Pedaling to All 68 Divvy Stations in One Day Was Fun, Not Frustrating

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Cruising the lakefront on Divvy bikes. Photo: John Greenfield

In a hurry? Read a shorter version of this piece at Grist.org, an environmental news website.

To hear the Chicago Tribune tell it, people who used the Divvy bike-share system on its first day of operations last Friday experienced nothing but headaches. But on Sunday I rode a Divvy to and attempted to dock at all 68 of the existing stations and witnessed only a few glitches. For the most part, these seemed like minor speed bumps as the bike-share staffers and users get accustomed to this brand-new infrastructure. I also spoke to plenty of satisfied customers along the way.

The system, funded with $27.5 million in federal and local grants, is owned by the city of Chicago and operated by Alta Bike Share, Inc., which also runs public bike programs in Washington, D.C., Boston, Chattanooga and New York City. NYC’s Citi Bike program has seen more than its fair share of bugs, attributed to an Alta subcontractor switching software developers, but the system has still been wildly popular, with more than more than 50,000 annual memberships sold and 500,000 trips taken to-date. Problems with docking station power failures, common in the first two weeks, have largely subsided.

Chicago’s system will eventually include 4,000 bikes, clunky-but-comfy cruisers painted the powder-blue shade of the Chicago flag’s stripes, at 400 docking stations. The system launched Friday with 700 bikes at 61 stations, located within a roughly three-mile radius of the center of town. It will expand to 750 cycles at 75 stations by the end of this week, 3,000 bikes and 300 stations by the end of August, with the remaining 1,000 bikes and 100 stations installed next spring.

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Docking station by The Smokedaddy restaurant in Wicker Park. Photo: John Greenfield

A $7 daily pass or $75 annual membership entitles users to an unlimited number of half-hour trips. To encourage turnaround of the bikes, a $2 late fee applies for the next 30 minutes, with charges rising steeply for subsequent half hours. As of today, more than 1,700 Chicago residents have bought memberships. 4,123 Divvy trips were taken from Friday morning to Sunday night, with 3,225 made by members and 898 made by people who bought 24-hour passes, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation.

Those numbers represent a modest success, but the Tribune article published last Friday evening, “Opening day woes greet Divvy bike sharing roll-out,” paints the first day as a dismal failure. Reporter Jon Hilkevitch previously published a hatchet piece characterizing the late fines and $1,200 replacement fee for lost or stolen bikes as onerous burdens, even though these policies are typical of successful bike-share programs in other cities.

For Friday’s article he also chose to accentuate the negative, quoting several customers who complained that they’d had problems with the system and zero who said they enjoyed using it. The complaints included stations that had no available docking capacity, forcing users to park at a nearby station; one downtown station that wasn’t working at all; inaccurate information about the quantity of bikes at stations from the CycleFinder app; and individual docks that wouldn’t accept bikes. “Chicago’s federally funded Divvy bicycle-sharing program rolled out on Friday, and the shared experience some customers came away with was frustration,” Hilkevitch wrote.

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Greg Baldi rides a Divvy on Critical Mass Friday evening. Photo: John Greenfield

The one sympathetic quote from a Divvy user was, by an odd coincidence, from my high school friend Greg Baldi, visiting from out of town, who was unable to park at the malfunctioning station at State and Kinzie on his way to meet me for lunch. Baldi later told me, unprompted, that Hilkevitch seemed to be pushing him for a negative quote. “It’s frustrating, but this is the first day so they will have to work out the bugs,’’ Baldi told Hilkevitch, so the reporter described him as “forgiving” and an “avid cyclist.”

While it’s important for Alta to make sure that malfunctioning stations don’t shake user confidence and that the info on the app is accurate, some of these issues are due to the learning curve. The experiences of other cities suggest it will take a couple of days for bike-share employees to learn usage patterns so that they can “rebalance” the bikes, using vans to relocate cycles from at-capacity stations to depleted ones. It certainly didn’t help rebalancing efforts that much of the Loop was shut down Friday morning for the Blackhawks’ victory parade. I also suspect that some of the customers who griped that docks weren’t working simply didn’t realize that you really need to slam the bikes into the docks in order to secure them.

On my epic, 12-hour, roughly 40-mile “Tour de Divvy” yesterday I encountered few negative reactions to the bike-share system, and those were mostly from folks who were unclear on the concept. Once I explained that the program is intended for short trips and errands from station-to-station, not long cruises on the lakefront, they usually concluded that Divvy might be useful.

