The Trib’s Jon Hilkevitch Changes His Tune, Reports Divvy Is a Success

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Former Divvy skeptic William Choslovsky, now a convert. Photo: Chris Walker, Tribune

Back in May, a month before the Divvy bike-share system launched, transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch published the first of three Tribune articles characterizing Divvy as a rip-off, dysfunctional and racist. In that first piece, a faux exposé entitled “Overtime fees, legal potholes dot city bike-share program,” Hilkevitch portrayed the rules and charges associated with the new system as an unreasonable burden, even though they’re similar to those in other successful bike-share cities.

Worse, Hilkevitch’s expert witness on why Divvy would be a flop was random “bicycle-riding lawyer” William Choslovsky, who was 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.”

When the system launched on June 28, the reporter spent a few hours interviewing Divvy riders and published the article “Opening day woes greet Divvy bike sharing roll-out,” with quotes from several disgruntled users but not a single satisfied customer. That was odd, because I spoke to a number of people that day who were happy with their bike-share experiences, and when I visited all 68 existing stations by Divvy later that weekend I talked with many more, and all but two of the stations were functioning just fine.

I left a comment on the first anti-Divvy article, “After the bike-share system proves to be wildly successful, the naysayers will eat their words.” Sorry to gloat, but I’m delighted to see my prediction was correct. This morning Hilkevitch ran a column entitled “Divvy bike-sharing program catching on in Chicago,” which finally gave credit to the bike-share system’s impressive early achievements, and all but admitted that the reporter’s earlier hatchet pieces were off-base.

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Cruising the lakefront on Divvy bikes. Photo: John Greenfield

In this article Hilkevitch takes off his pundit hat and does what he does best: using numbers to tell a story. He shares Chicago Department of Transportation stats that more than 150,000 Divvy trips have been taken as of Friday, about 5,000 people have bought annual memberships and more than 37,000 day passes have been sold. Over 458,000 miles have been ridden, with an average of more than 11,000 miles pedaled each day recently, with trips averaging 18 minutes in recent days. The station at Lincoln and Armitage, near the Park West music theater, was used an impressive average of 119 times per day last week, he reports.

Hilkevitch notes that some of the busiest docking stations are located near Metra and CTA stations, which indicates that the system has caught on with daily commuters, not just tourists and recreational riders. High commuter demand for docks in the morning and bikes in the evening led the city to increase the number of bike spaces at the Daley Plaza Divvy station, he reports.

“The numbers indicate the service seems to be building a steady following, in some cases even among hard-core disbelievers who originally criticized Divvy as being an expensive government boondoggle that would generate little public support beyond tourists,” Hilkevitch writes. Of course, he should count himself as being one of those hard-core Divvy disbelievers.

It was particularly heartening to read that Choslovsky has done a 180 on Divvy. As Hilkevitch reports, the former skeptic needed to travel from his law offices to a birthday party last Tuesday during the evening rush and decided to give the system a spin. “I was late,” he said. “I could have jumped in a taxi and that would be a slow crawl. It was about 2 miles — too far for a walk if I’m in a hurry.” The bicycling lawyer, who had claimed no one who owns their own ride would bother renting a Divvy, admits that he had a blast pedaling the comfy, upright cycle to his destination, used bike-share two more times that week, and is now considering buying a membership.

Choslovsky essentially concedes that he had absolutely no idea what he was talking about when he trashed Divvy back in May. While his turnaround makes for a compelling endorsement of the bike-share system, it still raises the question: why was he treated as an expert source in the first place? In the future, I respectfully suggest that Choslovsky and Hilkevitch take some advice from Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’”: don’t criticize what you don’t understand.

  • Chicago

    it’s far past the time to look for measured and reasonable answers to metropolitan transport. Divvy is one segment that will be one of those things, after full implementation and adoption by citizens and tourists, will cause ever the hardest skeptic to wonder “why did this take so long?”. Of course, they will never admit their culpability in fighting change. Cars should not have primary focus of a true 21st century city.

  • Tommy Jackson

    Spot. On. Thanks, Streetsblog, for keeping Hilkevitch’s obvious bias (against bikes and, often, the CTA) in check.

  • Thanks Tommy, sure thing.

  • Sanenazok

    5000 users in a city of 3000000, let’s not call this a success just yet. I use it yes but don’t forget the weather’s been perfect, and there’s still the novelty factor. I use it primarily to commute to…the beach and that will end in September. Much better to have taken the $22 million and given a $2200 tax break to 10,000 people if they ride the bike to work every day.

