, the technology has advanced, and because Chicago clearly has the demand for this type of transportation option,” he said, “we believe we will get a much more broad response to this RFP.”

By early January, a committee will have assessed each proposal and selected a vendor. The plan is to launch the program by summer 2012. Now, the City of Chicago Department of Transportation waits for an RFP response, to be delivered by the Oct. 25 deadline. CDOT has no prospects at this time.

“We want them to do weekly cleanings and maintenance checks of the bicycles, we want them to have a very robust Web presence and a seamless interface with users, and the ability to deploy 300 stations in six months of time,” Steele said.

The RFP states that Chicago’s 2.7 million population, relatively flat streets that make up a suitable bike riding topography, available public space to place stations, and a dense downtown core make it a unique marketplace and ideal fit for a bicycle sharing program.

“Over the next four years, we will establish 100 miles of protected bike lanes,” Gomberg said.

“Chicago has numerous vibrant neighborhoods with commercial strips,” Steele said, “so we know that with 300 stations, we should have a good geographic spread of the initial plan we put together.”

Steele said public input and location will determine locations of the bike sharing. He estimated a weekday population of nearly 600,000 in the central business district alone, making it a logical place for stations, along with Ogilvie Transportation Center, Union Station and Millennium Station.

Likewise, the RFP tailors bike sharing for regular trips to work and school by subscribers, spur of the moment trips, and trips taken by Chicago visitors.

For Chicago commuters, the bike sharing system makes way for an entirely new transit option.

“The bikes will be heavy duty, multispeed, and equipped with fenders and chain guards,” Steele said. “We have yet to pick the exact bike.”

The bicycle sharing system will also serve as the first and last leg of a trip. According to Gomberg, it will really help those who live a mile away from a transit station, especially since bus service has slowed down.

“Ideally people would start by taking the bike to the train station, take the train wherever they’re going, and pick up a bike at the other end,” Gomberg said.              

Chicagoans will have a new way to get around that is convenient, cost efficient, environmentally friendly and enjoyable. Steele sees a great compliment to Chicago’s existing transportation system.   

“The system will be accessible to everybody,” Gomberg said. “A bike can be picked up virtually anywhere in the service area; about every one thousand feet, or two blocks.”

Gomberg described the service area, as starting at the lake, and running west to Western Avenue. It stretches from Belmont Avenue south to 35th Street.

View An interactive guide to the nation's largest bicycle sharing program, to hit Chicago by 2012 in a larger map

The bike sharing system could also be new exposure for non-transit users, a new entry point for people to try transit.

“For example, someone drives to work and parks at one of the central business buildings nearby,” Steele said. “They get called to a meeting at the AON Center on East Randolph. They could walk it in 20 minutes, hop a cab, or simply take a six minute bike ride and park the bike right in front.”

Bike sharing will save time, giving that a bike ride is much quicker than a walk, transit trip and even taxi. Gomberg values the time-saving aspect of a bike sharing program, and sees convenience as the key benefit.

“When people realize they can get around faster and have fun while getting exercise,” he said, “the bike sharing becomes used because it is convenient.”

It will likely give transit riders a significant advantage for how they already use the system. Health and fitness benefits are another plus from the point-to-point system.

“Having two jobs and being a full-time student limits my gym time, and I really love working out,” Ballines said. “Having bicycles to commute around the city would be like killing two birds with one stone; getting in my daily exercise and getting to class on time.”

The RFP envisions health and wellness benefits expansion from bicycle sharing, beyond that of traditional enthusiast groups to everyone living or working in Chicago. Americans now face years of increased obesity and diabetes rates. Steele believes this has tracked directly with how the city has handled transportation, as health and fitness has taken a slide.

He said, “Children no longer bike to school. Technology and the spread of our communities have led to a more sedentary lifestyle, as people get in their car to drive six blocks for an errand.”  

According to CDOT, this commuting method will promote health and fitness through individual specific trips as well as the mentality and attitudes of commuters. Chicago’s environment will also get a lift, through promoting congestion mitigation and a better quality of life.  

“People will be operating a noncarbon generating, zero-emissions vehicle, and bringing down dense congestion in the streets,” Steele said. “Studies have shown that if you remove 3 percent of vehicles from a roadway, that can impact congestion.”

“I take a long walk from Ogilvie to Columbia not only for exercise, but also for the fresh air you cannot get on a bus or train,” Ballines said. She looks forward to the program cutting pollution, and providing a shared bike when she is pressed for time.

Kinzie Cyclist Photo by Holly Pennebaker
A cyclist rides in one of the designated bike lanes along Kinzie Street in Chicago. The lanes, 
along with the proposed
 bike-sharing program, are two ways the city is trying to
be more cycling-friendly. (Photo by Holly Pennebaker)

Steele connects growth in biking to a rise in respect among Chicagoans.

“People will get along better in the public way,” he said. “Respecting the rights of the other modes, everyone who uses the public right of way regardless of their conveyance has rights and responsibilities. When everyone follows the rules, things seem to go smoothly.”

The more bikes that are on the road, the more motorists understand that they belong on the road. The public way is to be used by all members and modes, according to CDOT. Gomberg recalled that studies have shown that the more cyclists on the street, the more visible they are, the safer the situation.  

Safety is CDOT’s first concern. Steele recalled roughly 1,500 bike crashes just last year, including four fatalities. Therefore, CDOT expects a major drop in crashes due to better driving habits and more patience among drivers.

Bike sharing will be cost effective, further benefiting Chicagoans. Although no annual fee for membership has been determined, Gomberg predicts the cost to be around $75 per year for unlimited use, trips under 30 minutes. This figure falls significantly below transit fares, taxi rides and parking costs.

“The estimated cost of the program is $15 to $20 million, “Steele said, “but we won’t have the exact amount until the contract is awarded.”  

The bike sharing system will be launched due to federal funding from the Congestion, Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program. The federal program CMAQ is geared toward projects that promote non-motorized transportation. According to Steele, CMAQ federal dollars will fund 80 percent of the program startup. State or local sources will provide the remaining 20 percent, including equipment and operator costs.  

The CDOT website shows that 1.6 million rides are taken per day on the CTA. As a transit user, Steele contributes to this number. He said he plans to use the program.

“No question about it,” Steele said. “I get called to meetings that are outside of the office. I head out to the OEMC (Office of Emergency Management and Communications) on West Madison occasionally, making for a 15-minute walk, for which I would absolutely hop on a Chicago shared bike.” 

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