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Checking out bikes near the North/Damen Blue Line stop. Photo: John Greenfield

One exception was a woman I encountered around noon on my first stop to pick up a bike at a docking station near the Blue Line in the trendy Wicker Park neighborhood. She was upset because the city hadn’t yet installed a station at Humboldt Park, which she wanted to visit with her kids, and she’d misunderstood the information a customer assistant gave her the previous day – she thought you could keep a bike for as long as you want for no extra charge as long as you don’t dock it for more than a half hour at a time.

However, the vast majority of Divvy users I encountered Sunday seemed generally pleased with the service. Wes Rizal, a member who was docking his bike in the River West neighborhood, said he’d driven downtown that morning with friends and used bike-share to get home. “I could have walked or taken the train, but I’m taking advantage of the fact that I can access a bike that isn’t my own,” he said. He has noticed that the CycleFinder app is not completely accurate. “It sometimes shows zero bikes at a station when there actually are bikes. The more of these bugs we get ironed out, the better it will be for all of us.”

When I encountered Hannah Gunning and her brother Kaz at a West Loop station, they were picking up bikes to ride to a commuter rail station to visit their dad in the ‘burbs. “I own a bike but I decided to give this a try,” Hannah said. “Why not? I lived in France for a while and used the Vélib’ system all the time. There were stations everywhere there, so it was super-convenient.”

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Leland and Jayden Bonner on Taylor Street. Photo: John Greenfield

Leland Bonner was checking out a station in Little Italy while carrying his young son Jayden on his shoulders. “It looks pretty convenient and it’s very affordable, so I think we might have to give this a try,” Leland said. “Do you think these bikes are cool?” he asked Jayden. “I want to ride one,” the boy answered.

When I pedaled to the 18th Street business strip in Pilsen, I saw Rito Negrete perusing a station across the street from Irv’s Bike Shop. “I was driving by and I saw this, so I double parked to check it out,” he said. “I’m just visiting my old neighborhood but I’ve still got a lot of family here and I want to share this info with them. I think a lot of people here are going to like this. I’d like to check out one these bikes and ride to the lake some time.”

In the South Loop I met Priya Suriya and Paul Meinshausen, who were docking her Divvy (he was on his own fixie) across the street from a Trader Joe’s, having already done some shopping by bike at a Target store. Since they just moved here from Boston, they were already comfortable using the Alta-run Hubway system. They’d been enjoying running errands on this gorgeous afternoon, but reported that some of the stations at the most popular destinations, like Millennium Park, tend to fill to capacity. “It seems like they haven’t quite gotten the hang of rebalancing yet,” Suriya said.

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Priya Suriya and Paul Meinshausen in the South Loop. Photo by John Greenfield

When I got to the sole lakefront station, at Monroe Street, I saw this issue for myself. It was obvious that the small station here didn’t have enough docks to accommodate all the people who wanted to park their Divvy and stroll along the shore. Also, one of the docks was physically broken – a metal pin in the locking apparatus was not engaging, making it impossible to secure a bike.

As she waited in line to access the kiosk touch screen to request an additional 15 minutes of time, Haruko Yamauchi, in town for a library conference, told me that, despite this inconvenience, she’d enjoyed her ride up the lakefront from the McCormick Place convention center. “The bikes are heavy and the fat tires make them kind of slow, but they’re a lot of fun to ride,” she said.

Up at the Oak Street Beach station I talked with Vincent Smith and his two friends, who’d been “dock surfing” all afternoon, just as I had – it’s an open secret that you can keep a bike as long as you like without late fees, as long as you check it into a station every half hour. They’d been at the Pride Parade in Boystown and had slowly been working their way downtown by Divvy. “Once you get used to the system, it’s really easy to get around,” Smith said.

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Docking station near the North and Clybourn Red Line stop. Photo: John Greenfield

I myself was having a fun day of cruising from station-to-station, but it was well after dark as I knocked out stops in Old Town and Lincoln Park, my legs aching from many miles of powering the Clydesdale of a bike, and I started developing a blister on the thumb of my gear-shift hand. At a station near the Brown Line’s Diversey stop I encounter the most serious problem of the day. None of the docks allowed me to securely park my ride – there seemed to be a Citi Bike-style power failure going on. I called the help line and the customer service rep promised to send someone to fix the problem immediately.