  • Hilkevitch’s article is behind the DigitalPLUS paywall. “Nobody is going to pay $129 (almost twice Divvy the fee!) to read the Trib a few times,” she said. “And if you read the news a lot, you will pay for the NY Times.” :-P

    In all seriousness, I’m happy to hear about the positive reporting and I appreciate when people are open to changing their minds. I love Divvy! You can quote me as another “bicycle-riding lawyer.”

  • mhls

    Just a pr conversion by a savvy lawyer. Regardless, good to see critical blog reporting resulting in praise of a sustainable urban transport component – bikeshare.

  • That’s about 5,000 annual members; there have been several times as many people using day passes. It was actually a very rainy summer, although there weren’t too many unpleasantly hot days. The cost for launching the system with 400 stations and $4,000 bikes is $27.5 million.

  • Thanks! I’m not sure we can take the credit for Choslovsky’s conversion, but I’d like to think Streetsblog was a factor in this, as well as Hilkevitch’s change of tone.

  • Now that Choslovsky has come to appreciate Divvy’s “cool, timeless sort of feel,” I expect he’ll become a frequent commenter on your stylish cycling blog, Let’s Go Ride a Bike.

  • As the network grows in density and scope, the usefulness of the system and frequency of use by existing members will increase faster and faster. Living and working within the initial roll out area (Lincoln Park and the Loop), I usually can’t walk a block or two nowadays without seeing a Divvy bike rider (in addition to a couple of people on their own bikes), and this is less than two months in. I love it! I look forward to seeing stations put in further west and north, to give us all more destinations and options. Divvy is now saying they will have 300 stations installed “by end of summer” which I interpret as September 22, 2013 at 3:44 PM CST, and I’m holding them to that. :) Go Divvy!

  • Joe

    Joe–This thinking is stupid and short-sighted. I love how there is no information on the internet about how stupid this bike-sharing idea is. Accidents. Ridiculousness. Money in the pocket of a Rahm guy. And now somebody keeps arguing for it–sorry, but shill. No reasonable lawyer would call this a good idea unless they saw some potential to make some money on it.

  • Dan Korn

    Right, just like this whole computer thing is never going to catch on. Who needs a computer in their house anyway? What a waste of money that would be!

  • Joe

    Lots of merit to your response.

  • Joe

    Perhaps the Tribune can. The above commenter was being facetious. Maybe if your job was not to make a comment on each “good” comment–you might have seen that. A lawyer on one of these bikes–come on.

  • Anonymous

    I agree. I like Divvy and I’m glad we have it. But I would give it more time before officially declaring victory, which John Grenfield did giddily, instantly after the launch. (picturing him in a flight suit with a “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him) I think it’ll be successful, but let’s give it time before we start deciding whether it’s a success. These things aren’t measured in weeks or months.

  • Scott Sanderson

    I am a lawyer and I ride divvy bikes all the time. I pick them up at the Franklin and Jackson station, right outside my office at the sears tower.

  • You’re right Joe, there’s no information on the Internet about how stupid bike-sharing is, but there is plenty of misinformation about how stupid it is. For example, I’ve seen lots of warnings about bike-share will result in a bicycle blood bath, when in reality, in city after city where it’s been implemented, the amount of cycling soars but the crash rate drops.

  • OK, so that’s two bicycling lawyers, Dottie and Scott, who’ve commented on this post endorsing Divvy. Not too shabby, Joe.

  • Pardon? Here’s what I actually wrote after the Divvy launch: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2013/07/01/pedaling-to-all-68-divvy-stations-in-one-day-was-fun-not-frustrating/

    It’s far from a giddy declaration of Divvy victory. I put in a full day of legwork biking to all 68 existing stations. The post was frank about the early, typical glitches with the system, such as the two stations that weren’t working. But it did serve as a counterpoint to Hilkevitch’s extremely negative launch coverage, which would have had you believe that the first day of Divvy was a nightmare of dysfunction.

    There are three Es in my last name, by the way.

  • Anonymous

    I remember some premature celebratory comment, but I cant remember when/where. Maybe it was someone else, if so apologies.

    I agree though, Hilk seemed a little too hard on Divvy. I haven’t noticed any problems with it, apart from the occasional clueless rider (although there are more than enough clueless non-Divvy riders anyway)

  • Thanks. I agree, there are plenty of clueless bike riders out there, but it’s more conspicuous when you’re on a Divvy. I wrote this post in a cafe next to the Dearborn protected bike lanes. A couple on Divvies was cruising slowly on the sidewalk, seemingly looking for a safe place to ride. I felt like knocking on the window and pointing at the PBLs.

