On 10 days of sharing bikes in Chicago

Chicago’s bike share program has been around for 10 days and 10,000 rides. As I’m responsible for more than .1% of them, I thought I’d share some thoughts about bike sharing and what it means for Chicago.

via @dylanr
via @dylanr

In short, the big blue bikes are changing the way I think about my city. Despite a couple of glitches, the blue velocipedes were worth the wait. Bike share has the potential to change the way we use the city as dramatically as the arrival of public transit did in a previous century. The ready availability of bikes in dense urban neighborhoods will alter residents’ decisions about where to go and how to get there. There’s a chance we’ll look back on 2013 and laugh about the hipster idea of sharing bikes, but I doubt it.

A week ago friends and I pondered where to go for a drink to wrap up what had been a long week. We were in the Loop but couldn’t agree on a place nearby, so we found an equipped Divvy station – we had to walk a few blocks as the closest one was out of bikes – and rode a mile away to West Town. In the end, our travel time, including the walk to find the bikes, the checkout process and the walk from the bike parking station to the bar, was equivalent to the 30 minutes it would have taken us to walk directly to the bar, but the prospect of the bikes expanded our notion of what was local. (I write this as someone who travels frequently, lives in the Chicago Loop, does not own a car and rarely ventures more than a mile or two beyond my apartment.)

Other thoughts:

  • The bikes. I haven’t used Capital Bikeshare since leaving DC two years ago, but from what I recall, the Chicago bikes are lighter with smaller baskets.  Divvy bikes only have 3 speeds–which is not a problem for flatlands like Chicago. I haven’t seen any bike share spinning classes yet.
  • Safety. The worst part of riding a bike in the Loop, and in most of the city, is the ever-present looming danger of automobiles. When I commuted by bike to the Loop from my former residence on the far north side, I had a close call with a car about once a week. The reaction of Chicago drivers will play a role in the bike share’s success — I’ve some friends who have scited cars as the only thing stopping them from using the bikes. (You can spot frequent Divvy users by the callouses on their left thumbs developed by frequent use of the bike’s bell.) The bike share complements the new dedicated bike lane on Dearborn St.– I’ve made detours to Dearborn for the security of the lane, even for short trips. The lack of helmets is a concern– Ellen McDermott suggests collapsable ones that could be easily carried, perhaps like this one. (Maybe we need GPS helmets?) (Another safety value add is that, unlike with my own bike, I don’t have to worry about thieves.)
  • Data. Beyond transportation, the shared bikes could provide insights into how people (or at least the segment that uses Divvy) move about the city. Last week’s Open Gov hack night focussed on bike share data. Via Steven Vance, Scott Kubly of the City said that all data “not tied to a specific user” will be open. So, we can now track the movement of the bikes using theanimated visualization of bike use from Oliver O’Brien. In New York, Anthony Townsend has ideas about other ways bike share data could be used. Divvy data remains shaky– I’ve found the information about the number of bikes at a station listed on the CycleFinder mobile app is inaccurate more often than not. I also have yet to find a mobile bike map that tells me how to make it station-to-station with the least number of cars near me.
  • Economy. There are three grocery stores near me, only one of which has a Divvy station nearby. I’ve shopped at that store three times since the bike share started after not visiting at all during the previous 9 months. I’m not the only one adjusting my local purchasing practices around the bikes– at what point will the other two stores start lobbying for their own Divvy stations.
  • Fashion. I visited Copenhagen last month where everyone, high and low fashion, rides bikes. We’ve still a ways to go in Chicago– it’s still rare to see people in business attire riding bikes.
  • Signup. I counted 15 screens when I bought my first 24 hour pass — and I had to repeat the process twice when it didn’t take. A membership card cuts those screens down to zero.
  • Value. If you’re in the Loop often (the neighborhood with the highest density of the bikes) you’re likely to find an excuse to rise at least once a month, making the $75 yearly membership ($.21 a day!) worth it. (There’s also a mysterious $125 membership option that comes with a t-shirt and 3 extra one-day passes.) One day last week I used the bike three times to travel between meetings, saving me more than $20 in cab fares.
  • Street cred. Perhaps because I used to be one of them, I sense an air of disdain from ral bicyclists not on the Blue Meanies. If the program succeeds, bike commuters, like drivers and pedestrians, will have to adapt to the encroachment of tourists and other noob cyclists in their lanes.
  • Kids. The bike share is tough (impossible) to do with a family. I’d pay extra for a kiddie car or a wagon.
  • Class. To use the bikes you need to be over 16 and have a credit card. Divvy places the cost to replace a bike at $1,200. Those factors, more than the bikes’ geographical distribution, will make it hard for many Chicagoans to participate. Chicago Public Radio points to programs in Boston and DC designed to make it easier for low-income residents to sign up; Chicago is developing similar plans.

[If you’re enough of an urban geek that you made it this far, keep an eye out for the Ignite Talk Kara Lindstrom gave at last month’s MIT Knight Civic Media Conference.]

4 thoughts on “On 10 days of sharing bikes in Chicago

  1. We’ve had a system similar to divvy in Des Moines for a while now (b-cycle), and with our less congested streets I never even thought about the lack of helmets… That is a bit scary on the streets of Chicago. Yikes.

  2. Very interesting read, thanks for the write-up! I hope that new stations come soon, as I live too far away from any to make use of Divvy. In fact, I haven’t even seen anyone on one yet, which is hard to imagine since everyone is talking about it! =)

  3. Economy. I do the same thing. Whichever store is safer to get to, has good bike parking, etc… is the store I shop at. I hate having to go to Home Depot because Ace Hardware (on Milwaukee, on my normal route) doesn’t have it.

    Fashion. Guy biking in a suit:
    Riding Divvy in a suit

    My app uses MapQuest bike directions, and it’s not that great (it routes down alleys!). So far no routing service I’ve ever seen takes into account traffic patterns. Maybe one day I will create my own and it will be the best. We don’t even know traffic patterns outside of highways because we aren’t tracking that data. CDOT is *slowly* advancing its techniques, installing bike counters in Dearborn and using video methods of counting traffic.

  4. When I checked out the Divvy stand by the Art Institute I had much the same comments as you. I worry about out of town families even considering riding the bikes on Michigan Ave. I think the bus or a walk is still the best bet. And I worry about the helmets. Until we have “real” bike lanes here, these concerns will not go away.

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