Does Divvy Need to Be Made Idiot-Proof?

Cruising the lakefront on Divvy bikes. Photo: John Greenfield

I’ve been getting tired of news stories featuring people complaining that Divvy bike-share is a rip-off simply because they don’t understand how it works. However, after talking to a few more customers last week, as well as some discussion on this website, I’m thinking that better communication might be helpful for making the rules and fee structure more obvious to the uninitiated.

Divvy is clearly doing something right. More than 3,130 annual memberships have been sold so far. In the system’s first two weeks of operation, Chicagoans and visitors racked up more than 25,000 bike-share trips and pedaled an estimated 88,000 miles, enough to circle the globe three-and-a-half times, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation. Today the service announced that it hit over 50,000 rides in less than a month.

However, last week DNAinfo Chicago gave airtime to a couple who mistakenly believed that purchasing a $7, 24-hour Divvy pass meant that they could hold onto a bike all day without paying overtime fees. Kristin Manibo rented the bike and then, contrary to the rules of the system, loaned it to her boyfriend, Daniel Torres. While the daily pass allows a user to make an unlimited number of half-hour rides, trips over 30 minutes incur overtime fees. A $2 overtime fee is charged for minutes 31 to 60, $4 is charged for minutes 61 to 90, and it’s $8 for each subsequent half-hour.

Text above the kiosk's touch screen explains the fee structure. Photo: John Greenfield

After keeping the bike for several hours, the couple racked up hefty overtime charges. “My girlfriend rented the bike thinking it was $7 for the whole day, and little did we know about the hidden costs and fees that put a hole in her account,” Torres said. However, the fee structure isn’t hidden at all. It’s clearly posted, in large print, above the touch screen of every docking station, as well as on the station’s large info panel. Manibo simply didn’t bother to read this key information that was literally in front of her nose when she checked out the bike.

“One of the biggest challenges of any new product or service is educating the public around how it works,” Divvy spokesman Elliot Greenberger told DNA. “It’s not surprising that some people will be confused but, at the same time, we’re upfront that you can take unlimited rides during your 24-hour or annual period.” He added that Divvy is relaxing its policies on late charges during this initial launch period.

Streetsblog Chicago’s Steven Vance is also quoted in the DNA piece, commenting that many of the bike-share users seem to be sightseers, rather than locals making A to B trips, something I’ve noticed as well. Steven feels that more marketing is needed to explain that the bikes are intended for 30-minute trips, and he suggested that a decal on the handlebars listing the overtime fees, like the one reminding users of the $1,200 replacement fee, might be helpful.

Riding Divvy near Oak Street Beach. Photo: John Greenfield

When I linked to the DNA article in our morning headline stack with the headline, “Couple Ignores Rules Clearly Printed on Divvy Kiosk, Whines About ‘Hidden Fees,’” a few readers wrote to say I was being unfair. One commenter felt Divvy’s 30-minute time limit, intended to keep the bikes circulating, is unreasonable, since many people, especially visitors, would like to take longer rides without being surprised by overtime fees.

I responded that it’s foolish to rent a vehicle without paying attention to the clearly posted rules about rental policies. I added that, while the bikes are meant for short transportation trips, not leisurely cruises, it’s possible to keep a bike all day without extra charges by checking it in every half hour, a practice known as “dock surfing.”

If that seems like too much of a hassle, the overtime charges are actually quite reasonable, comparable to rates at Chicago’s leading rental companies, Bike and Roll and Bobby’s Bike Hike, if you don’t hold onto a bike for more than two hours. After that, as the docking station’s info panel clearly states, “If you want to use a bike for more than a couple of hours, it may be more economical to rent from a bike rental shop.” A list of local bike rental companies is posted on the Divvy website.

Text about extended rentals from the docking station's info panel.

As I said, there seems to be a high number of sightseers and others holding onto the bikes for extended periods, judging from the quantity of Divvies on the Lakefront Trail and the common sight of the blue bikes leaning on their kickstands by the water or a volleyball net. Perhaps long-term use is more common in Chicago right now than other bike-share cities since our system is currently focused on the tourist-friendly central city, and the path is a convenient place for a leisurely pedal. However, data on the prevalence of trips that exceed the time limit is not yet available. At any rate, when the system expands to other neighborhoods this summer, more residents will start commuting by Divvy, so it’s likely the fee structure will become common knowledge.

Last Thursday I buttonholed a few different groups of people using the bikes on the lakefront between Oak Street and North Avenue. Most of them turned out to be tourists. Their knowledge of the fee structure varied from a Boston family who are Hubway bike-share members and were therefore completely comfortable with the 30-minute ride concept, to a couple of local teens who said they didn’t know about the time limit.