After I checked in at the last two stations, around midnight, I made my way back to Wicker Park to dock my bike once more and catch the Blue Line home to Logan Square, which doesn’t have Divvy yet. As I pedaled, I crunched the numbers. Out of the 68 stations in the system, there were only two where I had been unable to park, a respectable number for a system that had only been running for three days. While it’s clear the bike-share system still has a few kinks to work out, using it all afternoon and evening was far from a frustrating experience. Instead, Divvy allowed me to visit almost every sector of the central city in one day, highlighting its potential to be Chicago’s next great transportation system.

View photos from the early days of Divvy, including just about every station in the system as of Sunday night.

  • Jin Nam

    I like running from home to a breakfast spot on the weekends and usually take the train back but now I can Divvy back home. Saw many people using it from the pre 7am hours to tourists a couple of hours ago near River West. I can’t wait to do some sort of a Divvy crawl with some friends. Hahah…

  • A Divvy pub crawl? Sounds like a promising idea for the next Streetsblog reader meetup! If anyone over-imbibes, we’ll confiscate their Divvy key and put them in a cab.

  • Jin Nam

    Here they are restocking a near empty station. https://plus.google.com/u/0/113944959889842458897/posts/NAYpNTfBAFt You probably noticed that if you stand around for a few moments and watch the stations, lots of curious people linger to read and touch the bikes.

  • I look forward to seeing more stations and more Divvy bikes out there. I had fun on my two test rides so far, but there will have to be more stations saturating the roll out area before the system really comes into its own. Right now, they’re still quite far apart, in a relatively small area. But OK, they’ll be placing 232 more stations in the next nine weeks, so I look forward to seeing an average of 26 new stations each week added to the CycleFinder and Divvy website maps.

  • CL

    The possibility of not being able to dock a bike once I arrived at my destination would really stress me out — what are you supposed to do in that situation?

  • You swipe your credit card and press the “dock full” button on the touch screen to request another 15 minutes to go to another station.

  • CL

    Interesting – now cyclists will know how I feel when I can’t find parking. :)

  • Jepetto

    The Chicago Tribune should move out to the suburbs where it wants to live.

  • The funny thing is, Jon Hilkevitch has always been the voice of reason at the Trib when it comes to transportation. It’s his colleague John Kass who usually writes the inflammatory stuff about bicycling. However, Kass hasn’t written an anti-bike column since dooring survivor Dustin Valenta called him out back in May, so maybe Hilkevitch feels he needs to take up the slack.

  • #outofthedarkages

    John, you have an agenda, which is fine, but come on, Hilkevitch isn’t making stuff up whole cloth. Nor are the many other journalist’s who’ve reported issues. You accuse him of accentuating the negative, but your article clearly accentuates the positive, and pooh poohs the negative.

    But almost every single person I’ve talked to who has used the program, as well as those who have posted experiences to the Chainlink etc., and your article as well, have indicated a number of issues with stations. You can’t deny that. And these are all people who want the program to work, they’re not haters.

    Yet you infer that those who had trouble re-docking simply “didn’t realize that you really need to slam the bikes into the docks in order to secure them”, well a.) why would anyone assume they needed to “slam” anything in order to redock it? (That’s, at the very least, a less than desirable design, plain and simple, especially if there’s the chance it means they could unknowingly incompletely re-dock and mistake it for secure, walking away with a 1200 dollar liability hanging out there?.) and b.) that’s just incorrect. I’ve talked to at least 3 people who were quite positive they were “slamming” bikes into stations, but still no dice. Furthermore, you yourself had the same experience: “At a station near the Brown Line’s Diversey stop I encounter the most serious problem of the day. None of the docks allowed me to securely park my ride – there seemed to be a Citi Bike-style power failure going on. ”

    The fact of the matter is that the system is an awesome idea, it’ll be great when it takes off, but right now they have some serious and legitimate issues. CDOT, and Alta probably knew that prior to the launch but there was no turning back. And I don’t envy being in those shoes. But pretending like they don’t exist isn’t the job of journalists or the average joe. I would have loved the launch to go off without a hith as much, if not more than anyone, but it hasn’t. That’s the truth, and truth has a place in the world still, even when it doesn’t fit our agendas.

    The fact of the matter is that if someone is “interested but concerned” and uses a divvy on a day pass, but encounters technical difficulties that result in them being late for an appointment, or getting grossly over-charged, they’re way-way-way less likely to give it a second chance. And that’s a real problem. Especially considering that Divvy still hasn’t even crested 2000 users. Citi bike had 44K users on launch date, by comparison.

