Hilkevitch Plays Dumb With an Anti-Divvy “Exposé”

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Actually, Jon, lots of people ride bike-share wearing suits. Photo by Jonathan Maus, Bike Portland.

I’ve long considered the Chicago Tribune’s Jon Hilkevitch to be one of Chicago’s best transportation writers. He works fast, gets his numbers straight and often gets the scoop on important stories, usually writing from a pro-walking, biking and transit perspective. For example, I always enjoy re-reading a brilliant article he wrote back in 2005, skewering the Daley administration’s pro-car policies. I appreciate that he provides a level-headed foil to his colleague columnist John Kass, a notorious bike-baiter.

Over the last few weeks Hilkevitch has been doing a solid job of updating the public on the city’s plans to roll out the Divvy bike-share system, which promises to dramatically boost the number of cyclists, which will in turn lead to safer streets. However, he really let the kids down with yesterday’s disappointing faux-exposé, “Overtime fees, legal potholes dot city bike-share program.”

Just Monday, after Divvy bikes debuted at Bike the Drive, Hilkevitch ran a detailed, informative piece about the system, which demonstrated a good understanding of how bike-share will work. “The idea is to take a bike here and leave it there to complete a trip or use a bicycle instead of other transportation choices that may be slower, more expensive or add to traffic congestion,” he wrote.

In that article Hilkevitch quoted Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein as saying the bikes, equipped with fenders and chainguards, are practical to ride in professional clothes. “You can wear a suit and feel totally fine, like you are not going to get it dirty,” Klein said.

However, yesterday’s anti-Divvy piece seems to be written by someone unclear on the concept of how successful bike-share systems function. It’s almost as if Hilkevitch’s editor told him to trash the program in order to draw extra pageviews, or perhaps, between writing the two articles, the reporter came down with a mild case of amnesia.

A young man rides a Divvy bike
Test-riding Divvy cycles at Bike the Drive. Photo by Steven Vance.

In the wake of yesterday’s successful registration launch, which saw more than 700 people sign up for annual memberships, Hilkevitch seems to be trying to pour water on the enthusiasm over this exciting new program. “Cycling enthusiasts might think someone let the air out of biking’s joie de vivre after reading the accompanying 17-page rental agreement and liability-waiver form,” he writes.

Actually, all of the rules and fees he lists are typical of wildly successful bike-share programs in other cities, like the one Klein launched in Washington, D.C., Capital Bikeshare. The steeply rising fees for keeping a bike over a half-hour, and the $1,200 replacement cost for the cycles should come as no surprise to Hilkevitch, and there are very good reasons for them. As he was probably aware, the late charges are there to ensure that the bikes keep circulating, and $1,200 is a reasonable price for heavy-duty, weatherproof bikes with unique, theft-resistant parts and features like generator lights and GPS.

In the last section of the article, Hilkevitch implies that Divvy is likely to fail, even though similar systems are thriving in peer cities:

But already, skeptics are questioning the cost and whether bicycle sharing is the next parking meter deal. The skeptics also question whether bicycle sharing stands even a chance of being as popular in Chicago as it has been in Washington, on the West Coast and in other metropolitan areas.

I’m not sure how a $27.5 million, federally funded transportation program that may well pay for itself has anything to do with a privatization deal that cost the city billions. And there’s no reason bike-share shouldn’t be even more successful here than D.C. Unlike the District, Chicago is completely flat, and we’re soon going to have a lot more protected bike lanes than that city. But it’s true that Divvy doesn’t have a chance of being as popular as existing West Coast bike-share programs. There are no comparable West Coast systems yet.

Citi Bike Launch
New Yorkers check out the new Citi Bike system. Photo by Dmitiri Gudkov.

“Will businessmen put their briefcases in the basket on a Divvy bike and ride to meetings, risking sweat stains on expensive suits just to save a couple of dollars on a taxicab and possibly save a tree from pollution?” Hilkevitch writes. Uh, you remember that quote from Klein, who regularly rides in a suit, from your Monday article, right?

