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Dockless bike sharing lands in Chicago as part of a new pilot program

Zach Long
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Zach Long

Since launching in 2013, Divvy has been the only bike-sharing option in Chicago, but residents in some parts of the city will soon have a new way to rent a pair of wheels. Streetsblog Chicago was the first to report that CDOT has issued a permit for dockless bike-sharing companies to begin operating in the city as part of a pilot program that will launch on May 1 and run through November 1, 2018. According to the permit released by CDOT, the pilot will only take place on the South Side of Chicago, roughly encompassing the area between 79th and 138th Streets, Pulaski Road and I-90 (the majority of which does not contain Divvy docks).

Dockless bike-share users utilize an app to locate a bike, rent it (usually for about $1 per hour), ride it to their destination and then leave it locked on the sidewalk or street. Much like Divvy, companies that operate dockless bikes have teams on the ground performing maintenance and balancing their fleet, making sure that bikes are spread across the service area.

Multiple vendors will be able to operate in Chicago throughout the pilot, but they'll each have to adhere to the rules dictated by the city. The permit requires that vendors have previous experience operating a dockless bike-share service in a city of more than 500,000 people, which rules out local or regional startups that may want to enter the industry. The permit also limits the number of dockless bikes that each vendor can place in the pilot area to 250, and all of those bikes will need to have "lock-to technology" (the ability to lock a bike to another object, such as a bike stand or signpost) by July 1. Many dockless bike vendors use wheel-lock cycles, which feature a mechanism that prevents the bikes' wheels from moving when a rider's rental is finished—vendors will initially be able to put up to 50 of these bikes on the streets in Chicago, but will have to transition to "lock-to" bikes by July 1.

While there's not yet an official list of the bike vendors that will be taking part in Chicago's dockless bike-share pilot program, Streetsblog Chicago was able to confirm that LimeBike and Zagster will launch in the city next week, and that Ofo (a Chinese-owned company) also plans to participate in the pilot.

Though the city's willingness to experiment with dockless bike-sharing programs is encouraging, the methodology for this pilot program doesn't seem ideal. Allowing vendors to bring only 250 bikes into a rather large swath of the city's South Side will likely make it difficult for residents to find a bike when they need one. Balancing such a small fleet of bikes within a large area will also be challenging for the vendors—the city is requiring each company to keep at least 15 percent of their fleet in each quadrant of the pilot area.

Much like the recently announced pilot for the Car2GO car-sharing service, the arrival of dockless bike sharing in Chicago is promising, but there's no guarantee that these services will be allowed to stick around once the pilot is finished.

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