How Divvy “Rebalancing” Problems Can Make Commuting Less Safe for Women

A Divvy station in West Town. Photo: John Greenfield
A Divvy station in West Town. Photo: John Greenfield

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Editors note: Local bike advocate Julie Sherman, who has been active with the Chicago Cycling Club, as well as a major booster of Streeetsblog Chicago, offered to share her experiences with Divvy and personal safety issues.  

I have an annual Divvy bike-share membership and have had one for several years. I like the flexibility of being able to usually find and grab a bike as I make my way from point A to B, and then point F to G, without worrying that my own bike is sitting out vulnerable to the elements, vandalism, and theft.

The idea that Divvy could transport me more swiftly and safely at night than walking was another primary motivation for me to buy the membership each year. When I leave a restaurant, event, or the gym in the evening, hop on to a Divvy, and cycle home, I feel less vulnerable to street crime than I would if I was on foot.

However, as a recent post on the Chicago Bike Report pointed out, Divvy’s popularity has led to some distribution issues. The author noted that, during the p.m. rush, many downtown stations are soon empty of bikes.

Similarly, although there are several Divvy stations within a mile of my house in West Town, I have found that over the last month or so, now that it’s getting warmer and more people are riding, if I return home after 7 p.m. there are usually no open docks at my nearby stations. Even more frustrating is that Divvy has become unresponsive to requests from myself and other users I know to be more proactive about “rebalancing” – relocating cycles from full stations to empty ones – at the several stations along Damen in West Town, which fill up quickly during the evening commute.

On one occasion I spoke with a Divvy employee who was removing some bikes from the Damen/Pierce station (just south of the Damen Blue Line stop) and loading them into his nearly empty van. Since he was going to be passing four completely full stations south of that location on Damen on his way back to headquarters, I asked if he could remove some bikes at the Damen/Chicago station, closest to my home. He apologized, but said he couldn’t do this unless he was “authorized” to do so. If Divvy drivers really aren’t allowed to make decisions on the fly about removing or adding bikes at full or empty stations, that seems like a bad policy.

As it stands, if I’m coming home from the east side of town after 7, it’s generally the case that my only option is to pedal almost a mile past my house to a less popular station in a secluded industrial area. As a petite, slow-moving woman, I find walking back from this isolated location by myself after dark to be a nerve-wracking experience. It no longer feels safe for me to ride Divvy home at night.

I realize that many parts of Chicago don’t yet have Divvy, and some neighborhoods that do have stations don’t as much station density as West Town, so having a few full stations within walking distance of my home is a good problem to have. Still, it would be great if Divvy would recognize the popularity of these stations and do a better job with rebalancing them and/or add some more docks to create additional capacity. My hope is that Divvy will address its popularity issue so that users can dock closer to their destination and not have to ride around in hopes of finding an empty dock within striking distance of their destination, or walk there alone from a remote location.

This post is made possible by a grant from the Illinois Bicycle Lawyers at Keating Law Offices, P.C., a Chicago, Illinois law firm committed to representing pedestrians and cyclists. The content is Streetsblog Chicago’s own, and Keating Law Offices neither endorses the content nor exercises any editorial control.

  • Urbanist Chic

    Divvy needs to launch a system that empowers and rewards users to rebalance the bikes, similar to what NYC is doing with their Citibike system: http://bikeangels.citibikenyc.com/

  • Toddster

    “If Divvy drivers really aren’t allowed to make decisions on the fly about removing or adding bikes at full or empty stations, that seems like a bad policy.”

    While it may be frustrating that an empty van is driving past full docks, it’s more complex than to describe the lack of authority given to van drivers as bad policy.

    What happens after the van driver picks up the bikes you requested? Now he has to find an empty dock to put them in (which, admittedly, can be done easily enough with the app) but what if another rogue driver has also picked up bikes and beats the first driver to the empty dock. What if he puts bikes in a popular dock just emptied by another driver?
    Meanwhile bikes are locked up in the back of a van being driven around instead of being accessible to riders.

    Re-balancing needs to be coordinated at a higher level, just coordinated better apparently.

  • Kelly Pierce

    Divvy is operated Motivate under contract by the city of
    Chicago. It is a city service rather than
    a non-governmental entity. Complain to your
    alderman and have your friends do the same. City Hall needs to be working on
    solutions before the peak of the summer biking season where Divvy could end up
    being useful for only the very few.

