Will Piper, of LimeBike, pedals through Rockford. Credit: John Greenfield

Move over, Divvy: a new form of bike share could be coming to town.

And riders who use this service won’t have to hunt for a station to return the bikes to: the so-called “dockless” bikes can be parked pretty much anywhere.

After months of radio silence about whether Chicago will let dockless bike share come to town, last week city officials finally confirmed that they met with vendors in March and could launch a pilot in the near future.

Dockless bike share, which some call “DoBi,” lets members use a smartphone app to locate and use the rental bikes—which can be left anywhere in a designated service area. The dockless companies, propped up by venture capitalists, offer cheap rental rates, generally $1 for a half-hour trip, compared to $3 for a single Divvy journey (which until recently required you to either buy an annual membership or rent the bikes for at least 24 hours).

The new bikes are rolling out in cities across the country, including Rockford, which earlier this month got 500 bright green bikes maintained by the San Mateo company LimeBike. That company is one of several vying to operate in Chicago—causing concerns among other operators because Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s former top adviser, David Spielfogel, is on LimeBike’s board of directors.

Still, many groups are eager to see the dockless bikes come to Chicago. The Chicago-based transportation justice group Equiticity has argued that dockless technology should be deployed immediately to bring shared bikes to outlying neighborhoods that don’t yet have Divvy stations.

Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Claffey confirmed that officials recently met with DoBi companies.

“We will be assessing their operational impacts and their business models to ensure that we can advance the city’s transportation goals of providing safe and affordable transportation options for all Chicagoans,” Claffey said in an e-mail. Officials want to prevent dockless cycles from becoming hazards parked in the middle of sidewalks, eyesores—or worse. (Pictures of LimeBikes and other dockless bikes dismantled or in other strange places have made the rounds on Twitter.)

Officials also want to keep vendors from undercutting Divvy—which received $30 million in city and federal funding to help it launch—and driving it out of business.

To that end, former Active Transportation Alliance director Randy Neufeld, now with the SRAM Cycling Fund (which bankrolls bike projects worldwide), has asserted that dockless bikes should be confined to parts of Chicago that don’t currently have bike share. That’s an approach New York City might take.   

The current leadership of Active Trans doesn’t share Neufeld’s opinion that dockless should be limited to neighborhoods currently without Divvy. But the group wants the city to charge the DoBi companies for access to the public way and use the revenue to fund new bike infrastructure, especially in neighborhoods with few relatively few bike lanes or racks, said governmental affairs director Kyle Whitehead.

The companies at the March meeting with CDOT, according to a source familiar with the gathering, included Santa Monica-based CycleHop, New York’s Jump Bikes (which was recently purchased by Uber), LimeBike, Beijing-based Ofo, San-Francisco-based Spin, and Zagster, of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Gabriel Scheer, director of strategic development for LimeBike, said city staffers asked vendors how they planned to serve all parts of Chicago equitably, and how they would provide access for people without smartphones or credit cards. The officials also asked how the companies would ensure the bikes didn’t create conflict with other uses of public space. “Basically they wanted to know, do you play well with others,” Scheer said.

Ofo spokesman Taylor Bennett said his company is “eager to extend our affordable and accessible bike -haring platform to even more Chicagoans.” Ofo and Jump are providing cycles for low-tech “bike libraries” offering bikes to borrow on the far south side and in North Lawndale this spring.

While some cities, including Seattle, Dallas, and Washington, D.C., have multiple companies offering the bikes, others, like Rockford, have granted exclusive access to one company. A dockless bike industry professional, who asked not to be named, told me there’s concern among operators that if Chicago grants an exclusive contract, LimeBike might have an unfair advantage. In addition to Spielfogel, who as the mayor’s right-hand man was nicknamed “Mini-Rahm,” ex-CDOT deputy commissioner Scott Kubly now runs LimeBike’s government operations. (Meanwhile, former CDOT commissioner Gabe Klein is on Spin’s advisory board.) “Companies are hoping that there will be a transparent [request for proposals] to shine a light on the process,” the source said. 

LimeBike spokeswoman Emma Green called the concern a “nonissue,” claiming that neither Spielfogel nor Kubly is lobbying in Chicago, and added that Kubly left CDOT more than four years ago. CDOT’s Claffey declined to comment on the subject.

LimeBike launched its Rockford fleet on April 7. I visited the city of 150,000 last week and met up with local LimeBike staffers Will Piper and Gwen Jones for a bike tour of the city. As we rode, walkers and drivers called out questions about the bright green bikes and asked how to rent them.

After chatting with a few LimeBike users, who seemed stoked about the service, we took a spin north on the lovely path along the Rock River. At one point, a jogger yelled, “Go LimeBike! Making Rockford better.”

It hasn’t been completely smooth sailing, however. A couple times during our journey Piper stopped to relocate bikes that were partially obstructing the sidewalk. And there have been news reports about dockless bikes stuffed into a planter and hanging from a tree.

Still, there’s one guy who’s confident that LimeBike will be a shot in the arm for the city: Cheap Trick lead guitarist Rick Nielsen. He still lives in Rockford and is a bike enthusiast.

Nielsen told me he plans to start using bike share soon. “LimeBike should be great for Rockford once people know what it is,” he said. “Anything that brings positive attention to the town is a good thing in my book.”

Dockless bike share could have a similarly beneficial effect for Chicago, especially for neighborhoods that don’t have Divvy docks. Let’s give it a try. v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.