Worst of all, Hilkevitch’s expert witness on why Divvy will be a fiasco is random “bicycle-riding lawyer” William Choslovsky, who seems totally clueless about how bike-share works. “Nobody is going to pay $75 — plus daily overtime fees — to ride a bike a few times,” Choslovsky said. “And if you ride a lot, you will ride your own bike,” he said.

Actually, those 700-plus people who’ve already signed up realize that the annual membership entitles you to an unlimited number of 30-minute rides, and late fees are easily avoided. In some ways Divvy is better than owning a bike, because you don’t have to worry about storage, maintenance or theft. I’ve heard from several folks like myself, who own multiple bikes and ride daily, who bought memberships. We understand that the system will be useful for all kinds of trips where you want to pedal part of the way but not be “married to a Divvy bike all day,” as Klein explained to Hilkevitch in his Monday article. Apparently the writer forgot that part.

While it’s a bummer to see a journalist I respect write this kind of garbage, it’s not surprising that local papers are beginning to publish spurious anti-Divvy articles in an attempt to attract readers. After all, in advance of last week’s successful Citi Bike launch, the New York Post and other papers wasted barrels of ink on doomsday predictions and the whining of bike-share NIMBYs.

“We just went through this in New York City,” Brooklynite Doug Gordon helpfully commented at the bottom of Hilkevitch’s anti-Divvy article. “Literally. Like last week. And then bike-share launched and everyone loved it. You’ll be fine, Chicago. Don’t listen to the news media.”

  • Pat

    I commute to work by bike from Lakeview, but I signed up for Divvy for the trips when I don’t want to have to worry about a bike. For instance:

    -To get to a train station for a Sox or Hawks game
    -From my girlfriends place
    -To a restaurant or bar when I’m going to be drinking

    All things that people my age (26) can relate to.

  • Scott Presslak

    Divvy is for commuters like me, who rely on the ‘L’ (or Metra) as the primary leg of a commute but don’t work right at the doorstep of a transit station.

    In my case, I live on the Far Northwest Side and work in River North. The Blue Line doesn’t make it to River North… it doesn’t make much sense for me to go into the Loop to transfer, the walk is just a little long from my office to the Grand Blue Line (3/4 mi), and the buses are always crowded. That’s when you Divvy.

  • Anonymous

    Divvy is going to be a lifesaver for me. For the last few years I’ve kept a bike downtown to use once I get off the Metra. I always have to lock it up well and keep it a beater so it won’t get stolen. This doesn’t even count the maintenance of a bike left outside year round.

    Now I won’t have to worry about that anymore.

  • Anonymous

    I’m far north, but I signed up a) to show my support, and b) to get the founder’s key. I don’t know that I’ll actually get to use Divvy as much as I’d like, but I definitely wanted to show my support for the program, and $75 wasn’t too much to do that. I can’t be the only one.

  • Kurtis Pozsgay

    John, I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s a page view thing. They realize the traffic that Kass draws and they are in the business of driving traffic to increase profit. I’m sure there was a little pressure from the editors. Very disappointing.

  • Thanks Kurtis.

  • Streetsblog reader Adam Herstein pointed out on The Chainlink that Hilkevitch’s article says Alta Bicycle Share is based in Montreal when it’s really based in Portland, Oregon. Ouch!

  • Brian

    Wow- you just can’t take any criticism. I think what he was trying to do is point out the “got-chas” in the program. You biking enthusiasts live in fantasyland and can’t handle a little criticism. You’ll never be respected as a journalist if you can’t. So shut up, and don’t get hit by a car.

  • Now listen here, Logan Square Driver… Oh, wrong person? Sorry.

    Brian, my friend, are you familiar with the Dylan classic “The Times They Are a-Changin'”? Bob gives some good advice: “Don’t criticize what you don’t understand.” It’s sounds like you’re unclear on the concept of bike-share, or you would realize that that what you’re calling “got-chas” (sic) are actually the normal rules and fees associated with hugely successful programs in other cities, including the one Klein started in D.C.