  • Anne A

    Julie – Good piece. I’ve experienced my own issues with rebalancing. If I want to get a Divvy near my office at 5:05 or later, all bikes at the closest stations are usually gone. There are sometimes bikes at a few less convenient stations, which would add distance to my trip and require me to go through additional stoplights and congested intersections with lots of clueless pedestrians.

    In the last 2 years, as Divvy has become more popular, it’s often been difficult to find ANY available bikes at most Loop and River North locations in all but the worst weather.

    Some of my Divvy trips are in areas at or near the edge of the system map, where locations are further apart. Lack of bikes or lack of open docks has sometimes resulted in situations where I had to walk quite a bit further to get to or from a station, or where I simply had to walk or take transit because a Divvy trip wasn’t feasible.

  • This seems like an issue for any rider worried about street crime.

  • BlueFairlane

    Rebalancing is certainly an issue with Divvy, but I question how much can realistically be done about it without significantly impacting the system’s economic viability. The program is to a degree a victim of its own popularity … lots more people all want to leave the same place at the same time than there is physical space for available bikes, and they all want to ride these bikes to the same places. Meanwhile, rebalancing requires using large vehicles to move a large number of bulky items distributed across a wide territory through the same clogged streets Divvy bikers are hoping to avoid. Even at its most efficient, there’s no getting around the fact that the process is simply going to take time. I don’t know how many rebalancing vans Divvy has going at any one time, but I doubt you could make much of a dent in this issue within a time frame useful during the rush period even if you quintupled the number.

  • BlueFairlane

    I was gearing up to grump about that, but that actually looks like a pretty good system. I wonder how much that would impact Divvy revenue?

  • Anne A

    I get your point. When rebalancing is often most needed (rush hour), it’s also the most difficult time to get large vans to the right places to accomplish this.

    I’ve also heard about the NYC system having incentives for riders to do a bit of DIY rebalancing. See comment below.

  • Jeremy

    Madrid’s bike share gives cash (0.10 Euro) for taking a bike from a station more than 70% occupied and returning a bike to a station less than 30% occupied.

  • BlueFairlane

    I think a problem we have that I suspect is not nearly so pronounced in New York City is that the natural dynamic is for the extreme majority of the traffic flow to all be moving in one direction, toward downtown in the morning, away from it in the afternoon. In New York, destinations are more balanced so that overall movement takes more of a web-like form, with more cross-traffic back and forth and less natural preference for any one direction. (I could be wrong … I haven’t studied it in any depth and am just making a guess.) That makes a system like the DIY rebalancing a little more difficult to accomplish here, because in order to be effective, you need to convince a fairly large number of people to move against the flow … and then these people need to figure out how to get back home.

    The way I think a system like NYC’s could help is by incentivizing some people to walk farther than is absolutely necessary to find a bike in a part of town with slightly lower demand … say, convincing a person who works on Lasalle and lives in Logan Square to walk a mile over to, say, the South Loop to pick up a bike they drop their bike off in Humboldt Park. Or, in effect, motivating people to volunteer to walk the greater distances that Julie Sherman is already being forced to walk, talking on the extra effort so that people in Sherman’s position don’t have to.

    Off the bat, though, a problem I could see developing is that people like Sherman who have to be more concerned about security would miss out on incentives people in different positions could embrace, and they’d wind up having to pay more for Divvy. I get into trouble trying to make this a gender issue, but the end result could be that women concerned about safety might wind up paying more for Divvy than men, which is its own ball of wax.

  • TonyAB

    Yep, this is my main complaint (and potentially a safety issue for anyone if they are pushed to a station far from their home) … but I think they just need a *little* more capacity at these stations in West Town. I have certainly skipped divvy rides because I know I won’t be able to end the trip anywhere convenient to my home.

    The stations are modular, so can’t they add a few more docks in warmer months?

  • Mark Twain

    But then where does the capital investment come from for temporary resource allocation?

  • TonyAB

    Uh … companies make decisions about resource allocation all the time, sometimes in response to customer feedback or demand. This could be one of those times!

    (Also, maybe there’s a chance to get more daypass riders if people are sure they can get to popular west town, i.e. this might be a worthwhile investment … if indeed it’s much an of an investment at all.)

  • Mark Twain

    Yes indeed they do make those decisions. They also make decisions that require allocating capital expenditures elsewhere as a better investment than part-time or season asset allocation.

  • TonyAB

    Ok, I can see you’re against this idea – or for the status quo, though for no reason you’re ready to divulge. Have a great day.

  • Mark Twain

    There there, calm down. I’m not against it. The problem is that no one in the bike community can articulate sources of funding, then get all pissy when called out on it.

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