  • Brian Morrissey

    This is exactly like saying, “there’s no information on the internet on how stupid evolution is.”

  • Bingham

    It’s time to ban Joe Musco’s obnoxious comments don’t you think?

  • This is a different “Joe.” I would characterize Joe Musco not as obnoxious but amusingly grumpy, sort of like Andy Rooney from 60 Minutes, and he certainly know a heck of a lot about bus rapid transit.

  • Brian

    Rainy until the end of June, when Divvy launched- since then it has hardly rained.

  • Katja

    Let’s up it to a big three biking/Divvy member attorneys (and I know of at least two friends who are also lawyers and have Divvy memberships, but that’s maybe some extrapolation for a blog post).

  • Erik Swedlund

    I laughed at this part of the article:

    “I said to people at my brother’s birthday party, ‘I Divvy. Do you Divvy?’ Somebody laughed, they said, ‘You are using that as a verb,”’ Choslovsky said.

    “That’s where even I said to myself, ‘I was wrong, these bikes may have a future.’ When you use a noun as a verb, you know the product has arrived.”

    Why I laughed: the word “divvy” was a verb to begin with.

  • Not to mention the gaggle of local lawyers specializing in bike cases!

  • That is funny. I admit that I totally missed the absurdity of that statement.

  • They told the Tribune a different deadline.

    “A total of 300 solar-powered Divvy stations will be open by the end of August, officials said, and the final 100 stations will be online by next spring.”

  • Anonymous

    Imagine how big Divvy will be when there’s a network of safe places (protected bikeways) to ride them! Divvy will grow with the cycling infrastructure and vice versa.

  • Bob

    Has anyone ever been to Amsterdam? It’s a city (and suburbs) built around bike riders.

  • Steven and I have, and so has 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis: http://gridchicago.com/2011/alderman-solis-goes-to-amsterdam/

  • On their Facebook post featuring the Trib article, Divvy clarified in the comments section that the Trib should have said “end of summer” and not end of August.

  • Mcass777

    I did not know what to think of Divvy when it started but It is here to stay and the city is better for it. I have three bikes and am thinkiing about a membership. From time to time I use my bike to get from meetings downton but it is a pain with locks and my exposed chain. I may not be in a suit but i dont want to mess up my dress pants riding 10 blocks. To me Divvy is a cab or walking alternative. Really efficient, smart.

  • Thanks for the clarification. An end of August deadline looked impossible by my calculations.

  • lrw

    SO BLOODY SICK OF BIKES RIDING ON THE SIDEWALKS! They are a pedestrian nuisance with no insurance. Today, 2 jitneys riding on the sidewalk – on busy Michigan Ave at lunchtime. Nowhere to get out of the way. WHY are we not holding riders responsible for the same rules of the road as everyone else?

  • In a nutshell, because drivers killed 117 people in Chicago in 2011 while bicyclists killed exactly zero. But the full answer’s a lot more complicated than that.

  • Aaron M. Renn

    It’s illegal for adult bicyclists to ride on the sidewalk in Chicago. It does no credit to the bicycling cause to defend the behavior, which isn’t appropriate in a high pedestrian density city like Chicago in any case.

  • Aaron M. Renn

    Actually, Divvy is a copycat system. And there are legitimate questions about the way the contract was awarded. This is Chicago after all.

    But it’s a mystery to me why after bike share has proven itself in the market in city after city without any high profile flop that I’m aware of that people would be predicting disaster. It’s pretty obviously a popular type service.

  • Thanks for chiming in Aaron. For those unfamiliar with his work, Aaron writes the excellent planning blog The Urbanophile: http://www.urbanophile.com/

    You are correct, biking on the sidewalk is generally illegal in Chicago for people 12 and older and should be done with extreme caution, if at all. However, I wasn’t defending sidewalk riding, merely explaining why it doesn’t make sense to waste police resources enforcing minor bike infractions when they’re such a trivial issue compared to the widespread problem of traffic violence by motorists.

    But, sure, if I was a cop and saw two pedicabbers riding on Michigan Avenue sidewalks at lunchtime, I’d be sorely tempted to ticket them.

  • Even Josh Squire, the owner of the company that protested the Divvy contract award, has wisely given up that beef: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2013/05/29/squire-drops-bike-share-beef-divvy-nimbys-grumble/

  • MarkB

    So lead by example, and remove the computer from your house (and life).

  • Why does it matter that it’s a copycat system? It’s a good idea and good ideas get replicated.

  • jeff wegerson

    As a pedestrian I was anxious that I would get run over by a bike. A big part of that is not being familiar with the local cultural expectations of pedestrians and cyclers.

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