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The Bike Sharing You Don't Know

Divvy rider commuting to work on a fall day. Photo: ZappaWheels

The Divvy bike sharing system in Chicago has been a phenomenal success supporting over 10 million rides since its launch in 2013. For those of us that have used Divvy the impact to our streets has been nothing sort of amazing. What you may not know however is the positive impact that Divvy has on the underserved and underemployed in our society. ​​

Divvy is a program of the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), which owns the city’s bikes, stations and vehicles. CDOT’s vision is to ensure that Chicago continues to be a vibrant international city, successfully competing in the global economy with a transportation system that provides high-quality service to residents, businesses, and visitors – a system that offers a solid foundation for the city, regional and national economies, yet is sensitive to its communities and environment.

I spoke with Elliot Greenberger, General Manager of Divvy about the nature of the oganization and its role in the Chicago community. He underscored that while Divvy is a business, it is a mission-driven business ultimately supporting bike sharing to make the city better. This is embedded into the organization's culture and reflected in its hiring practices.

To support this mission Divvy hires graduates of Skills for Chicagoland Future, and Greencorps Chicago. The former is a public-private partnership whose mission is to close the workforce skills gap and move the unemployed into open positions. The latter is a wonderful example of a program that helps individuals on the margins of society gain the skills needed to return to work.

GreenCorp Chicago participants are working in a lot and preparing for a ride.

Building Workforce Skills with Greencorps Chicago

Greencorps Chicago is a public/private partnership started 22 years ago by the City of Chicago to establish community gardens. Over time, the initiative has morphed into sustainability-based training for folks with challenges in their lives. The goal today is to help people overcome barriers to employment, which includes low education attainment, substance abuse. or a history with the criminal justice system.

I spoke with Sean Wiedel Assistant Commissioner at Citywide Services Section for the Chicago Department of Transportation about the program. It lasts a year and includes green job training such as urban tree care, urban landscaping, as well as social services to help participants overcome barriers in their lives. Additionally, the program offers job readiness training including interviewing skills, resume writing, and other skills to equip individuals for success in reentering the workforce. 

A sister Greencorps Chicago youth program to support at-risk high schoolers has also been developed. The program offers six weeks of paid work experience for youth (ages 16-19) attending a Chicago Public School which is at risk for violence. The program teaches biking skills, planning your route, and sustainability.  

The City of Chicago provides its own staffing for the programs and seed money each year to support training and wrap-around services. The program also generates its own revenue by placing individuals with different employers including the Chicago Park District, Cook County Forest Preserve, and Divvy.

Congressman Mike Quigley (IL) working with Divvy mechanics on bike repairs in their warehouse station in Chicago, IL.

Managing Bike Sharing in Chicago

For Divvy, each bike in the entire fleet is inspected monthly to ensure proper working order. This translates into nearly 6000 bicycle checkups each month. The review includes inspection of the brakes, lubrication, and lights, with bikes flagged for maintenance if necessary. The job is performed by a Bike Checker which is an entry level role into the organization.

Divvy hires graduates of Greencorps Chicago youth program into the Bike Checker job role. For many it's their first job. The program has successfully hired up to 15 individuals annually. Many of the graduates have shared they like being outside and interacting with neighborhoods. Over time, there is an opportunity for promotion into the role of Bike Mechanic.

Divvy has also hired individuals from the Greencorps Chicago adult program for the Bike Rebalancer roles. These jobs ensure that each bike station has adequate bikes. On a daily basis the team of bike rebalancers move the bikes to where they are needed. ​

Divvy van used for re-balancing. Photo:

When I asked about the impact of Divvy hiring individuals form Greencorps Chicago, ​Sean recounted a story. Three years ago, several classmates attended an at risk high-school in Chicago. One of the students participated in Greencorps Chicago and got a job with Divvy. This past summer the former classmates met again and learned that one of their peers was working at Divvy. The group was fascinated by the encounter and shared that they didn't know such jobs were possible.

For Elliot, hiring Greencorps Chicago graduates is a way to bring talent into the organization to make the bike sharing system work and support the mission. He notes,"we try to make it look easy, but at any time there are over 100 people behind the scenes making it work."​

Expanding Bike Share Access Through Divvy

To further support its mission, Divvy launched Divvy for Everyone in 2015. - the program intended as a way for low-income individuals to participate in bike sharing. It includes a one time $5 subsidized membership. No credit or debit card are required so the unbanked can pay with cash. To date over 1700 qualifying individuals have participated in Divvy for Everyone.

In conjunction CDOT, Divvy has also committed to provide equitable access to bike-sharing through-out the community. To support this effort, they established new equity sitting criteria for the placement of bike stations. High potential areas were then identified for future bike stations which are shown on the accompanying map of Chicago. And recent investments have followed. In January CDOT announced 75 additional bike stations expanding into new neighborhoods that include Austin and Garfield Park on the west side; Burnside, Chatham, Greater Grand Crossing, Brighton Park and Englewood on the south side.

Map denoting high-potential bike share equity locations. Source: City of Chicago

For those of us that use bike sharing, and Divvy in particular, getting somewhere easily from point A to point B is the primary goal. But it is nice to know that behind the scenes Divvy is creating a positive impact in the Chicago community.

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