A new Divvy station by the Garfield Park Conservatory Credit: John Greenfield

Imagine if the CTA, a public transportation system that’s subsidized by taxpayer dollars, were mostly serving wealthy white folks. That would be bullshit, right?

Last year the Chicago Department of Transportation admitted to a similarly lopsided situation with the publicly funded Divvy network, which was launched in 2013. Its survey of annual members revealed that, as is the case with most U.S. bike-share systems, membership skewed heavily white, affluent, well educated, young, and male.

That finding was no surprise. Arguably, Divvy got off on the wrong foot from a social justice standpoint in 2013, when the city concentrated most of the first 300 docking stations in dense, well-off areas downtown and on the near-north lakefront in an effort to make the system financially sustainable.

And while stations in these areas were generally installed with tight quarter-mile spacing, making it easy to walk to and from the docks from many destinations, the rest of the city typically got less-convenient half-mile spacing. Moreover, the $75 (now $99) annual membership fee and credit card requirements were financial barriers to low-income and unbanked Chicagoans.

To its credit, CDOT has recently taken steps to address Divvy’s equity problem. When the system added 175 more stations last summer, many of them went to low-to-moderate-income, predominantly African-American and Latino communities on the south and west sides.

And last July the department rolled out the Divvy for Everyone (D4E) program, which offers onetime $5 annual memberships to Chicagoans making $35,310 or less a year and waives the credit card requirement. More than 1,300 residents have signed up so far, well over CDOT’s target of 750 for the year.

This summer the Divvy system is expanding to 584 stations and 6,000 bikes, including ten stations in Evanston and 13 in Oak Park (the suburbs lined up their own funding). Of the 85 stations being installed in Chicago, almost all are going to low-to-moderate-income communities of color on the south and west sides.

So far, however, simply dropping stations and bikes in underserved neighborhoods has generally not resulted in good ridership numbers. An analysis by the South Side Weekly found that affluent areas with quarter-mile station density like Lakeview, Lincoln Park, and the Near North Side averaged between 1,500 and 3,000 rides per station in fall 2015. But lower-income neighborhoods like Little Village, Back of the Yards, and Greater Grand Crossing, with half-mile spacing, averaged 100 or fewer trips per station.

To encourage Divvy use in black and Latino communities, CDOT is partnering with bike equity groups like Slow Roll Chicago and Go Bronzeville to spread the word about D4E. In addition, the department’s “bicycling ambassadors” outreach team will offer six weeks of free adult bike-handling classes this summer on the south and west sides only.

Last week I took out one of the big blue bikes and set out for the heavily African-American communities of West Garfield Park and Austin, the first neighborhoods to get docks in this round of installations. I wanted to get local perspectives on whether west-siders are likely to use Divvy.

By the new bike-share station outside the Garfield Park Conservatory, I met Decoties Parks, a construction worker and roofer who was pedaling a mountain bike from his company’s warehouse to his home in nearby West Humboldt Park.

Parks said the expansion of Divvy into the west side is good news for residents who don’t own a bike but would like to start cycling for exercise, or as an alternative to riding crowded buses. After I explained how the D4E program works, he said the $5 memberships would likely appeal to locals. “That’s a good deal for people who ain’t making that much money,” he said.

“I really don’t like the design of the bikes. They look like girls’ bikes. And I’m not into the baby blue.”

—Rob, an Austin resident and substitute teacher

From the conservatory I rode south in the Central Park Avenue bike lane, past the gold dome of the Garfield Park field house and the green space’s shimmering lagoons. I checked out the station at Central Park and Fifth Avenue, kitty-corner from Leif Ericson elementary. Although you have to be 16 to use Divvy and the station sits next to a vacant lot, the Harvest Homes affordable housing development is under construction on another lot nearby, so the bikes could be useful for future residents.

Heading southwest on Fifth along the south side of Garfield Park, I stopped by a basketball game to talk with Patrick Shields, 42, a car-wash worker from nearby Lawndale who was watching the action astride his bike.

Shields was only dimly aware of how Divvy works. “We just see them sitting there, but we don’t know what you gotta do to rent them,” he said. “I hear that they ride pretty good, but you have to have a credit card.” I explained that you don’t need plastic for a D4E membership.

From there I passed by the intersection of Jackson and Hamlin, where a police officer ran a red light last Tuesday evening on the way to a “shots fired” call, injuring a young woman on a bike. Although Police News Affairs told me the squad car had its emergency lights on at the time, videos of the the aftermath of the crash posted on Facebook include the voices of witnesses stating that the officer hadn’t activated his lights or siren.

Next I headed west on a bustling stretch of Madison filled with sportswear and beauty supply stores. A docking station was installed just past Pulaski, across from YOLO Ladies Wear & Shoes. Sylvester Luke, a contractor, was standing nearby, with a tape measure on his hip and a full-size bike pump bungeed to the frame of his Giant hybrid bike. “I always carry utensils, so if I catch a flat I can fix it and keep moving on,” he explained.

Luke said he’s not interested in becoming a Divvy member because he owns two bikes and a car. I explained that even if you have your own bicycle, bike-share is handy for all kinds of trips where you want to pedal part of the way but not all of it.

When I mentioned that annual memberships cost $99, Luke whistled with disbelief. “I’d have to scrimp and save to come up with that money,” he said. I told him about D4E—at this point I was starting to feel like an evangelist for the program.

The $5 option got Luke interested, but when I explained that Divvy is intended for short trips and errands—you’re only supposed to keep the bikes for 30 minutes at a time—he said that was a deal breaker. “They should at least give you an hour or two, just like they do with bus transfers,” he said.

As I was about to pedal away, a McDonalds employee named Teraneka Moore called after me, “Do you need a credit card to rent the bikes?” I gave my spiel about D4E. “Five dollars a year?” she responded. “It’s likely everybody will join that program.”

Rolling northwest, I visited the station by Austin Park at Lake and Austin, across the street from suburban Oak Park. Rob, an Austin resident and substitute teacher who asked to be identified by his first name only, was riding a Fuji hybrid with his smartphone rubber-banded to the handlebars.

Rob told me he’d considered checking out a Divvy recently when he needed to travel across the Loop, but had decided to walk instead. “I really don’t like the design of the bikes,” he said, referring to the step-through frame. “They look like girls’ bikes. And I’m not into the baby blue.”

While Rob said he thinks bike-share will be a hit in relatively prosperous Oak Park, he was incredulous that the system would get much use in struggling Austin. “People here are not going to support it,” he said. “To be totally honest, I think they’d rather steal a bike than rent one.”

But when I explained how D4E works, Rob conceded that the $5 memberships might win some folks over. “The problem is, nobody out here knows about that program,” he said. “If the city wants people out here to use these bikes, they’re going to need to step up the marketing and PR and focus on our neighborhoods.”

CDOT, are you paying attention? Looks like it might be worth investing in some additional Divvy-vangelism. v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.