    “Ironing out kinks”, “start up glitches” etc., great, fine, there’s a grace period to indulge the cheerleaders, but blowing sunshine up everyone’s ass isn’t going to do anyone any good if these software and hardware issues are still present three or four weeks down the line.

  • I think you need to read my article a little more closely. While Hilkevitch’s piece was basically a list of grievances without so much as a word of praise from Divvy users, mine mentions all the issues that others have reported and that I personally experienced.

    I didn’t write that all people who had docking problems were doing it wrong; I said *some* may have been. The Diversey station was non-functional, which is a totally different situation and a big problem, but that was only one out of the 68 stations I visited.

    If by “users” you mean annual members, your 44K users on launch date figure for Citi Bike is way off. The system launched in late May and they only hit 45K members a few days ago. Citibike had 7,500 rides on its third day so, considering their system is larger and NYC has three times our population, 4,000+ rides in our first three days is nothing to sneeze at.

    These kind of glitches have been the norm when bike share has launched in other cities, although NYC had some serious problems due to the software issue. They seem to be over the hump, and my experience suggests we’re not having nearly as many problems as they did. If Divvy is not performing well in a few weeks, we’ll definitely be getting on CDOT and Alta’s case to solve the problems.

    Bottom line: I’m not blowing sunshine up anyone’s skirt. I just don’t like the Tribune going out of its way to rain on our parade.

  • Anonymous

    Forget about Divvy pub crawl, or improving the ‘L’ station record.
    Docking your bike in all 400 stations in record time is the new frontier!

  • Anonymous

    How about being the first person to write a Yelp review for every single Divvy station? Sounds like a creative writing project for someone ambitious…

  • Anonymous

    John, I see you and other reporters mentioning usage data. Where do you get those? I know existing bike share programs share a ton of usage information, but I don’t see it on Divvy’s website (yet)

  • Sure, I need something to keep me out of trouble while ‘L’ racing is on hold for the Red Line rehab…

  • As I wrote, the data is from CDOT, via a press release.

  • There’s always an adjustment period after, say, a street is redesigned or a new fare payment system is introduced. People need some practice before they get the hang of things. You should see some of the alarmist, sensationalized coverage after New York City Transit switched from tokens to magnetic card readers. Bike-share is a new thing that will take some getting used to.

    And sure, Divvy’s not perfectly reliable. It never will be. No transportation system is 100% on-schedule and predictable all the time. All bike-shares have distribution patterns that must be constantly managed, and components that must be perpetually maintained.

    It’s really easy to slant a story about how things didn’t run smoothly on the opening weekend of a new transit system, especially if you go fishing for quotes. But unlike Hilkevitch, John actually did an exhaustive survey of the system. He produced real data about the incidence of station failures and found that it’s minimal.

    The same exact components and software have been on the street in NYC for more than a month, and after some glitchiness in the beginning, the system is generating 25,000 to 30,000 trips per day. We still have the occasional busted bike, broken dock, and distribution issues, but that’s part of running a big bike-share system. Bottom line is the city has a brand-new transit network, and it works. There’s no reason Divvy will be any different.

  • Katja

    I saw two big blue trucks with DIVVY on the sides redistributing bikes today at the Divvy station near the Grand blue line stop (Milwaukee and… whatever’s one street north of Grand). Nice to know that the redistribution is already happening. Most of the stops along Milwaukee are at least half empty already!

  • Redistribution of bikes, AKA “rebalancing,” has been happening from the get-go – it’s one of the regular tasks associated with running a bike-share system. But it takes a little while for the staffers to find out what the usage patterns are.

    For example, it appears that it’s common for people to grab a bike in their neighborhood and ride downtown to Millennium Park or the lakefront, so the neighborhood stations tend to get depleted and the downtown docks get overly full. Now that Divvy knows this, they can get in the habit of regularly checking the downtown dock and transporting excess bikes to depleted stations. They’ll also probably add docks to high-demand locations like Monroe/LSD.

  • Tony Giron

    One of the Divvy truck drivers told me that their general rule of thumb when distributing bikes is to keep the stations at about 50% capacity.

  • whetstone

    I’m curious whether Chicago’s re-balancing patterns will be tougher to crack; D.C. and NYC users seemed to immediately diagnose problem areas, which, unsurprisingly, were at the bottom of hills. Without the same topographical barriers, I’m assuming Chicago’s problem areas will be more exclusively due to usage patterns.

