Divvy: Chicago's Public Bike Program Divides and Shares

Why does it sometimes take so long to travel two to four miles in our fair city by public transportation? The city is hoping part of the solution to this question is Divvy, the new bike sharing program.

"Divide and Share" is more than a slogan. The new bike share makes the public transportation pie bigger by adding more capacity -- whether those seats are on a bus, train, or the saddles of 4,000 bikes.

Divvy is best for short trips that can be accomplished in under 30 minutes of biking. If your route is longer - or if you'd just like to keep the same bike for longer than 30 minutes without an additional fee - you can check it in at a Divvy station, and then check it back out. I've heard some people say that they don't like the 30-minute limit, but it's there to ensure there are enough bikes for everyone to use with as much distribution as possible. Sharing is caring, you selfish, heartless, good-for-nothings.

How to Divvy

Naturally, having advocated riding bikes while traveling and having done so in Paris and Amsterdam, I was very, very excited when I heard about Divvy, Chicago's bike share program. I have my own bicycle but I like Divvys (what is the plural for Divvy?) for commuting because I don't have to worry about thieves preying on my little Trek as it sits all day at the Metra station or locked up downtown outside. Fool me once...

You will need:

  1. A credit or debit card for the rental. If you lose or ditch the bike, it'll cost you $1200. $1200 bike, Divvy price if lost
  2. A helmet. It's actually not strictly required, but I would highly recommend protecting your noggin.
  3. Rudimentary knowledge of Illinois' rules of the road and willingness to follow them. Again this is not strictly required, but useful for keeping safe and playing nice with the drivers you'll be sharing the road with. Basic rules, Divvy, Chicago bike share
  4. A cell phone and the Divvy toll-free phone number if you can't find a station: 855-553-4889 or 855-55-DIVVY if that is easier to remember! Phone number on handlebars, Divvy. Call me maybe!
  5. A clock. You have T minus 30 minutes!

Riders can choose two options for a Divvy ride: a 24-hour rental or an annual subscription. I probably won't buy a year subscription until I move back to the city (fingers crossed). But here's a quick how-to for a $7, 24-hour rental:

  1. Plan the trip.
    • Find a Divvy station with the Chicago Bike Map or the online Divvy station map. Online station map shows the number of bikes and slots available.
    • Find your destination and look for Divvy stations near it. Divvy station, Franklin and Chicago Avenue, Chicago
    • Plan a bike friendly route either using Chicago Bike Map (available free at bike shops, mailed to you by online request, or online PDF) or Google bike maps.
    • If your trip will be longer than 30 minutes, find interim Divvy stations to dock and check back out.
    • Got all that? Go to the your starting Divvy station.
  2. At a Divvy station, select a bike in good working order:
    • Test the bike's rear and forward brakes (left and right hand brakes). Lift the rear wheel up, spin it and squeeze the right hand brake to test.
    • Adjust the saddle. The right height for the saddle is approximately at your hip. Pull the clamp out to loosen, then move the seat up or down and push the clamp back at the right height to tighten. Or just look for one that's already set at the right height.
    • Lift the seat to see if the chain moves freely when pedaled forward or backward. While that's happening, test the gear shift near the right-hand grip by turning the black rubber grip. The transition from first, second and third and back should be smooth.
    • LED lights for visibility, especially in the dark.
    • If the bike is in need of repair, hit the red button with the wrench on it.
  3. Using your credit or debit card, follow the instructions on the touch-screen terminal. You have to use the same card in that 24 hours to check out another bike (or re-check out the same bike). To do that, hit "Get another bike code."
  4. Memorize the five digit code (only using the numbers 1, 2 or 3) or grab the printed receipt. Quickly, now -- punch that code into the terminal for the bike you want. The code is only valid for five minutes. Old Divvy printed codes, Chicago
  5. Lift the saddle and pull the bike out.
  6. When you find your destination station, look for an empty dock. Line up the front wheel to pass through the slot. Look for the green light and listen for the beep to know you've returned the bike correctly (don't want to get that $1200 fine!).

How Divvy Can Be Divine

First off, Divvy is already awesome. The station terminals are relatively easy to follow in English, and other language options are offered. The maps of closest Divvy stations and instructions at the stations are helpful, too. The bikes are easy to dock and un-dock -- much less fussy than the Parisian Velib. The bikes, while not as fast as road bikes obviously by design, are a comfortable and easy-to-operate ride. Certainly the price points are very attractive, and a year's subscription will pay for itself in 10 days' usage. But there are a few things that Divvy can do to make it even better....

  1. Need more street signage. As in SIGNAGE AT ALL. I know Chicago pretty well, but if I want to make an unplanned stop, say, for ice cream, if I detour, I don't know where to find the closest Divvy station unless I call their phone number or I happen to see one. Perhaps as I use the system more, I'll get to know the locations better. But imagine if I were a visitor! And if the Divvy station is on the other side of a busy six-point intersection, well -- I won't know when to look for it, and if there's no sign, I'll easily miss it as I'm dodging buses, car doors and other hazards to my safety on any normal bike ride. I wanna see the signs, Divvy. Show me the signs.
  2. Get helmets on those tourists and other casual bikers. If the low price, cute colors, Chicago stars and high visibility can get more people to bike, I'm for that. But if these folks are likewise inexperienced bikers, don't know Chicago well and are without proper safety equipment and playing in traffic or on sidewalks, that's just a recipe for carnage. Currently only annual subscribers get a 20% discount at On The Route bike shops. 24-hour users don't get any discount.
  3. They're not like Starbucks, yet. Along the Ravenswood-downtown route I took last week, there are six stations 'coming soon'. They're not quite everywhere yet, but when they are, as the Velib stations are in Paris, that will be great. More stations are popping up, as shown by their Facebook page updates. And I hope they install stations farther north than Montrose and Clark. PLEASE, SOON! MORE THAN ONE!
  4. Brighter lights. I haven't ridden Divvy in the dark, but I'm not convinced at all these lil' LED buttons alone are gonna help me be seen or help me see very well. I'm a safety girl if you haven't already noticed!
  5. Divvy's 800-number staffers should be well versed in Chicago's streets. Their operators should also ideally be from, near or located in Chicago. (They're in Montreal.) When I was on my Divvy trip last week, I was visiting a client in Ravenswood. As my starting Divvy station was several miles south, the map displayed didn't go that far north. I called the Divvy number. I told the operator I was biking to Wilson and Ravenswood. The operator said they didn't have any stations near there. Here's our conversation:

Me: "Are there any stations on Wilson?"

Divvy Operator: "Let me look that up. There's one at Wilson and Belmont."

Me: "That's impossible. Wilson and Belmont both run east-west, parallel, they don't cross."

DO: "Well, that's what the map shows right here."

Me: *blergh* "Ok, whatever."

In the end I found out he was talking about Wilton -- so I blame that on my crappy iPhone 3GS -- but still. I think a local would have known I meant WilSon before I shut down into 'whatever' mode.

What's going to happen in Winter? (Yes, Winter in Chicago deserves a capital letter 'W'.) Can these Divvy bikes bear down when the Chicago elements rage through? Will anyone be crazy enough to ride them? Am I going to finally buckle down and buy lobster gloves and a balaclava (aka ninja mask)?

I don't know the answers yet. But I can't wait to find out. What are your thoughts/feelings on Divvy?

Please let me know if you've used the app... I don't have a great data plan on my supposed smartphone, so I haven't tried it. Thanks in advance for the input!