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Lyft bikes’ brake woes won’t slow Divvy’s Chicago growth, officials say

Divvy's expansion in Chicago will not be affected by problems Divvy operator Lyft is experiencing with electric pedal-assist bikes in three other cities. | Rahul Parikh/Sun-Times

Isolated brake trouble that has prompted Lyft to yank electric bikes off the streets of New York, San Francisco and Washington D.C. will not impact a Chicago expansion, officials said Monday.

City Hall and the Active Transportation Alliance told two different stories about why the Chicago expansion would not be impacted.

Mike Claffey, a spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation, said the “electric pedal-assist” bikes with “hybrid-locking” mechanisms involved in the Chicago expansion are “not the same bikes” as the ones that developed brake problems in the three other cities.

“Those are a different mode,” Claffey wrote in an email.

Shannon Breymaier, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s communications director, added: “This story will not impact the Chicago expansion.”

But Kyle Whitehead, a spokesman for the Active Transportation Alliance, said he “reached out directly to Lyft” and got a different explanation.

“They’re gonna fix it before the bikes that are rolled out here are produced. That’s what we’re being told and that’s what we’re expecting,” Whitehead said.

About an hour later, Whitehead said, “It’s our understanding it will be a new model of bikes that’s rolled out in Chicago. It’s not the same model that had the problem elsewhere.”

Last week, the City Council voted to make Lyft the exclusive operator of Chicago’s Divvy bike-sharing system — at least for the next nine years — under a revenue-sharing agreement approved over the strenuous objections of arch-rival Uber.

But that was before Lyft pulled 3,000 “pedal-assist” electric bikes from those three cities. It acted after riders “experienced stronger than expected braking force on the front wheel,” according to a blog post emailed to customers Sunday.

The electric bikes, designed to have a smoother, easier ride now are being replaced with older non-electric models to keep the service running smoothly in New York, Washington and San Francisco, officials there said.

“After a small number of reports and out of an abundance of caution, we are proactively pausing our electric bikes from service, Julie Wood, a spokesperson for New York’s Citi Bike was quoted as saying, noting that, “safety always comes first.”

In Chicago, Divvy now has 6,000 bikes at 600 stations, located in roughly two-thirds of Chicago’s 50 wards.

The expansion plan calls for Divvy to go citywide by 2021, with 16,500 bikes at 800 stations. All new bikes would be “electric pedal-assist.”

In exchange for a $50 million investment in new bikes, stations and hardware, Lyft would become the exclusive sponsor and operator of the system that now loses up to $700,000 a year. Lyft already owns Motivate, the company that operates the Divvy bike-sharing system.

The city would get $77 million over nine years earmarked exclusively for transportation projects. Lyft would keep all bike-sharing revenues up to $20 million annually, with the city sharing 5% of everything over that.

Chicago taxpayers would also receive $1.5 million a year in minimum guaranteed revenue from advertising and promotions.

Lyft would be free to raise bike-sharing rates, but only up to 10 percent per year. Anything above that must be approved by the Chicago Department of Transportation. City Council approval is required for the contract, but not for future fare hikes, under the deal.

Whitehead went to bat for the city.

He defended the deal even though Uber insisted that it offered the city a better deal that would have been more lucrative for taxpayers and provided for a faster citywide expansion.

Do the brake troubles in other cities make him nervous about the stand he took?

“We are encouraging [the city and stakeholders] to … follow up with them and make sure this is fixed before the Chicago roll-out happens. But we expect that it will be,” Whitehead said.

“What we’ve heard from the city and … from Lyft is that it will not affect the schedule and that the bikes rolled out here will be safe and will have the benefits in terms of ease and making it a little more comfortable for people, especially if they’re riding longer distances.”