With Divvy leaving Oak Park, it’s a good time to reflect on how we got here. As a long-time resident of Oak Park, I was happy when the village decided to use a state grant in partnership with Chicago and Evanston to offer Divvy bike share, starting in 2016.
We know that bike sharing systems like Divvy don’t work well in typical American suburbs where destinations can be far apart and roads unfriendly to people on bikes.
But Oak Park isn’t a typical suburb. It’s population density (larger is better for bike sharing operations) is the same as Philadelphia and twice as large as American cities with successful bike share programs like Denver.
Oak Park also has seven CTA rail stations and one Metra station (riding to and from transit is a popular Divvy trip) and thousands of people moving into the downtown area over the next few years.
Bike sharing is successful when its convenience entices experienced and new cyclists alike (54 percent of Divvy members own a bike, while others rediscover cycling through Divvy) to ride where they normally wouldn’t.
Many regular bike commuters like me use Divvy, even though we typically ride our own bikes to work. But we are just two percent of the population. The target market for Divvy is the other 98 percent who don’t bike very often, or not at all.
With that in mind, in 2014 Active Trans advised Oak Park that Divvy ridership would likely be so-so in the early years unless the village’s bike plan was implemented in parallel to create more comfortable bike routes, and unless more Divvy stations were added to make it work for more people and trip combinations.
Unfortunately, these changes weren’t made, and ridership was, not surprisingly, modest.
Without a network of connected bike routes that avoid heavy or fast-moving traffic, the typical American rarely rides a bike, Divvy or otherwise. Oak Park lacks this network, and that was strike one against Divvy in Oak Park.
Strike two was that 13 Divvy stations provided insufficient coverage. Many people who live, work and visit Oak Park would like to let Divvy worry about oiling the chain, filling the tires and locking the bike, but the station locations weren’t convenient for many trips.
Strike three for Divvy was that, despite Oak Park’s progressive reputation, the village has not prioritized walking, biking and transit investments. Like most suburbs, these modes are last in line for funding but the first to be scrutinized for costs and benefits, while roads and parking that are more heavily subsidized get a pass.
We thought it made sense to give Divvy in Oak Park another year. Village staff had negotiated cost reductions and revenue enhancements with Divvy, thousands of potential Divvy customers are moving into downtown Oak Park, and of course cycling is a healthier and more sustainable alternative to driving. Heck, the village’s annual Divvy expense (about $200K) would have been just half of what is budgeted for parking signs alone ($400K).
Nonetheless, the board canceled Divvy on a 4-3 vote.
But trustees said they want to support cycling in Oak Park. That would be a welcome change! Nearly all transportation infrastructure is subsidized by government. Biking and walking deserve their fair share and don’t get it in Oak Park and most suburbs.
The newly formed Bike Walk Oak Park coalition wants to leverage this moment to fund bike plan implementation and to secure a standing line item in the Oak Park budget for biking, walking and accessibility. And with bike share evolving quickly, Oak Park will have another chance to get bike share right down the road.