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CDOT claims the latest wave of Divvy thefts is under control

An abandoned Divvy on King Drive. Photo: Anne Alt

In the summer of 2018, hundreds of Divvy bikes went missing due to the shortsighted decision to remove a key piece of security hardware from the docking stations. Replacing that part and updating the station software seemed to largely address the problem. However, the city has acknowledged there has been a new wave of Divvy thefts this summer.

The problem has correlated with an increase in downtown crime, including episodes of looting on the Magnificent Mile, and the carjacking of a senior citizen last month by about a dozen men on the blue cycles. While any transportation mode can potentially be used to break laws, downtown alderman Brendan Reilly has argued that the apparent ease of stealing the cycles is contributing to the crime wave.

@Chicago_Scanner Theme of the month: unsecured Divvy’s are abetting crimes, again. If they can’t secure their bikes, they aren’t welcome in #Chicago.

— Brendan Reilly (@AldReilly) July 30, 2020

The spike in Divvy thefts has also coincided with current expansion of the bike-share system's service area into the Far South Side, as well as the debut of electrical-assist Divvies. It's a time when more Chicagoans should be viewing the network as a valuable resource to improve mobility and health for residents, save them money, and help get cars off the road. So it's definitely unfortunate that people like Reilly are seeing Divvy as something that has been contributing to the spike in crime.

Yes. I am currently working to address the Divvy theft issue, partly at the request of the Police Department. It’s a real problem & Divvy needs to step-up to be a part of the solution. So far I’m not impressed with the bureaucratic responses, so I’ve escalated the issue at CDOT.

— Brendan Reilly (@AldReilly) August 3, 2020

In the wake of looting on Michigan Avenue earlier this month, the Divvy system was shut down from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. each day. Here's Reilly's reaction, plus a statement that he'd heard from a Divvy worker that "a couple hundred" of the bikes had gone missing.

Yes. But a better move? Properly securing their bikes overnight. Yesterday, I asked a Divvy worker how many bikes were stolen during the Sunday / Monday looting & he told me “oh, a couple hundred.” He was busy retrieving Divvy bikes strewn around a looted storefront at the time.

— Brendan Reilly (@AldReilly) August 11, 2020

Even Divvy, which is run by Lyft, has publicly acknowledged issues with bikes going missing.

Seen a stray Divvy bike? Let us know! Tweet us at @DivvyBikes with a photo with the location and #Divvyphonehome so we can get our lonely bike back where it belongs.

📸 #CraigShimala pic.twitter.com/gPfYeyfyuD

— Divvy (@DivvyBikes) August 18, 2020

A Freedom of Information Act request Streetsblog made to the Chicago Department of Transportation about the recent Divvy theft wave turned up dry. The only document CDOT provided was a July 28 email from a Lyft staffer to CDOT officials with an attached doc labeled "Weekly Divvy Bike Check-In," which apparently included a discussion of the theft problem. However, the transportation department declined to provide the attachment, arguing that it was "pre-decisional and in draft form" and therefore exempt under FOIA.

But CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey assured me the problem is under control. "Security of the Divvy fleet is a top priority for CDOT," he said. "Earlier this summer, there was an uptick in Divvy bikes noted as missing during rental. While many of these bikes are returned to the system, some were stolen using fraudulent means. In response, CDOT and Lyft, the operator of Divvy, have been working with the Chicago Police Department to improve communication and coordination concerning the topic of missing Divvy bikes. Divvy has already taken steps to tighten security and these moves are proving to be effective in reducing the number of missing bikes."

A Divvy spotted at a gas station on the Illinois/Indiana border. Photo: Samantha Arnold.
A Divvy spotted at a gas station on the Illinois/Indiana border. Photo: Samantha Arnold.
A Divvy spotted at a gas station on the Illinois/Indiana border. Photo: Samantha Arnold.

Claffey said most of the thefts have involved fraudulent credit/debit card use at Divvy kiosks, not rentals using the phone app or Divvy keys. "In response, Divvy has already taken steps to tighten credit/debit card fraud prevention measures. It will be continuing to analyze the trends in data and refining its fraud prevention protocols as necessary."

The faceless crime blog CWB Chicago wrote earlier this month that according to "sources," the credit card/debit fraud has taken advantage of a loophole in the system when people buy single-ride or 24-hour passes at stations. (CWB, a pro-cop publication, has actually held fundraisers for police, so presumably these unnamed sources are their buddies at the CPD.) When you buy a pass with a card, you're supposed to enter your ZIP code, but the sources said that Divvy's security system had not been correctly matching the ZIP code entered with the one on the card, which allowed people who had stolen cards to check out as many as five cycles at a time.

A Divvy with a bent wheel abandoned near Lake Street and Western Avenue. Photo: Juan Dominguez
A Divvy with a bent wheel abandoned near Lake Street and Western Avenue. Photo: Juan Dominguez
A Divvy with a bent wheel abandoned near Lake Street and Western Avenue. Photo: Juan Dominguez

One of CWB's friends on the force apparently also told them that many people have used pay-as-you-go credit cards to check out up to five Divvies at once and not return them. According to the source, this kind of theft was so widespread that Divvy considered temporarily halting that payment option. CWB also wrote that there have once again been issues with faulty dock security hardware.

Hopefully CDOT is being transparent about having the theft problem under control. If not, I'm sure Alderman Reilly will continue to ride them on the issue.

People riding Divvies on Michigan Avenue on a Friday night in early August. Photo: John Greenfield
People riding Divvies on Michigan Avenue on a Friday night in early August. Photo: John Greenfield
People riding Divvies on Michigan Avenue on a Friday night in early August. Photo: John Greenfield

On the bright side, the theft wave has coincided with tons of downtown Divvy traffic on weekend nights. That suggests there’s a latent demand for free, convenient access to bikes, especially during quarantine when there are limited entertainment options. If bikes are easily available, people will ride them.

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