    I suggest you read up on bike-share a bit, starting with the DivvyBikes.com website, try to wrap your head around how the program is going to work, and then feel free to pass judgment. Or, better yet, just wait a couple weeks when Divvy launches and, as Robert Plant sang in Zepplin’s “Kashmir,” “All will be revealed…”

  • Anonymous

    Just because they’re typical doesn’t mean they’re right. Some of the stuff Hilkevitch points out in the contract seems unnecessarily harsh

  • These kind of rules and fees haven’t caused any major problems in other bike-share towns, and there’s nothing in there that’s any worse than the small print we take for granted when renting a car or other items.

    What stuff in the contract seems unnecessarily harsh to you?

  • Lisa Curcio

    Not a reply to Pat–maybe it was Hilkevitch’s evil twin!
    A reply to Pat–I commute to work every day from Wicker Park, but I signed up for Divvy for the trips when a) I am concerned about weather on one leg of the trip; b) I don’t want to take my bike out of my office but I want to go somewhere within a couple of miles of work by bike; c) because I think it is really cool.

    All things that people my age (58) can relate to. :-)

  • Who is this William Choslovsky

    I did a quick search of William Choslovsky, wondering who he is. He is quoted a lot, and writes a lot of quick letters to the editor complaining about stuff. He seems to put himself out there. And why not search out one of the actual bike attorneys that are well represented on the Chainlink?

  • Good thinking. For all I knew, Choslovsky could have been a fictional character like Mike Royko’s Slats Grobnik.

  • Well, I exactly split the difference between your ages, and I can relate to both of your situations!

  • How far north are you? I am in Rogers Park and the closest station we have is about half a mile away. In the same boat as you, signed up to show support but I believe I’ll continue being shocked at the opportunities that will come up to use the system.

  • How about proposing new docking stations as an item on next year’s 49th Ward participatory budgeting ballot? I’m guessing Alderman Joe Moore would be all over that.

  • I read Hilkevitch article too, and he asks the right questions. The replacement fee is a good one: Are these $1200 bikes? They look similar to the Bicing bikes I use in Barcelona (replacement cost €250 (ca. $320)). I’d add another one to this discussion: Like Barcelona, the bikes are brought before there is meaningful infrastructure. Just having had a particularly harrowing trip down Damen today, and reading about the horrible accident on Clybourn, let’s not kid ourselves: Chicago is congested with overpowered machines driven by often impatient drivers. For every new mile of bike path constructed, an old one is left to fade…

  • Gee Sebastian, I’m surprised to hear such negativity about bicycling from a Netherlands native like yourself. Please don’t throw Divvy bikes in the Chicago River, like your countrymen who used to toss Amsterdam’s public White Bikes in the canals.

    Hilkevitch’s questions are logical, and it’s good to get the word out about how the system works, but the way the info was presented was severely slanted. Yes, there are late fees, and yes there’s a replacement cost for the bikes, but Hilkevitch suggests that this news is going to be an incredible downer to cyclists, and possibly a ripoff, when these are really just typical of how the systems work in cities like D.C. with thousands of satisfied customers.

    As Active Trans noted in their response to Hilkevitch, 97% of D.C. trips are late-fee free, and only 15 bikes have been lost or stolen in the two years the progrm has been running. So, while it’s important to know about these charges (and it’s not like these are hidden fees that CDOT has been keeping a secret, as Hilkevitch implies), they’re very easily avoided.

    Look at photos of a Divvy bike and a Bicing bike. The Bicing looks much less durable, possibly because Barcelona has warm winters and not a lot of rain. Also, Bicing bikes lack GPS, which is a significant expense, but very useful for keeping track of distribution and thwarting thieves. I’m seeing online that the Bicing bikes are worth about $600, so I don’t see why they wouldn’t charge you that if you lose one.

