10:22 AM EDT, October 24, 2013
Powder-blue, with cartoony lines and cushions everywhere, the Divvy bike looks like something a 7-year-old would be very excited to find under a Christmas tree or, more feasibly, near a Christmas tree. A not-unreasonable first reaction to one is to look for the training wheels.
Its upright riding position is better suited to a sail catching the wind than a rider trying to cut through it.
It has just three speeds, and if your legs have even modest muscle tone, you will not use the first or second of them, and the third will be inadequate to push you faster than you can already go on the modest downhills of downtown Chicago.
I have come to admire, even adore these utility vehicles — not much sport involved — for the way they change the landscape of Chicago and make getting around town so much more interesting than popping in the back of a cab and enduring some smooth jazz.
I admit that I scoffed initially at the system, which, beginning in June, has planted close to 3000 bikes at almost 300 stations around the city, with the final 1,000 and 100 to come next spring.
Not real bikes. Not real riding. A thirty-minute ride limit? And what if your Divvy station was out of bikes, or out of parking spaces? Bah and humbug.
Three months, one, $75 annual membership and many rides around town later, I am a convert bordering on evangelist. Give me a chance, and I will knock on your door and leave you with some Divvy literature.
Chicago, simply put, is a bigger and better place for those of us who work downtown, or who visit frequently, because of the presence of Divvy.
I can now, say, go have lunch at Xoco without adding the cost of taxi rides to and from the restaurant to my meal bill. Indeed, I have paid for the membership probably twice over already in saved cab fare.
I can run a quick errand cheaply, as when I spilled coffee on a decent pair of jeans and needed to get to a laundromat. Throw in cab fare and maybe the save attempt isn't worth it. (The pants, you'll be relieved to hear, are fine.)
In most cases the bike ride takes only a few minutes more than the taxi would and at rush hour it can be quicker.
Probably the most important benefit is one that has proved out in cities around the world that have introduced bike-sharing systems, experts say: It's increased bike ridership generally.
In my case, the presence of the Divvys has reminded me of how much I like riding a bicycle and got me back up on my own machine, commuting the 18 miles round-trip to work as many days a week as I can.
I say all this in praise of Divvy even after my near wipeout and my occasional frustration with maintenance, performance and finding bikes or docking them.
How It Works
To ride a Divvy you pay $7 for a 24-hour, unlimited ride pass. During that period, your credit card, inserted into one of the readers at each station, will get you an access code to unlock a bike. Each ride must be completed — the bike returned to a Divvy station — within 30 minutes or you will be charged overtime. The real bargain is the $75 fee for the same privileges over 365 24-hour periods. That earns you a Divvy-blue key card that you simply dip into a slot to unlock a bike.
A Case Study
On Michigan Avenue, right in front of Tribune Tower, there is a sign above a stairway to lower Michigan Avenue that says, "Navy Pier Four Blocks."
In a city full of tourist traps — including Navy Pier itself — this sign might be the greatest tourist trap of all. I have watched families with young, but walking, kids look at that sign, decide to go for it, and head down those stairs. I have felt for those families, even stepped in to warn them about what the sign doesn't say.
The alleged four blocks of Illinois Street that connect Michigan Avenue and Navy Pier are to regular city blocks what the stretch limousine is to the Mini Cooper, what the Lebron James model human being is to the Verne Troyer.
Google Maps puts the distance at 1.3 miles and, on foot, 27 minutes. For comparison, the four-and-a-half blocks of North Michigan between The Gap and Neiman Marcus check in at .3 miles and 6 minutes. That's what "four blocks" should mean. A toddler — a very fashion-forward toddler, mind you — could easily handle that one.
To beat this forced march to Navy Pier, you can wait for one of the trolleys that ride occasionally along Illinois Street. You can pay a taxi $9 or so to get there, and it'll take between 5 and 12 minutes, depending on traffic.
Or you can Divvy. My Sept. 20 ride from the Cityfront Plaza station between the Tribune and NBC Tower to the Navy Pier station took me 4 minutes and 33 seconds (a nice side benefit to the annual membership is that you can look up all your rides).
Add a walk of less than 2 minutes to get to and from the stations, and you've done the whole thing in about eight minutes.
And then you are at Navy Pier. Congratulations.
The Longest Rides
How does the 30-minute time limit work in practice? In my experience, it's been pretty easy to do what I want and need to do around Chicago within that time.
You just have to think of biking a little differently. Instead of reaching a destination and locking up your specific bike (and worrying about it, by the way), you find a station and drop off a shared bike. When you're ready to move again, you just grab another shared bike.
My longest ride, in terms of distance, was a perfect example of how useful Divvy can be and how much ground you can cover in half an hour.
One late summer day, none of my early-morning golf partners was heading downtown after our quick nine holes at the lakefront course we still call "Waveland."
I called up the app on my Android phone (more on those elsewhere) and learned there is a Divvy station right at Irving Park Road and Pine Grove Ave. with bikes available.
Instead of getting downtown via a costly cab or hopping a bus, which would have taken at least as long, I got a nice ride along the lakefront.
And although the bike I took that morning kept slipping gears under duress — dropping maddeningly from third to second when I pedaled hard — I still made the 5.7 mile trip in 26:48. (The gear slippage has happened twice with Divvy bikes I've used. Not enough to call it a trend, but something to watch for.)
For another trip I decided to Divvy to the Bridgeport neighborhood for an interview there. That's a 6-mile trip, and with only about half of it lakefront riding, it took about 32 minutes.
