Slow Roll Chicago riders in West Humboldt Park neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago in 2015.
Slow Roll Chicago riders in West Humboldt Park neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago in 2015. Oboi Reed/Equiticity

Activist Oboi Reed want to help low-income users borrow a set of wheels.

Chicago is making strides in getting more black and brown people on bikes, but the Windy City isn’t moving fast enough, according to local activist Oboi Reed. His solution: “bike libraries.”

Reed is the co-founder of Slow Roll Chicago, an offshoot of Slow Roll Detroit. Both groups host community rides to get more people of color cycling. In December 2017, Reed resigned from Slow Roll to focus on his new nonprofit, Equiticity, with an expanded mandate to tackle racial equity, increased mobility, and racial justice in biking. Now he’s working on a program that would give low-to-moderate-income residents the opportunity to borrow a bike—for free—from a community organization, for up to three months.

It will cost $150,000 to operate the bike libraries for a year, Reed estimates, and he’s already lined up a pair of private bikeshare companies to act as partners. The hope is to launch the program this fall.

But Equiticity’s agenda only begins with bike libraries: Reed sees that program as just one first step toward creating a safe, discrimination-free environment to ride. He hopes to mobilize black and brown Chicagoans to join his pursuit for equity—which, to him, means “the fair, just distribution of resources explicitly targeting and prioritizing the people who need it most and who are in the position to benefit most,” he said. “In our city, that’s communities of color.”

The bikshare problem Reed is trying to fix

Chicago has a city-run bikeshare program—Divvy, which has been around since 2013. Divvy general manager Michael Critzon insists that creating access for all residents is a top priority. “Biking should be for everyone, and we are proud to provide a seamless way to get around for Chicago residents and visitors alike,” he said.

But when it launched, the majority of Divvy dock stations were placed downtown and in the city’s whiter, more affluent neighborhoods. That’s where residents were more likely to shell out $75 for an annual membership or $7 for a daily pass that lets them ride up to 30 minutes at a time.

Unsurprisingly, the station locations and price points received some backlash from bicycling advocates like Reed, who pushed the system to do better—and it worked. In 2015, Divvy began to place dock stations in more South Side and West Side neighborhoods and the suburban areas of Evanston and Oak Park. That’s where black and brown Chicagoans, who make up about two-thirds of the city’s population, largely live.

Later that year, the Chicago Department of Transportation introduced Divvy for Everyone (D4E), a discounted program for low-income Chicagoans funded by a grant from the Better Bikeshare Partnership and BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois.

Oboi Reed on his bike in Chicago. (Equiticity)

The program allows Chicagoans whose annual household incomes are at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level—that’s about $35,310 annual for an individual living alone—to snag an annual membership for just $5. If they want to sign up for a second year, the price goes up to $50 upfront. In the third year, they pay the standard annual membership, which is $99 as of 2016. Unbanked participants have the option to pay in cash.

The D4E program now has more than 3,500 members, and it’s very diverse: 28 percent of users are white, another 28 percent are black, and 27 percent are Asian, according to information gathered by a local community finance group. (The remaining members define themselves as biracial and multiracial.) In the ethnicity breakdown, non-Hispanics made up 82.3 percent of users who took advantage of the $5 memberships, and Hispanics made up 12.4 percent. (For context: Chicago is roughly a third black, a third white, a third Hispanic, and roughly 6 percent Asian.)

But D4E riders make up a very small subset of the larger city bikeshare ecosystem. They’re a tenth of Divvy’s 35,000-strong overall ridership. And that larger cohort seems to have gotten whiter in the last two years, according to the findings of a 2017 Divvy member survey reported by Streetsblog Chicago.

While Divvy stations now cover 100 square miles, Reed argues that they are still out of reach for residents in several non-white neighborhoods. And even in black and brown neighborhoods where Divvy stations do exist, he has perceived that both membership and ridership are comparably low. A recent editorial in the Chicago Tribune backs up his observation, citing the lack of walkability and bike infrastructure in the South and West Sides.

Reed thinks that bike libraries might offer a homegrown alternative to Divvy’s model, which allows eligible Chicagoans to borrow the bike just like a book from a library. Similar collectives have popped up in other cities, from London to Santa Cruz to Iowa City, but this would be Chicago’s first. “We want to give people the space and time without a lot of pressure to explore how bikes fit into their lifestyle,” Reed said. “The idea is that they’ll start riding more and eventually get to the place where they see an important role for bikes in their lifestyle and over time are willing to pay for it—you pay for things that you assign value to.”

The libraries could also host group rides—like the ones Reed organized with Slow Roll—and workshops on skills like bike maintenance.

If it comes together, the program would be the city’s first foray into dockless bikes, as the China-based company Ofo agreed to provide 100 bikes to Equiticity for West Side residents in North Lawndale, where Divvy stations are scarce. Ofo spokesperson Taylor Bennett said the company decided to partner on the project because they’ve made a “commitment to creating a more equitable, accessible world.” Meanwhile, JUMP, a New-York-based electric dockless bike company, will stock bikes in the South Side’s Riverdale neighborhood, where there are no Divvy stations at all.

Bike equity goes beyond bikes

The bike library program is only the first prong of Equiticity’s plan. The organization will also address another barrier to cycling for black and brown residents: police harassment.

Chicago is well known for the broken relationship between communities of color and the police. Reed points to the furor over the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald and reports that police disproportionately target black people for minor transgressions like jaywalking and riding bikes on sidewalks. According to Chicago police data, about 56 percent of all bike tickets in 2017 were issued in majority black communities compared to 24 and 18 percent in Latino and white neighborhoods, respectively. Such disparities in policing practices have existed for a long time.

“All of this structural violence could be disruptive to a person's physical self or them as a person of the world who has to go work the next day, pay bills—people are concerned about all of that kind of stuff,” Reed said.

Slow Roll Chicago riders in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago in 2015. (Oboi Reed/Equiticity)

Last year, Reed began pushing for equity in Chicago’s Vision Zero campaign to eliminate all death and serious injury from traffic crashes in the city by 2026. Echoing activists in other cities, Reed said he “ferociously” disagrees with how Mayor Rahm Emanuel planned and implemented the city’s Vision Zero approach, which emphasizes stepped-up law enforcement. That could disproportionately penalize Chicago's lower-income communities of color, who are themselves more likely to be victims of traffic violence.

In response, Reed presented the mayor’s office with nine requests to restructure the program to include more community involvement and ensure that traffic law enforcement is equitable across the city. Officials were willing to find common ground on some of the asks, but did not agree to his most ambitious one: removing police enforcement from the program, especially in communities of color. That’s something that he’ll continue to fight for with Equiticity.

To pursue this and other goals, Reed is banking on the communities where he spends his time educating and elevating.

“While myself and a few other people advocating for equity may be somewhat effective, what’s more effective is 10,000 black folks saying equity is the way forward,” he said. “The results that we want require a power base that has identified equity as a priority and is willing to mobilize and organize. That’s why I’m more interested in working at the neighborhood level and not spending all of my time trying to convince the mayor to do the right thing.”

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