A few fewer cars ...

An interview with Divvy Bikes' Michelle Ponce De Leon at Techweek Chicago, June 27, 2013OK, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, I’m a “downtown” kind of guy and have never owned a car for general transport (I have de facto owned two, but just for brief periods linked to specific projects), so I always wonder why people insist on having them around. Of course, where I live, parking a car runs $4/hr (from 8am-Midnight) on the street or about $300/mo in a garage, so keeping a car around here is a special form of insanity. Frankly, my ideal world would probably look something like Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside (although I realize that most people consider that a “dystopian” vision), with everybody living in massive highrises … a concept not too dissimilar to that expounded by Dr. Christopher Drew in his talk at TEDxIIT a few months back regarding the development of sustainable urban environments. So, even though I don’t “get” cars, I do get the idea that it’s a good thing to have fewer and fewer of them on the streets!

This, of course, is the object of the third thing we shot video of while at Techweek … the new Divvy bike-sharing operation that’s just exploded across Chicago. You may have already either seen a Divvy “docking station” or some of the peculiar light-blue bikes out on the streets. The Mayor’s office just put up a Facebook post noting that there have been 25,000 rides, logging in 85,000 miles in just the first two weeks of the system being available!

So, what is “bike sharing”? Here’s what they say on the Divvy site:


Bike sharing is an innovative new transportation system you can use without having to own your own bike. The Divvy fleet is made up of specially designed, heavy-duty, very durable bikes that are found in a network of docking stations all over the City of Chicago. They are transit systems which allow users to control their own travel and is intended to be used for short, quick trips (typically less than 2 miles).

To ride, users can purchase 24-Hour Passes ($7) or an Annual Membership ($75) to use the system. 24-Hour Passes may be purchased from any station kiosk using a credit or debit card. Annual Members enroll online and receive a personal key used to quickly unlock bikes from any station.

Bikes can be returned to any station anywhere in the system, creating an efficient network with many possible connection points and combinations of departures and arrivals.

At Techweek, Divvy had a booth with a dozen or so of the bikes, system maps and other info (like cards good for free rentals). We got to chat with Divvy representative Michelle Ponce De León, and this is how she introduced the program to us (oh, and apologies for the grainy texture of the video – the space was heavily backlit, and to make her not be just a “talking silhouette” in this, I had to punch up the brightness quite a bit):

Speaking of maps … they have a very interesting interactive map on their site, which shows where all the currently-planned docking stations are going to be. Note the tense in that sentence … at the moment only 10-20% of the stations (my “eye-balling” of the map, not an “official number”) are in place, but there are going to be quite a lot of them. One of the cool things on the map, for the active stations, is a “fill level” sort of graphic that shows which have how many bikes. When you click on these it tells you where the docking station is, and both how many bikes are there, and how many docks are open.

Both of those data points are pretty important, as the Divvy system is set up for 30-minute rides, so if you don’t have that bike back in a docking station within 29:59 of taking it out of one, you’re going to start racking up over-time charges. Admittedly, the core idea of the bike-share system is to give folks an additional option for getting between home and work (which should, in most cases in the city, be within a half-hour ride), but the steepness of the over-time charges are a bit of a shock. On the one-day $7 pass the initial 30 minutes are included, so you could (with some planning) “chain rent” from docking station to docking station around the city and have a bike all day, but if you wanted to use Divvy for more recreational purposes, you’d be looking at an additional $2.00 for minutes 31-60, another $4.00 for minutes 61-90, and a whopping extra $8.00 for minutes 91-120 (and each 30 minutes beyond that), making a 2-hour rental $14.00 and a 3-hour rental $30.00 (beyond the $7 for the day pass). Now, this might not be far off from what existing bike rental places charge, but I’m sure it would come as a bit of a shock for the tourist who thinks they got a bike for the day for seven bucks.

Rates are considerably lower for annual memberships, which run $75 (working out to only about 21¢/day, being the obvious option for folks who were going to switch their work commute to the Divvy system) with over-time charges at $1.50, $3.00, and $6.00 (making longer rentals, given the negligible prorated daily charge, a bit more appealing).

I was surprised that the bikes don’t have baskets (that large splash guard on the rear wheel just screams for “saddlebag” baskets), but I suppose adding those would also add a whole extra level of maintenance for what’s going to be thousands of bikes … but the absense does limit their usefulness for short shopping runs (hmmm … there’s a business idea – a clip-on basket designed to work with the Divvy bikes!).

It will be interesting to see how Chicago takes to Divvy (which is owned by the City, but operated by a company called Alta, which runs similar programs in a half-dozen other places) … it sounds like the first couple of weeks have been quite successful, but this is something that really requires a lot of people to change their daily habits, and that’s never an easy thing.

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