    I’ve seen a neat visualization of the unbalancing process in D.C.; I’m oddly fascinated to see the unbalancing/rebalancing patterns emerge here.

  • Katja

    Right, it’s just neat to see it happening.

  • This being Chicago, I’m pretty sure the bikes will tend to bunch at stations located near bars with Old Style signs, since many customers will opt to take the CTA home after imbibing.

  • Each station is also on Foursquare.

  • Anonymous

    I would fully expect there to be some software used to predict usage patterns, based on all kinds of factors: commuting hours, dates and times of sports games, street fairs, and any other “event” that creates a local surge in demand (either for free spaces, or for bikes).
    Anyone remember how ATM used to run out of money whenever an event was happening neary? That rarely happens anymore. Not because they stock the ATM with more money, but because the ATM network has gotten very good at determining fluctuations in demand, based on future events that it know will happen.

    Of course that first requires accurate bike counts at each station all of the time….

    John, maybe a topic for a future discussion with the Divvy folks?

  • Good idea, thanks.

  • mhls

    Saw this in a CABI email today.

    Re-balancing is a constant struggle with bikeshare.

    http://www.capitalbikeshare.com/news/2013/07/01/rebalancing-act

  • We know how you feel :) sometimes it’s so hard to find an available bike rack downtown.

  • Let’s lobby Colonel Pritzker (seen pedaling in Critical Mass on Friday) to build a 250-bike garage in the Loop!

  • You could fit what, 2,500 bikes in the same amount of space? :P

  • Ross Guthrie

    The Spotcycle App that Boston’s Hubway uses is much better than the CycleFinder App. The map shows a pie chart with a number. The number in the middle is how many bikes. The pie chart is dark blue for bikes & (Divvy Chicago) blue for empty docks. The colors are perfect for Chicago.. The map gives a lot of info quickly.

    I wonder if Divvy could partner with Spotcycle?

  • Anonymous

    John, your article states that Alta also operates the bike share program in Minneapolis, but this is incorrect. Although Nice Ride Minnesota uses Bixi bikes, it does not contract with Alta to run the program. In fact, Nice Ride is a nonprofit organization. I hope you will consider adding a correction to the article to give Minnesotans credit for creating a nonprofit rather than simply farming out to a private company. From a policy perspective, this is an important distinction.

  • Thanks for the heads-up; sorry for the error. I will remove the Nice Ride reference. I think this is a common misconception because Alta-run programs and Nice Ride use the same Bixi bikes. Alta even featured a photo of Nice Ride bikes in this brochure: http://www.altaplanning.com/App_Content/files/Alta_BikeShare_Intro.pdf

  • Adam Herstein

    I’ve ridden Divvy twice already and after figuring out some nuances, I had zero problems. For one, you need to hold your keyfob in the slot for a few seconds until the light turns green. Previously, I was just trying to swipe it. In addition, when docking, you typically need to insert the bike with a considerable amount of force. After figuring those two items out, I was able to ride with no hitches. The bikes ride like a tank, but it’s a decent backup plan and being able to just walk away after docking is nice.

  • Adam Herstein

    Chicago is not unique in that regard. There’s no reason why it should be more or less difficult than other cities.

  • Adam Herstein

    It’s mainstream media. Pretty much all they do is accentuate negative news.

  • Yeah, you really need to slam those babies home to secure them. Have any of you folks had issues with mustering enough force to do this?

  • Adam Herstein

    I’d love it if there were more facilities like the Millennium Park Cycle Center in the Loop.

  • Adam Herstein

    I realized that you need to slam them in when I saw some Divvy staff doing the same. Sometimes it takes a few tries, but I have yet to have any major issues with redocking.

  • Andrew Bedno

    What a fun project! Well done.

  • Thanks!

  • Aws Maan

    BE CAREFUL …

    I return the bike and on the 3rd try it gave me the GREEN LIGHT and after that I checked for the last time and the bike CAME OUT from the dock !!! after it gave me the green light !!! and now I’m so scared that some body might take my bike after me and I’ll be the one who charged 1200$ , its very stressful when the return system is very bad

    2nd :- my key didn’t work for some reason , I called the customer service and they kept me on hold for 30 minutes ( I swear to GOD ) …

    I regret that I subscribe with them for 1 year …

    be careful guys .

    thanks .

  • joe

    Divvy installed a bike rack next to my building where dogs are curbed. The dogs now do their business ON the bikes. If you rent a Divvy bike take the time to wash it off. Otherwise you may get dog urine sprayed on you while riding.

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