    Yes, biking conditions were not ideal when Bicing was launched, but Barcelona’s bike mode share doubled shortly after that, and I’m not finding any reports of a resulting bloodbath. Rather, the crash rate when down because drivers learned to watch out for bikes. I’m confident we’ll have a similar phenomenon here, where bike infrastructure is also not perfect but is rapidly improving.

  • John, I respect your opinions and the work you do. But don’t stifle debate: Calling people negative whenever they raise questions or concerns does not promote finding better solutions or improving situations. Your missing a critical aspect of my Dutch heritage: Aside from biking, eating old cheese and planting Tulip bulbs, I engage in healthy debate, which includes disagreeing. The facts: I’m extremely positive about biking, I see it as the solution for personal urban mobility. I therefore do not own a car and bike Chicago’s streets daily, rain and shine, just like I believe you do. I’m less thrilled with the bikeability of Chicago—that it is improving, does not mean it is good (or we would see bike use numbers closer to Copenhagen and Amsterdam). What I’m critical of is an attitude that since so many new initiatives are being taken, one cannot voice concern about existing, lingering issues. Among many others issues affecting bike safety, the one of “fading” bike lanes is serious, as is the issue of speeding (you want to calm traffic?—lower the speed limits too), and I see too little mention of it anywhere except from grumblings on the Chainlink. As for Divvy: Great start. Compare our criticisms to what recently transpired with the Ventra card, where a lot got favorably adjusted by pointing out flaws.

  • Sorry Sebastian, I certainly appreciate your readership and feedback and did not mean to stifle debate. We should settle our differences over some maatjesharing raw herring and vodka shots in the shade of a windmill.

    I’m sure, coming from the Netherlands, biking conditions must seem lousy here, but they’re a heck of a lot better than they were when I was a messenger here in the 1990s. Personally, I’d rather have so many new initiatives going on that things are a bit rushed, rather than the sluggish pace of improvements that was going on before the current administration – that seems like a good problem to have. We have covered the fading bike lane issue before: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2013/03/05/eyes-on-the-street-deteriorating-safety-infrastructure-in-humboldt-park/

    True, Hilkevitch did a great job of reporting on Ventra, and I admit that it took me a little while to wrap my head around the issues with the debit card. In this case, he’s implying that fees and rules that are typical of successful bike-share systems in other cities are somehow a ripoff, and he’s doing it in an extremely lazy manner.

    Rather than simply phoning some lawyer he knew, why didn’t he contact experts on bike-share in other cities, or Active Trans, or IGO, or a bike rental company, or anyone else who would actually have an educated opinion about whether or not these fees and rules are reasonable, or whether the system will succeed? Yeesh, the guy didn’t even bother to look up whether comparable bike-share actually exists on the West Coast yet, he just assumed it did.

  • Anonymous

    Gets his numbers straight? He may get them straight, but he often fails to subject them to critical thought. It doesn’t take a great journalist to accurately capture data conveyed either verbally or in writing, though there are some that can’t even do that. Hilkevitch stands above that crowd.

    The hallmark of a really good journalist, though, is the ability to interpret, which most journalists do not do. I guess that is due to a combination of training, production requirements, and fear of entering the realm of editorial; however, it isn’t editorializing to identify and expose efforts to manipulate data or misrepresent findings – that’s just great journalism.

    Hilkevitch tends to report well on the facts he is given, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into good reporting. Seems he missed the boat on this one by a wide margin . . .

  • Yep, I agree that Hilkevitch usually does a good job of interpreting and communicating facts. This is a rare case of him failing at that task.

  • southsidecyclist

    I was in DC a few weeks ago and used Capital BikeShare. It was great. You see the bikes in use everywhere and DC is not a great cycling city. I see why Gabe Klein wanted to come here. But people will have to perceive these bikes as appliances. You don’t keep the bike for your whole trip. Just ride it to near your destination and rack it. Get another when you go back. Easy.

  • They’re otherwise known as “free-market mechanisms.”

  • Anonymous

    He also attended the first IDOT meeting for the Circle Project, including getting a pre-public sandwich-board tour with the consultant team. His coverage on that issue may have fallen a bit short, as well.

