Chicago’s plan to give away thousands of bicycles starts out slowly, costs $231,000 so far

Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS
·3 min read

In late March, at a luncheon for the city’s political and business elite, Chicago transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi announced the city would be giving away 5,000 bicycles.

“Free bikes. And a helmet. And a bike lock,” Biagi said in her City Club speech.

For months since, the Chicago Department of Transportation has held back key details of the program, but it released a timeline showing the bicycle giveaway will roll out slowly. The 5,000 bikes and accessories will be released over the next four years and at least one-tenth of them will go out in the first year, city officials said.

Participants in a youth green job training program and CDOT mobility programs will get first dibs, then other qualifying residents, according to the city.

City officials initially did not answer Tribune questions about how many bicycles the city had bought, but after the Tribune filed a Freedom of Information Act request they said the Department of Transportation has 680 bikes for the program. So far, the city estimates the program has cost $231,068.

The city bought 350 bikes this spring through environmental company WRD, according to invoices released by the city. Another 330 bikes the city is putting toward the program were initially ordered for the Greencorps Youth Program, a green job training program for high school students whose participants are now among those set to get bikes under the giveaway, the city said.

CDOT said it will gradually increase distribution of the bikes in the coming years, until all 5,000 single-speed, commuter-model bikes have been provided. The city did not have an estimate of the total cost of the program, and spokeswoman Amanda Bolton said officials hope this year to seek competitive bids to provide bikes for the program’s later years.

“CDOT is committed to making biking a more popular and practical option for all residents — and Bike Chicago will do just that,” Biagi said in a statement.

The program comes as the city recently released a climate action plan that called for prioritizing walking, biking and transit use to lower emissions.

“Every resident in our city deserves equitable access to safe, reliable and affordable clean transportation options,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement. “Bike Chicago accelerates both the city’s climate and equity goals by providing new workforce pathways, bikes and supportive resources that promote safe biking and a healthy low-carbon transportation ecosystem for all Chicagoans.”

Among those set to receive bikes in the first year of the giveaway are participants in CDOT mobility programs like Chicago SAFE Ambassadors and Open Boulevards events, along with the Greencorps Youth Program, where high school students learn how to assemble and maintain bikes among other skills. Bikes will then be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis to qualifying applicants.

The city estimates about 250 bikes will be available to those who apply via mail or online.

Applicants for the program must be Chicago residents at least 14 years old and have a household income at or below the area median income for the city. They must not already own a bicycle, and either face a “higher mobility hardship” or participate in one of the CDOT mobility programs.

Applications will open July 18, and distribution is expected to begin in August.

The Lightfoot administration is making its moves as Lightfoot gears up for what is expected to be a challenging reelection fight in February 2023. So far, the mayor has announced gas card giveaways, reversed her previous opposition to a basic income program first floated by an alderman, and is also giving rebates to homeowners and businesses so they can buy security cameras.

Even as the city prepares to give away free bikes, a series of recent cyclist and pedestrian traffic deaths have led to renewed calls by advocates for citywide infrastructure that prioritizes pedestrian and cyclist safety, like more bike lanes and more protected lanes. The city has about 400 miles of bikeways on and off city streets, and has recently undertaken work that will protect about 45 miles with concrete curbs.