After hearing about the late fees, these teens rode off to dock their Divvies. Photo: John Greenfield

The boys, who also said they were unaware that minors are supposed to be accompanied by an adult while using Divvy, had parked their bikes on the concrete promenade south of North Avenue and were taking turns swimming. I explained that they were accumulating overtime fees while they were relaxing by the lake. “Thanks for the info,” I said, concluding the interview. “No, thank you for the info,” one of the teens responded. On Sunday morning, when a random potential Divvy customer woke me with an 8 a.m. phone call, asking how the fee structure works, I was convinced that better communication would be helpful to educate people about the rules.

Steven’s suggestion of listing the fees on the handlebars is a good one. Printing them in even larger text on the kiosks might be helpful as well, and perhaps future display ads for Divvy could be worded to make it as obvious as possible that passes and memberships entitle users to an unlimited number of 30-minute trips, not unlimited use of the bikes. If we want to attract a maximum number of riders, Divvy needs to be as user-friendly as possible.

Edited on 12:05 pm on July 23 to reflect the fact that the third half hour of continuous Divvy use costs $4, as explained on the website, although the, admittedly confusing, text above the touch screen and on the info panel could easily be interpreted to mean the third half hour of use costs $6.

  • chris

    For what it’s worth, the Divvy rep who came to our office (to distribute our employer-provided annual passes) told us how to dock-surf. I don’t think they see it as a problem.

  • That data hasn’t been released, but I’ve probably interviewed two dozen Divvy users at this point, and many of them were visitors using Divvy for multi-stop sightseeing.

  • Anonymous

    I did not intend to imply that I believe Divvy should be used as something to take to a restaurant and hold onto while you eat for an hour and a half. I was just pointing out that I think Divvy should encourage dock surfing because that means the user is engaged in active usage which is why they have the time limit in the first place. The problem when you first hear about the 30 minute time limit is that it just seems to put a big limit on the utility of the service in a city as large as Chicago. I realized this on Saturday night during Pitchfork when the lead singer of Belle and Sebastian brought up Divvy as a service he enjoyed more than NYC’s Citibike, which he said was more stressful, but then brought up the 30 minute time limit and people in my party were like, “Oh wow, that sucks. What can you even do with it?”

  • Anonymous

    They need it at Riot Fest.

  • Anonymous

    Posted this before, but her it comes again ’cause I luv the photo . . . and it’s somewhat relevant to your comment.

    Mobile docking? Divvy valet? . . . or oh, the humanity mass of bikes!!??

    No, we don’t need PBLs or other cycling improvements – people are still driving everywhere.

    Go Divvy, bike daily rentals, bike paths, PBLs, and . . .!

  • Anonymous

    While everyone is complaining about the late fees, I wanted to vent at how frustrating it is to rent a bike. My dad came in from out of town and since he didn’t have a bike, we got one at Oak Street & Michigan. It took us about 6-7 minutes to pay for and pull the bike out, not counting the mishaps we had with the first charge not taking properly. He wanted it for a ride down the Lakeshore trail, but as a transportation option, doing this seems highly impractical. It’s much more acceptable with an annual membership but still.

  • Anonymous

    How much would you pay for an annual, unlimited CTA card? Divvy’s equivalent is only $75.

  • Jin Nam

    Divvy is a point to point transportation option, primarily. 30 minutes is plenty. Dock surfing is just practical planning. It’s a legitimate way to use it if time becomes a constraint. The overtime charges on the bikes somewhere is a great idea, not just to inform the user of the 30 minute rule but I can see myself considering whether I need to peddle faster or shrug and accept the charge for another 30 minutes, situation dependent. Information is a good tool to have!

    Side note: There are two “regulars” I see on my way to work in the mornings who use Divvy to commute to work. They are in work clothes and peddle along Monday through Friday. It’s cool to see that.

  • Anonymous

    Out of curiosity I made my own calculation of frequency the bikes are ridden based on the data that Divvy provided yesterday. They reported 50,000 trips, 14,000 24 passes sold and 3,100 annual members signed up over the 24 day period it was open. Bear in mind these are just estimates and by no means perfect, but they should be a good ballpark.

    The average number of annual members is 1,550…we need to use average since it’s a rolling figure. Assume each average member takes 1 trip per day, that comes out to 37,000 trips (= 1,550 x 24). That implies that 14,000 passes took an average of .9 trips (= [50,000 – 37,000] / 14,000).