    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-08-31/news/ct-met-circle-interchange-0831-20120831_1_circle-interchange-ramps-and-tight-curves-ryan-and-eisenhower-expressways

    In that piece, he basically published as gospel what we (and he) already knows (or should know) to be false: The IDOT notion that every problem is a nail, every solution is a hammer.

    His post-project analysis of the Hillside Strangler project was dead-on, but that was after-the-fact. At least he called it what it turned out to be, though.

  • Anonymous

    Lack of a 2 minute grace period. The flipping meters have that, why doesn’t this?

    $1200 cost of the bikes, which Sebastian points out is ludicrously high and smacks of the usual Chicago contract, where the connected make out like bandits.

  • Anonymous

    What exactly is free market about a contract signed by the city?!?!

  • Sure, a grace period might have been a nice touch. On the other hand, it seems simpler to keep track of 30 minutes than 32 minutes.

    You saw my explanation of why Divvy bikes have a higher replacement cost than Bicing, which at about $600 are more expensive than Sebastian thought, right? Divvy cycles are heavier-duty bikes, suitable for a northern climate, and they have GPS, which is a significant expense.

    The replacement cost of a Capital Bikeshare bike was $1,000 in 2011 (I’ll ask them for an update), so it’s probably in the ballpark of $1,200 now, which suggests that Chicago-style sleaze has nothing to do with the cost

  • bdickus2001

    Divvy is going to be as big a downtown success as the Segway has been! Oh…wait.

  • Segways are *too* successful here, if you ask me. Especially in Millennium Park, where you’re not allowed to ride a bike.

  • Anonymous

    There has been some concern expressed by employees of the bike share program, about it’s operation in New York. Will this become an issue in Chicago? Should it become an issue?

    http://inthesetimes.com/article/15051/alta_bicycle_share_faces_wage_theft_claims/

    Samuel Swenson says he was excited when he was hired at Capital
    Bikeshare in the summer of 2011. He and his new colleagues were
    enthusiastic about bicycles and alternative transportation, he told In These Times. “We helped sell the program as much as we helped make it work.”

    Things quickly started to go wrong. According to Swenson, he was hired
    with the expectation that he would become a full-time bicycle mechanic
    and that he would receive health benefits, but the benefits didn’t
    materialize. The warehouse where he and the handful of other mechanics
    worked was housed next to a concrete mill in a Superfund site. The hard
    work and the silica dust from the concrete made him concerned about when
    his healthcare would kick in. When he never got a satisfactory answer
    from the company, he began researching Alta’s contract with the city.

  • Thanks for posting this Bob. The labor issue is definitely work keeping tabs on. While it’s a challenge to keep a bike-share program afloat financially, that certainly no excuse for any labor violations.

    Swenson sounds like a reasonable guy, and if he’s giving an accurate description of the working conditions, that’s definitely problematic. It’s also troubling if he was supposed to get $14.43 an hour plus benefits and only started at $13 (although he eventually got a raise to $15). Note that, unfortunately, even $13 for bike mechanic is better than average.

    We’re also keeping an eye on the equity issue, which I’ve written about before: http://gridchicago.com/2012/bike-share-not-white-share-can-chicagos-program-achieve-diversity/ It’s important everything possible be done to make this publicly funded transportation program is accessible to all Chicagoans, not just a narrow demographic. CDOT has promised to address this issue, and we’re going to track their progress.

  • Anonymous

    Late on the reply on this. I’m up in Edgewater for now, so the nearest station will be Bryn Mawr. Wondering what the edge stations will be used for, as the rides will be longer and less useful w/o a network. However, it looks like I’m moving out to Portage Park, and I’m *definitely* going to work up there to help bridge what Jefferson Park has done with everything SE of there. Right now it doesn’t appear that there are any stations planned that way, but I hope to see it change. I know Ald. Arena is pro bike, but I’d be in the 38th ward, so I hope Cullerton is as good.

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