But I avoided overage fees by planning well. Figuring I should leave myself time to get lost on this new route, I had decided to restart the 30 minute clock at about the halfway point, the Museum Campus Divvy station immediately southeast of the Field Museum.
The conclusion is that you can cover up to, say, 5 miles pretty comfortably in 30 minutes, and with the growing number of stations, you can hopscotch your way to longer trips.
Word of caution, though: You will work harder to cover the same ground on the Divvy bikes — one observer compared them, aptly, to Clydesdales — than you would on most road bikes, hybrids or even mountain bikes. So you may arrive with a slight glow, as we genteel people call sweat.
1. Know your seat height, and set it before you engage the bicycle. The seatposts have handy markings along the side. I move the seat to 9-1/4 and make sure it is straight and tight. If you don't tighten the quick-release levers enough, it'll wobble on you. Do this first so you don't spend any of your 30 minutes adjusting.
2. Get a helmet and use it. The big, dangerous flaw in the system is that it puts a lot of helmetless riders onto city streets, especially the congested ones of downtown. Whenever I'm tempted to think, "It's just a short ride, at relatively low speeds," I remember what the ER doctor told me after my one big bike wreck, a couple of decades ago. She said she had seen such gruesome bicycle-accident aftermaths in her job that she no longer rode in the city. So I bought a new helmet for my commute to work on my real bike, and I keep the old one at my desk, for Divvy trips. Bonus: It's blue, so it sort of matches.
3. Get one of the several available apps. Free of charge, these will tell you where stations are and how many bikes and docks they have available. The Divvy web page recommends the CycleFinder app for iPhone or Android. On my Android device, I've been using Divvy Bike Locator, with good results, and I just noticed that there's now one available called Chicago Bike, which looks like it's worth trying out, too.
4. Keep a spare backpack around. Divvy's storage rack, located on the handlebars, is modestly sized and the strap pulls so tight it would break eggs from a grocery run. A backpack will quadruple, or more, your safe carrying options.
The seats. Bike seats are a very personal matter, and I will say that, personally, I really do not like the Divvy seats. Not only are they so big and wide and squishy they feel more like a beanbag chair, but they tend to pitch me forward just enough to be annoying.
The bicycle redistribution. I've come upon stations I wanted to use with only one available dock, or one available spot, and I've come across empty stations or totally full stations. (I don't always check the app first, which is a mistake.) I did use the app before I tried to dock at Water Tower the other day, but the two available docks were, it turned out, both broken so I had to dock over at the Museum of Contemporary Art instead. Not a big deal, but if I had an appointment, it would have made me a late. I've seen the Divvy system trucks working to get bikes to and from the right places, but the system is far from perfect and if demand continutes to grow, it'll be harder to keep up.
The station locations. Right now the stations go only as far south as Hyde Park, as far west as Logan Square and as far north as Berwyn Avenue. The range will increase a little bit with the next round of stations, but just a little. Within the grid there are some oddities, too. It's strange that the main Museum Campus station, for instance, is southeast of the Field. I understand that they need to be near roads so the Divvy trucks can get there. But it's a pretty far walk to the Shedd Aquarium from there. At least there is a station further out, by the Adler Planetarium.
Hauling capacity. The lack of it does place a limit on the vehicles' utility, which was sort of the point, I thought. In the little handlebar rack, you can carry stuff roughly the size of briefcase and no more. The rest needs to go on your back or, in a challenge to your riding equilibrium, in your arms. I suppose a rear fender rack would make the bikes more expensive, but they'd also become much more useful for the intended purpose of short trips around town.
The bikes themselves. I understand they need to be simple and durable. And, really, all things considered they're fine. They roll okay and absorb jolts well on big, fat tires. The hub brakes have decent stopping power, even in wet weather. The pedals hold your feet okay. But I would really like just one extra gear for a little more pedaling power. What about mixing in a few moderately sleeker models in the next purchasing order? Pretty please? It would make the whole system more fun, too, as getting one of those bikes would be a bonus.
The short lesson here is never ride on a sidewalk, even an empty sidewalk. I was buzzing down to the Field Museum, and to make it easier to get past the garage entrances on Columbus Drive, I got on the sidewalk.
As I approached the light at Monroe Street, suddenly my bike started to go over. I hadn't seen the slight rise in sidewalk cement in one spot that put it a couple of inches higher than what was next to it. My wheel caught it just right and it was like a hand clamping down and pushing me over.
On a regular bike, I would have gone down pretty hard. But the Divvy architecture, with that giant step-through in the bike's center, let me kick both feet quickly to the same side of the vehicle, and I sort of stumble-saved myself as the bike hit sidewalk.
The only effect was a heel bruise that hurt for a few days. And the bike may have been scraped up a bit, too, but I didn't really check because, hey, it's a rental.
Some of the other places I've Divvyed to:
The Randolph Street Market area for a meal and concert. Lincoln Park Zoo. Kozy's Cyclery to grab a part for my real bike. The Green Line, to head home after my reporting assignment in Bridgeport. The Newberry Library, several times.
And here's the thing. It's now become my preference, even for longer trips. Like I said, it's usually not that much slower than a cab or public transportation. (Even my 9-mile, non-Divvy commute to work in the morning only takes a few more minutes by bike than by "L.")
I'm learning to think in Divvy transport terms which, sorry, colleagues, sometimes means schlumpier clothes around the office, or, in warmer weather, even shorts.
And you see so much more. Storefronts and homes you'd never notice in a motorized vehicle. The beautiful restored prairie park down by Bridgeport. And, these days, a whole lot of other converts to the cult of the powder-blue bicycle.
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