    I’m not sure if that seems right though. We know the annual members can’t take more than 50,000 trips during this period, so the approximate max trips per day can’t be more than 1.35 (= 50,000 total trips / [1,550 average members x 24 days]). Maybe annual members dont use it every day, maybe it’s like an every other day thing, which makes sense. So what if the average annual member takes .5 trips per day? That leaves us with 19,000 trips taken by annual members, which then implies 2.3 trips for each 24 hour pass. How about .75 trips per day? That corresponds to 1.6 trips by pass holders. Hopefully this makes sense.

    This wasnt the only data point we got though, Divvy put out the same stats at the 14 day mark, so really we have three time periods to measure (days 1-24, days 1-14, and we can back into days 14-24). The good news is that usage is increasing. I’m not sure which group it is (maybe both), but people are definitely taking more trips than initially.

    Honestly, I have no idea how to actually evaluate any of this because I dont know what’s typical for a bike sharing plan, or what Alta would consider above or below target at this point in time. Here’s what I can be reasonably confident about though: 24 hour pass customers almost certainly take less than 3 trips on average. The math works out such that the only way to get to an average of 3 trips, annual members must only ride twice per week which just doesn’t seem likely. I think it’s more likely that annual members take 1 trip per day, which implies that 24 hour passes take 1.6 trips (based off days 14-24). I guess my only point is that the 24 pass buyers aren’t taking very many trips (on average) and almost certainly not taking advantage of the bike over the full 24 hours which they purchased it for. And obviously, I have too much free time.

    Do any annual members out there care to estimate how many trips per week you’re taking?

  • Anonymous

    I am taking between 1 (weekdays, one way home) and 3-4 (weekends) trips per day.

  • Anonymous

    By the way, you should check out the dashboard at the Capitol Bikeshare site. I assume Divvy will do something similar once it has a few months or more of data.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t agree it isn’t advertised and encouraged. The “How it Works” page on the Divvy site lists step 5 as “Repeat” — “Take as many trips as you want during your Membership or Pass period. Take any Divvy bike, any time!”

  • Anonymous

    I’ve seen it, it’s pretty awesome. Thanks

  • Anonymous

    Here are a few other stray observations:

    Annual members had a huge pop in the first week, selling an average of 286 memberships per day (guess a lot of it was on the first day). That’s since fallen off to about 60 memberships per day which still seems strong. No idea where that bottoms out.

    Number of 24 hour passes sold per day is increasing nicely, from 429 in the first week to 700 in the last 10 days. Overall, the number of people riding bikes is going up even if the average number of trips is declining.

  • Tom Hagglund

    I’ve been an annual member since memberships became available back in May and have taken two Divvy rides since then (not counting the Daley Plaza to Diversey/Wilton ride I took on the rainy Divvy kickoff evening). Each were from Weed/Kingsbury to the Ashland/Armitage “Clybourn” Metra. I walked a half mile (from work on Goose Island) to the nearest Divvy station at Weed/Kingsbury, then 8 to 10 minutes Divvy ride to the Metra. For me, a 30 minute limit is three times what I needed. When Divvy stations open up in Greektown and Chinatown, I can see myself using Divvy more. In fact, with the Red Line currently not operational to Chinatown, Divvy would be brilliant right now to go get dim sum from the South Loop.

  • Anonymous

    Having used a 24 hour pass, I would say the main drawback to replacing it with 30 minute $2 rides is that the initial transaction takes a long time. Repeat check outs are much simpler: a card swipe and two click on the touchscreen and you get a code. 10 seconds compared to a minute and a half maybe.

    Making them all individual rides, would require users to go through a similar process every time they rent a bike

  • Anonymous

    For now I say one choice is good enough. In the future once the system
    is rolled out, and all the kinks have been worked out, they can look at
    introducing more choices to maintain a modicum of growth.

    More choices might be a way to maintain growth, but increasing the number of choices now is not the answer if the problem you’re trying to solve is lack of clarity in communication.

  • Anonymous

    Your employer provides annual passes?
    Are you hiring? ;)

  • Right duppie, just as it’s more convenient to use a annual membership key than a daily pass – you just stick the key in a dock, grab a bike and go.

  • csp

    If they can’t even read the kiosk, do you really want them riding on the streets???

  • Cecilia Gamba

    Interesting question. For me, that would definitely replace the annual membership. I’ve bought the membership even though Divvy can’t be part of my regular commute, because I want to have the freedom to use it whenever it may be convenient, probably just a few times per month – no way I would pay $7 every time, I would just find other options. But a $2 single-ride option would definitely be appealing for those occasions, since it’s comparable to a bus or train ride (my likely alternative). If I make less than 3 trips per month on average, it’s more convenient than the $75 annual pass. I don’t know how many other users are in my situation (I don’t suppose too many, at least at this point), but I suspect there are many non-tourist that with that option would use it occasionally, while they don’t right now because neither of the 2 price options work for them (this is my husband’s case, for example).
    So, wit that option Divvy might lose some income on annual memberships but sell more single-passes.. not sure where the balance falls, but since this is the standard approach for public transit fare I wonder what might be the reason?

