Holtzman: Evanston should invest in dockless bike-share, ditch Divvy

Rachel Holtzman, Op-Ed Contributor

Evanston’s relationship with bikes is constantly evolving. Last week, the Evanston renewed a 12-month contract with Divvy Bikes, which launched 10 Evanston stations in late 2016. During the next year, City Council will collect data on the bike stations, the revenue brought in and possible relocation of stations. With two stations on Northwestern’s campus, Divvy and the bike-share industry are now connected with the University.

Yet on a campus where biking to class and around town is popular, there hasn’t been much student support for these programs. The numbers are bleak: According to data collected by the University, during the 2016-2017 school year, 640 unique riders took 821 trips and racked up a total of 1,619 miles, averaging less than two miles per trip. Due to an expensive membership price of $99 a year and a limited station radius, Divvy bikes are not fulfilling their true potential. Meanwhile, data hasn’t been released on user demographics, but with stations concentrated in downtown Evanston, it is likely that not all residents have equal access to the bikes. In other suburbs, such as Oak Park, the experiment has already failed and the contract expired.

Enter Ofo, a dockless bike-share company in contract talks for a pilot program with NU. Across the country, from Washington to Dallas, dockless bike-share is changing the face of transportation as we know it. The idea is simple and affordable: Riders download a GPS app to unlock a bike, pay $1 per hour and can park wherever they choose by locking the bike’s back wheels. With this new technology, Evanston would be remiss not to allow all residents to get in on the dockless bike-share revolution.

Before the concept of bike-share, Evanston began modernizing its streets and its infrastructure, earning praise for its efforts to reduce car traffic. As a result, bus lines, the Metra and the El are more accessible than ever before. But the number of bikers has increased, too, and Evanston has had to change its face to meet those demands — the bike lane on Sheridan Road being the clearest example. The infrastructure and demand are already here, but Evanston needs to implement new programs that complement its changing streets.

Then there’s the matter of economic access. Dockless bike-share doesn’t just cut down on carbon emissions or fulfill the needs of hobby bikers; it actively erases transportation deserts, narrowing gaps in access to jobs, food, pharmacies and opportunities. Because the bikes can be unlocked and relocked anywhere within city limits, those without access to trains and buses can get around to previously inaccessible destinations at a fraction of the cost. Beyond Evanston, the Chicagoland area could learn from the examples of cities like Seattle, where despite the occasional parking issue, dockless bike-share has become a big part of city life.

And at the end of the day, while bike-share companies are looking to make a profit, they’re ultimately finding ways to improve the communities in which they set up. Critics have complained about the “ugliness” of bikes on streets and the danger of stolen bikes, but bike-share companies often have employees on the ground to redistribute bikes, park them appropriately and deal with any damages.

If Evanston is going to adapt to its residents’ transportation needs and set trends for innovation, dockless bike-share would be a logical fit. It puts more bikes in the hands of people than ever before and does a better job of connecting outlying wards in the city to each other, as well as easing the borders between campus and downtown. The conditions are already there for success within our city infrastructure. Now, it’s in the hands of the University and Evanston to do more than talk about signing contracts with dockless bike-share startups — they must move forward to solve the problems Divvy just couldn’t fix.

Rachel Holtzman is a Medill senior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.