Guest Post: Do the CTA and Divvy exist in ‘virtual silos’?

June 8, 2014 at 8:36 am

This guest post comes by way of Samuel Baron, a Master of Urban Studies student at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. His iterests include transportation, land use, urban design and technology. Twitter @samuelfbaron.

As I’ve expressed before, Chicago’s transportation systems live in relative isolation from each other – mainly our two rail systems, Metra and CTA, which do not yet usefully coordinate fares or ticketing systems for the benefit of riders. Samuel writes that Divvy, Chicagos “newest transportation system,” should be better integrated with our other public transport systems. Certainly this is an intended purpose of bike share – usage patterns in cities like New York have revealed that many people take the bicycles from train stations to go to employment centers, but the relationship could be more obvious. Realistically, this could be possible by integrating Ventra with Divvy (whose docks have card readers), by integrating the fares (think of a 25-cent Divvy transfer), and other ideas that bring Divvy away from being just a bike to being a well-integrated link in our transportation infrastructure.

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Image: Samuel Barton.

The photo above was taken at Franklin Street and Chicago Avenue on a recent visit to the Windy City. Being from a city that lacks a bikeshare system, I couldn’t help but feel admiration and envy for the shiny, bright blue infrastructure nestled alongside the city’s famous L train.

It is no act of serendipity that the Divvy bikeshare station pictured above is located adjacent to a Brown and Purple line station. The Chicago Department of Transportation was attentive in its placements, locating stations in neighborhoods with higher density and transit accessibility. This is no surprise considering bikeshare is touted as playing a role in the ‘last mile of commuting’, feeding directly into the entire Chicago Transit Authority network.

Yet, despite this strategic positioning, Chicago’s mobility investments are not being optimized to their full potential. While traversing the city, I became painfully aware that CTA and Divvy exist in virtual silos. At the moment, it isn’t possible to plan a mixed­mode trip itinerary comprised of both CTA and Divvy services. To plan this multimodal trip, one must route the trip manually, switching back and forth between various mobile applications.

Screen grabs from the two apps I used for navigating Chicago, the CTA Tracker and Chicago Bike Guide.

Screen grabs from the two apps I used for navigating Chicago, the CTA Tracker and Chicago Bike Guide.

This digital redundancy undermines the utility offered by real­time transit data and digital trip planning. In design­speak, this is poor user experience. [Ed. Note: There is a new mobile app, RideScout, available that combines public transport directions with Divvy as well as several other transport modes. RideScout was just released for Chicago. The great Chicago Bike Guide app, pictured to the right, probably shows public transportation stations for wayfinding – bikes can be brought on trains.]

To demonstrate the extent of the digital CTA­-Divvy split, a simple Google query using search terms ‘CTA and Divvy trip planner” produces nothing relevant. Moreover, Divvy advertises itself as “Chicago’s Newest Transit System” conjuring up the notion that CTA and Divvy are not part of the same network. In reality, bikeshare and public transit are complementary modes that work together to provide a viable alternative to driving. CDOT acknowledges this explicitly when it recommends commuters ‘take Divvy from the train to cover that last mile’.

Grabbing a Divvy bike from Wicker Park’s Damen Stop after riding the Blue Line.

Grabbing a Divvy bike from Wicker Park’s Damen Stop after riding the Blue Line.

The digital divide between CTA and Divvy is rather tragic, considering the pricey transit infrastructure has been built. As Chicago grapples with the weight of funding shortfalls and its transportation future, a logical step forward is to leverage and optimize these existing investments.

By not connecting the CTA and Divvy network together digitally, the Windy City is failing to capitalize on a monumental opportunity to reconceive how Chicagoans move. Part of the challenge of reducing auto­dependence and reducing emissions is contending with the flexibility that the automobile offers. With the right technology, mixed­mode commuting can replicate the flexibility of the automobile and offer a seamless door­to­door journey.

CTA and Divvy both use real­time data in their respective networks. Aggregating this data into a single interface could alter the way commuters plan multimodal trips. In this mixed­mode utopia, commuters will have the ability to plan a trip using both CTA trains/buses and Divvy bikes. The benefits of real time information will permit users to know exactly how many Divvy bikes are at a given station while simultaneously knowing when their bus or train will arrive. Moreover, other variables can be assigned, providing users with greater choice in their journey options like cycling route safety, expediency, bus/train preference, etc. Bridging the digital gap between CTA and Divvy will improve accessibility and make mixed­-mode commuting a more reliable and practical option.

Achieving this mixed­-mode utopia will require the aggregation of CTA and Divvy’s data. Commuters certainly do take Divvy to­ and ­from the train, so their trip planning tools should reflect how commuters actually utilize these modes. The fact that their data exists in silos is myopic and amounts to an inefficient use of public resources. By aggregating their data, the Windy City can optimize service and also leverage these capital investments.

For the sake of cost effectiveness, establishing a multimodal planning tool will require engaging with the developer community. Chicago’s experience with the RTA trip planner, Go Roo, underscores the high costs of the top down approach to innovation. Go Roo cost nearly $1 million to develop (Go Roo does not include Divvy in its services and does not have a mobile app).
 Many advances in urban mobility have come about as a result of private developer innovation. Chicago’s situation is by no means unique in this regard and CDOT should encourage innovation from the private sector.

These considerations are very important considering Chicago’s transportation future and the enormous resources necessary to keep the metropolitan region’s 9 million people moving in the 21st century. Mayor Emanuel’s promise to roll out twenty miles of new bike lanes this spring and summer and the expansion of Divvy’s stations from 300 to 475, suggest that the city’s executive support alternatives to driving. The long term impact of this mixed­-mode approach could alter Chicago’s transportation landscape since multimodalism is being touted as one solution to the problem of future urban mobility and minimizing carbon impact.

I hope that an outsider’s perspective can contribute to the discourse on how to best leverage Chicago’s transit infrastructure. Branching the divide between CTA and Divvy is one possible solution that will provide Chicagoans with the right tools needed to better utilize public transportation systems.