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What the $5 Divvy Membership Means for Chicago

Divvy’s new discount for low-income Chicagoans doesn’t just grant access to bike-share. It incentivizes it.

Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune

When Chicago’s bike-share program launched in summer 2013, the response from most of my peers—then-floundering recent grads—was that it was a cool idea, but financially untenable. At $7 a day or $75 a year, it was a half-valid excuse, and one that got plucked today with the rollout of Rahm’s “Divvy for Everyone” program, which gives $5 memberships to Chicagoans earning less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level (about $35,000 a year). That’s right: For more than 15 percent of Chicagoans, it’s now cheaper to ride Divvy year-round than it is to take a single ride.

Launched with cycling equity groups Slow Roll Chicago and Go Bronzeville, Divvy for Everyone aims to increase accessibility to bike-share in low-income neighborhoods, which the program has been criticized for neglecting since day one. (The first wave of 300 stations were placed in destination-dense areas, resulting in half-mile gaps between docks south of Roosevelt and a primarily Northern ridership.) The new deep discount is seemingly part of a two-step course correction to diversify Divvy, rolled out just months after 176 new stations were added south to 75th and west to Pulaski. Even teenagers are eligible for the new $5 membership.

One important caveat: The $5 membership is a one-time, one-year thing. Meaning you’ll be back up to regular rates after 12 months with the program.

But the discount does more than grant access to bike-share; it incentivizes it. For Chicago’s working poor, Divvy is now far and away the cheapest means of travel. Those previously tied to busses and trains can now opt to pocket $4.50 a day in round-trip fare, which adds up to more than $1,000 a year for those prepped to bike through winter. Fully realized, a dirt-cheap bike-share could even curb bus and train ridership, enacting all those environmental benefits Divvy’s price previously blocked on a large scale.

There are public health perks too, though they’re admittedly less quantifiable: Chicago’s highest BMIs are concentrated in its poorest neighborhoods, and while a cheap bike-share won’t put health-food stores in South- and West-Side food deserts, it could cut the trips residents need to take to them from three bus rides to a single Divvy. The extra exercise doesn’t hurt, either.

The discount program is imperfect, of course. After your $5 year is up, it’s back to a $75 membership (though by then diligent riders could have saved up for 13 years of Divvy in pocketed bus fare). More problematic is how the city will handle overages: The Mayor’s press release trumpets that residents don’t need a credit or debit card to sign up for a $5 membership, but doesn’t explain what they’ll use as collateral for filched bikes and fees ($1.50 for surpassing Divvy’s 30-minute time limit, $4.50 for every half-hour after that, and $1,200 for 24 hours e.g. a stolen bike). Still, it’s a huge move for a system that’s already accrued serious bragging rights.

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