Friday, July 05, 2013

Chicago Bike Sharing - Divvy Review

All these blue bikes started popping up around Chicago over the last week or two, so I decided to take one out for a spin to see what they were all about.

Divvy is Chicago's answer to the Citi Bike in New York City. Its a bike sharing program subsidized by the Chicago Department of Transportation. The plan is for Chicago to have more than 4000 bikes across 400 stations strategically positioned around the city, though right now there are only about 60 stations, each with between 10 and 25 parking slots.

How does it work? There are two methods.

1) 24 hour pass - You pay $7 for a 24 hour pass which entitles you to unlimited 30 minute rides, good for tourists in town for a short time, one-off rides when you can't get a cab or the bus will take too long, or perhaps a trial run.

2) Annual pass - You pay $75 (or less with employer sponsorship) for unlimited 30 minute rides.

Each option has a overage rate which is automatically charged to your credit card if you keep the bike out for longer than 30 minutes. And if you never return the bike, they (attempt) to charge you $1200 for stealing the bike.

The system is not designed for long afternoon tourist rides or really long commutes - there are better options for that which Divvy will gladly point out on their website. The system is designed for short A to B trips that might be accomplished otherwise with vehicle traffic or your own bicycle. Divvy makes sense for quick trips to the grocery store or other errands, running out for lunch, a 20-30 minute bike commute to work, meeting up with friends, etc... You don't need to bother with storing the bike or locking it (assuming you place it securely into a Divvy station) or even coming back to get the bike later if you choose to take another transportation option later.

I decided to give the $7 option a trial run - which is a great way to familiarize yourself with the system before committing to the $75 annual pass. I 'dipped' my credit card into a kiosk at a station nearby my office at about 5:30pm on Tuesday. After running through what seemed like WAY too many TL;DR agreement screens, the machine finally spit out a 5 digit code printed on a receipt. Then I took the code down the rack to the chosen bicycle, and punched the 5 digit code into the locking mechanism and it released the bicycle to me.

A friend and I rode about 10 minutes towards my apartment building (yes I live very close to where I work) where another station was located about 500 feet away from front door. At that station I inserted the bicycle into the locking mechanism until the green light came on (very important to see that green light!) which did take one or two attempts before I figured it out. Basically you slam the bike all the way into the slot and hold it there. If the green light doesn't come out in about 5 seconds, pull it out and slam it in again. If the station you are returning to is full, you can go to the kiosk, report it full, and obtain another 15 minutes to go park at another station.

At that point we decided to take another bike out for another short trip to the grocery store. This time I selected "obtain a code" after first choosing English as my language. I dipped my card into the machine again, agreed to follow traffic laws, and it spit out another receipt with a code. I entered the code again, pulled the bike out, adjusted the seat (I am about a 6-7 on the notches marked on the seat post) and we were off to the grocery store. And so it went, I rode another Divvy back from the grocery, one to work the next morning, and again out to lunch and back the next afternoon. I could have ridden it to the bar after work as well, but had other plans. I could probably get 3 commutes out of a 24hour pass depending on when I come and go to work, which puts it on par with the CTA and certainly if you buy the annual pass and want to use it regularly. You're in the money in less than a month if you take a Divvy every day instead of the CTA!

The bikes themselves are sturdy, well built, and somewhat heavy. They have 3 gears which makes peddling easy for anyone. The have front and rear LED lights powered by the drive train I believe. The brakes, wheels, handlebars, and easily adjustable seats are all solid and comfortable. They also come with a bell! What they don't come with is a bike helmet - and Chicago is not, yet, the most bike friendly place. The ride is a bit slow - I would estimate the best you could do is about 3-4 miles in 30 minutes (7-8mph) if you follow traffic signals.

In the end - when all the stations are installed, and the bikes can be found as easily as a Starbucks, I think this will be a really great addition to the city and really useful to a wide range of people.