In Bronzeville, some concerns about spread of bike sharing
By Zoë Fisher
Located at the corner of 35th and State streets in Bronzeville, a row of powder blue Divvy bikes await their next customer.
Divvy and Mayor Rahm Emanuel say the program is beneficial to the South Side community, but biking advocates and other elected officials say the biking expansion should be more controlled — and not come at the expense of low-income residents.
The Divvy bike-share program has expanded particularly in Bronzeville, one of the fastest gentrifying communities in Chicago. The program tries to help the surrounding community by offering affordable transportation, such as free rides on some weekends.
The increase of Divvy stations on the South Side and a new Divvy program that offers significant discounts to low-income people has had a transformative impact in Bronzeville, says Olatunji Reed, who co-owns the biking initiative Slow Roll, which works to bring about social change.
He sees Bronzeville as a particularly viable space for Divvy because of the neighborhood’s proximity to the lake and downtown.
But Slow Roll wants to reclaim what biking in Bronzeville means for the African-American community.
“We want to own the activity of cycling and maintain the culture and history which makes the neighborhood special in the first place,” Reed says.
Bordered by the Dan Ryan expressway and Lake Michigan, Bronzeville is known as Chicago’s “Black Metropolis” and is credited as the birthplace of African-American culture in the United States in the early 20th century.
While still overwhelmingly African-American, the community is seeing demographic shifts. From 1990 to 2000, for example, the two community areas that encompass Bronzeville saw a decrease in the African-American population of 21 percent while the white population grew by 23 percent.
Other companies besides Divvy have worked to reinvigorate Bronzeville in recent years. The Illinois Institute of Technology, U.S. Cellular Field, Starbucks, Jimmy John’s and Frozen Yogurt, all built before 2010, can be seen from the Divvy bike station at 35th and State.
But a point of contention with Divvy in Bronzeville is the quality and quantity of the bikes. Earlier this school year, the station on 35th and Martin Luther King Drive had three bikes, two of which had shredded black seat cushions, with pieces of litter around the base. By comparison, the bike station on 35th and State displayed seven bikes in good condition in front of a manicured IIT lawn.
Douglas, a South Side community area that includes Bronzeville’s 35th Street, saw an 87 percent increase in the median income from 2000 to 2010, according to city data. But the median family income is still half the average Chicago family’s, according to 2010 data.
Divvy has made a conscious effort to appeal to low-income bikers around the city.
“In two years Divvy has grown to more neighborhoods and become a transit option for more residents, but cost was still a barrier for too many people,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a press release about Divvy for Everyone, the discount program. “Divvy only works when everyone has a chance to use it.”
April Cooley, a lifetime Bronzeville resident, said she didn’t think the Divvy bike program had affected the area’s African-American community. She said she observes mostly non-black customers riding it.
Slow Roll’s Reed says more people are using the bikes and are more open to the idea of bike sharing.
But there are still concerns about cost.
Regina Davis, another lifetime Bronzeville resident and graduate student, said the current $10 all-day pass was more expensive than the program she used in Minneapolis. Nice-Ride Minnesota offers a 24-hour pass for $3 less and a yearly pass for $10 less than Divvy.
Divvy for Everyone offers low- to middle-income Chicagoans a one-time $5 membership, at a $60 markdown. Bronzeville stands to benefit from the program since just over one in five residents qualify as low-income, according to the Heartland Alliance’s Social Impact Research Center.
Last spring Divvy added 174 stations, bringing the total number to 477. In spite of these added stations, more than a million Chicagoans still live in neighborhoods without Divvy, the majority being black or Latino, an analysis by the Chicago Reporter found.
Community support oscillates when it comes to implementing bike programs.
“The city was doing a lot of bike projects fast, and talking with the community was not always a priority,” Chicago Alderman Pat Dowell wrote on a biking blog.
Dowell represents the 3rd Ward, which includes parts of Bronzeville. Citizens are concerned about spending money on bike lanes when their neighborhoods are plagued by poverty and crime, she said.
Each station costs the City of Chicago $56,000, including bikes, according to Michael Claffey, a spokesperson for the city.
Divvy has tried to appeal to different demographics. The amount of users who are “non-white” increased by 10 percent in the last year as Divvy worked to make its bikes more accessible, Claffey said.