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Hilkevitch Plays Dumb With an Anti-Divvy “Exposé”

3:35 PM CDT on May 30, 2013

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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

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

“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.”

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