  • Christine Price

    Sounds like a good case for an annual pass. Think you will make more than 7 Divvy trips in a year? Just get an annual pass. Bonus: the checkout process is SO MUCH EASIER.

  • Christine Price

    For the CTA, you also have to wait for the bus/train, have less control over your route (good luck getting from Logan Square to Lakeview!), etc etc. Really it’s closer to a pedicab. And Divvy is certainly WAAAY cheaper than that.

  • Fred

    It would be nice if you could pay for/get your code online ahead of time, or even with a cellphone. Have the Divvy app attached to your CC, press the “Buy Trip Now!” button and have a code pop up on your screen. No interaction with the kiosk necessary at all.

  • Anne A

    I’ve been seeing a fair number of commuters riding Divvy bikes in the Dearborn bike lane in the morning, as well as some in the evening.

    I got an annual membership, and I’ve taken at least 20 trips in the last 3 weeks. I’ll echo the comment above about wanting stations in Greektown and Chinatown.

  • Tom Hagglund

    Admittedly, some of the Divvy language could be more precise. When telling folks what Divvy bike sharing is, I usually replace the words “24 hour pass” with “24 hours of access to the system in 30-minute chunks” which I think gets the idea across better (though awkwardly). In explaining the difference between bike rental and bike sharing, I usually describe Divvy as a sort of taxi service, which gets you very close to where you wish to go (more so than a bus or train). It can be used for extended times if you really want to check in every 29 minutes, but that’s a bit cumbersome and bike rental is possibly the better tool for an all-day recreational meander through the city. You can sightsee all day from a Divvy, just as you could conceivably sightsee all day from inside a taxicab, but there might be better ways of going about it.

  • Anonymous

    When I was in Boston last year, this is exactly how I used the Hubway system. It was transit, pure and simple. I went from the hotel to the convention center by Hub, checked my bike and was done until lunch time. Checked out a bike, rode to lunch, checked it in. Finished lunch, checked out a bike, rode to the convention. Repeat with some museums thrown in to the restaurant mix. It worked great!

    Things I really liked about the Hubway:
    -docks everywhere in downtown area
    -SpotCycle app was fabulous! Maps, station updates showing how many bikes/how many dock slots open, 30 minute timer with alert sound, etc.
    -48 hour pass option for $12. I was able to get a Hub bike from Fri. evening through Sunday afternoon, which was flawless for my needs!

  • Let’s say 10% of people dock surf to skirt the 30-minute time limit. That still means that 90% of people are still self-distributing the bikes. That’s still good, right? Besides, it’s not like people are riding these out into the middle of the prairie. When they dock their bikes, there’s an entire city of amusement awaiting them, and y’know, these are meant as transportation first and recreation second.

    Think of dock surfing like free coffee refills at a diner. If the waitress just gave everyone a gallon jug of coffee, a lot of people would drink way too much lukewarm coffee, and the diner would suffer severe consequences. By making you request the (free) additional coffee from a server, you create just enough of a transaction barrier to mildly discourage binge consumption.

    FWIW, when I first used Bixi, it had a 2-minute waiting period between docking and checking out a new bike, but that was done away with partially to address this concern.

  • How do you ensure timely returns? Plus, credit card transaction fees are punitively high for amounts <$10. Plus, purchasing a $7 daily access pass takes several minutes, what with all the prompts reminding people of various things like, oh, the overage fees. You really want me to do that every single time I want a bike?

  • That two-minute waiting period would be really annoying if you wanted to dock surf, which is what they intended, but I’m glad they dropped that policy.

  • Libby

    I ride Divvy almost every workday but for an exercise break from my long work day and Metra commute. It is awesome! What an addition to an already cool city! And, now I shop Michigan Ave and State St because I can get there is quickly instead of shopping in the burbs near my home. People ask me all the time at traffic lights, at work, and just because I carry a helmet the city about how Divvy works — like riding in traffic safely, cost and how to sign-up ($75/year is very reasonable) and what I wear when riding (fit & flare dress with capri tights are my favorite). I say just give it some time while tweaking the small things. Very appreciated add to Chicago!

  • OzParker

    After looking at my ride history, I average between 9 and 15 trips per week.


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