Getting Around: Divvy bike-sharing program catching on in Chicago

Tourists and enthusiasts like it. Now, commuters and drivers are hopping on, CDOT data show

Chicago's budding bicycle-sharing program has attracted thousands of tourists, biking enthusiasts and the just-plain curious this summer, city transportation officials say. But preliminary data obtained by the Tribune suggest the new service also is beginning to catch on with the primary target markets — public transit commuters and drivers.

There are also early indications that the Divvy bike-share program is clicking beyond the central business district, and is attracting customers in neighborhoods who are opting to pick up a bike, pedal a short distance and drop it off to run errands or go to appointments, then climb back on a Divvy bike for the trip home, officials said.

"In the high season of tourism, especially when you have events like Lollapalooza downtown, that's where we are going to see high ridership numbers. But we are seeing high ridership numbers all over the city," said Scott Kubly, deputy commissioner at the Chicago Department of Transportation.

The Divvy bike-share service, less than two months old, surpassed the 150,000-trip mark Friday, according to CDOT. About 5,000 annual Divvy members are enrolled, at $75 each, and more than 37,000 24-hour passes have been sold, at $7 each.

More than 458,000 total miles have been logged on individual trips since the service was introduced June 28, and the trips have averaged roughly 18 minutes each in recent days as more docking stations have opened, according to city transportation data.

Also, the three-speed bikes painted "Chicago blue" have logged more than 11,000 miles a day in recent days this month, with some weekend days exceeding 25,000 miles, the data show, based on the start and end points for each trip.

The service, dubbed Divvy to reflect the divide-and-share nature of bike-sharing, is not designed or priced for users to hog the bikes on leisurely, hourslong trips. Customers are supposed to use the bikes for 30 minutes or less on each ride. Riders get unlimited trips lasting up to a half-hour; after that, overtime fees are charged.

While on the one hand calling the public response to the Divvy program "beyond expectations," city officials have set a high bar for ultimate success.

One solid measurement will be whether significant numbers of city residents who own cars decide not to buy new vehicles when it comes time to replace their current ones, Kubly said.

"Bike-sharing is really another transportation option that is not a car," Kubly said Friday.

When the Divvy program has been fully operational for a year, in spring 2015, "we will be able to talk about how bike-sharing is really changing the choices people are making and their behaviors," he said.

Asked whether it is the Emanuel administration's goal to reduce car ownership in Chicago, Kubly did not say no.

"We want to provide people with as many options as we can for transportation and allow them to make the best choice they can for themselves,'' Kubly said.

Bike-sharing, which Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein predicts will become a popular "bike taxi option," is designed to blend in with the commuter lifestyle that also involves the CTA, Metra and, sometimes, taxicabs.

It is also a tool to help ease traffic congestion by promoting more walking as city traffic engineers work to make Chicago safer and more accommodating to pedestrians and cyclists by building wider sidewalks and more bike lanes, officials said.

A core component of the bike-share program is to serve as a link-up to CTA buses and CTA and Metra trains for the first and last mile or so of commutes, officials said.

Some of the busier Divvy bike-docking stations are clustered near CTA and Metra stations, which suggests that some commuters are incorporating Divvy into their transit trips downtown. No studies have been conducted to verify or pinpoint travel patterns, CDOT officials said, adding that the Divvy rollout will first be completed before conducting any in-depth analysis.

The preliminary data show that the busier Divvy stations near transit stops include the one at Clinton Street and Washington Boulevard, outside Ogilvie Transportation Center. It ranked No. 12 overall for the number of trips started from that location, almost 3,000, city transportation records show.

High-use Divvy stations near CTA rail stations include those at Michigan Avenue and Lake Street; Wabash Avenue and Roosevelt Road; and Canal Street and Jackson Boulevard, at the south entrance to Union Station, records show. Divvy use also is growing near CTA Blue Line stations, and there are signs the bike trips are replacing some bus commutes from the West Loop to the heart of downtown, officials said.

A strong response from transit commuters has prompted officials to increase the number of bike docks at the Daley Center Divvy station. In the morning the docks were filling up too quickly due to large numbers of commuters riding them from rail stations, and in the evening people were checking out all the bikes at Daley Center early in the rush period, emptying out the docks too fast, officials said.

Other Divvy stations, including at Clark and Randolph streets and at Millennium Park, have also been expanded, officials said.

Divvy, a $22.5 million program paid for through federal and local funds, is less than 50 percent implemented. A total of 400 stations will open in phases through next spring.

The numbers indicate the service seems to be building a steady following, in some cases even among hard-core disbelievers who originally criticized Divvy as being an expensive government boondoggle that would generate little public support beyond tourists. That initial assertion was reinforced when the Emanuel administration delayed last year's planned introduction of Divvy.

Bill Choslovsky, a Chicago lawyer who rides his bike on weekends, was one of the skeptics, certain that the program would fail.

"The first Tribune article I read was about the $22 million cost for 4,000 bikes," Choslovsky, 44, said Friday. "I asked myself: 'Are these magic bikes? What's the deal?'"

Then last Tuesday, during the evening rush period, he needed to go from his law office on LaSalle Street to his parents' apartment near Water Tower to celebrate his brother's birthday.

"I was late. I could have jumped in a taxi and that would be a slow crawl. It was about 2 miles — too far for a walk if I'm in a hurry. The 'L' was four blocks away and I didn't feel like sweating with strangers in a cramped car,'' Choslovsky said.

A Divvy docking station is right outside his office. So he figured: Why not give it a try?

He had a great — and fun — experience, calling it "genuine and organic." By Friday, Choslovsky was aboard a Divvy bicycle for the third time, and he is considering becoming an annual member.

"On some days riding the Divvy will take me 11 minutes and a taxi would take me eight minutes, but the Divvy bike has an almost cool, timeless sort of feel,'' he said. "Without being cheesy, it takes you back in time a little bit.''

Since the inception of the program, the top Divvy docking stations where the most bikes have been rented and returned are near the lakefront and at major tourist attractions. That's not surprising, in light of the service's introduction coinciding with the summer vacation season and the abundance of festivals and other events in the downtown area.

The top five Divvy stations are: Lake Shore Drive and Monroe Street; Millennium Park; Michigan Avenue and Oak Street; McClurg Court and Illinois Street; and the Museum Campus, according to CDOT data.

About 160 of 400 Divvy bike-docking stations planned are operating, mostly downtown and in River North, but more and more in high-density neighborhoods close to rail stations, as four to eight new stations are being opened daily, CDOT said. A total of 300 solar-powered Divvy stations will be open by the end of August, officials said, and the final 100 stations will be online by next spring.

About 1,500 of 4,000 planned bicycles are in service, according to Alta Bicycle Share, which manages the program for City Hall.

The downtown-area stations have been up and running the longest.

In a neighborhood snapshot that CDOT took within the past week, the Divvy station at Lincoln and Armitage avenues was used 119 times a day, officials said. The neighborhood Divvy station at Sheffield and Fullerton avenues was used 92 times a day; and at Damen and Pierce avenues, 81 times a day.

Choslovsky, the former Divvy skeptic, said the growth of bike-sharing in the neighborhoods will be the "real test.''

"Is it used in the real neighborhoods or is it a cute downtown urban touristy thing?" he asked.

"I said to people at my brother's birthday party, 'I Divvy. Do you Divvy?' Somebody laughed, they said, 'You are using that as a verb,''' Choslovsky said.

"That's where even I said to myself, 'I was wrong, these bikes may have a future.' When you use a noun as a verb, you know the product has arrived.''

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