Divvy faces growing pains in Chicago
Chanda Blackamore, 19, of Bronzeville, pulls Divvy bikes from an overcrowded station near 1586 N. Damen Ave. (Lenny Gilmore/Redeye / August 26, 2014)
Since it was 10 a.m. and raining, Burgess figured not many people would be taking advantage of Chicago's bike-sharing program. She was irked to find the station nearest her home empty, despite the fact that it can house 15 bicycles.
Then it happened again. And again.
"Just about every time I go to get a bike there, there's hardly any bikes there," Burgess, 41, said about the Racine and Diversey dock. "It definitely fouls me up when I go to get a bike and there's not one there."
Burgess, a Divvy member since spring, is not alone in her frustration.
Call it the Divvy blues. With one year—and two summers—under its belt, Divvy has seen an explosion in membership growth and usage—and to a lesser extent, criticism. Some cyclists recently have taken to social media to complain about racks with no bikes to rent and racks with no spaces to drop off bikes.
Riders can buy unlimited daily or yearly passes, $7 and $75, respectively, but have to dock bikes every 30 minutes to avoid added charges.
Meanwhile, people would like to see more stations around the city. Officials announced last month that Divvy plans to add 175 stations and 1,750 bikes in the spring—a year later than originally planned, upsetting some Chicagoans who thought bike share was coming sooner to their neighborhood.
Divvy blamed the delay on Montreal-based Public Bike System, which filed for bankruptcy protection in January. The company supplies equipment and technology to Divvy's operator, Oregon-based Alta Bicycle Share.
This was not the first delay for Divvy, which was supposed to launch in summer 2012 but pushed the date back because of equipment manufacturing and testing. The program, which is paid for with a mix of federal and local tax dollars, began in June 2013. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois became a $12.5 million, five-year sponsor in the spring.
When it does expand next year, Divvy will have 475 stations, making it the largest North American bike-share program in terms of the number of stations, the city said. Divvy will operate in 31 of 50 wards, from Touhy Avenue on the north, 75th Street on the south and as far west as Pulaski Road. Currently, there are 300 stations.
It will not go to the suburbs, though, at least for now. In April, Gov. Quinn denied a $3 million grant to expand Divvy to Oak Park and Evanston.
Divvy's geographic limits have irked some riders. Matthew Krecun, 42, said he has taken Divvy a few times downtown but doesn't have a membership because there are no docks near his Northwest Side home.
"Seeing the announcement bummed me out," Krecun said. "I definitely want to take advantage of the bike share more often."
Jessica Hammer, director of marketing for the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce, said she regularly hears from residents and businesses owners who want stations in that North Side community.
There is one near Andersonville's southern border—at Clark Street and Winnemac Avenue, which has 15 docks. Under the expansion, there would be Divvy stops at Clark Street and Berwyn Avenue, and Clark and Bryn Mawr Avenue, two of the most requested stops, Hammer said.
"I think people are definitely looking forward to the time we can have more racks," Hammer said. "Sometimes it's difficult to get a [Divvy] parking spot at Clark and Winnemac."
The lack of parking spots in the bike docking stations have been a sore spot for some riders. For its part, Divvy displays on its website—in real time—the number of available docks and bikes at each station, a total that can change at any minute. If a rider gets to the station and sees that it's full or empty, he or she can use the station touch screen to find availability at the nearest stations.
To maintain the delicate balance of bikes and docks, Divvy employs a few tools. Earlier this year, the program expanded its valet service at downtown hotspots such as Union and Ogilvie train stations during rush hour and lakefront spots such as Navy Pier on weekends. The valet—a Divvy employee—stands at a station and removes bikes so the docks don't become too full.
Also, Divvy dispatches vans to "rebalance" docks by adding or subtracting bikes based on availability.
"We've been adding more rebalancing vans to our morning and evening rush hours throughout the summer, and it's something we're monitoring very closely," Divvy spokesman Elliot Greenberger told RedEye.
Jerome Stontz, 28, said he's been using Divvy occasionally since last summer to visit the lakefront and run errands. Recently, he's noticed problems with racks that won't accept bikes or lock properly. Users have to secure the bikes by pushing them into the dock and awaiting a green light. Sometimes the bikes require a forceful push or they can be stolen easily.
Stontz said he's also had difficulties with rental touch screens at some stations that sometimes have required Stontz to "pound on those things to get any reaction." Riders without Divvy memberships use the touch screens to enter their payment information to get codes to unlock the bikes.
The problems have been "recurring more and more. It's gotten to the point I even just thought about buying my own bike," said Stontz, of North Center.
Stontz said as long as the issues don't persist, he probably will become a member next year. Divvy counts more than
23,300 members, up from 6,769 members in August 2013.
A survey in late January found 97 percent of the more than 2,600 Divvy members who responded were "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with the program. About 70 percent of Divvy members have renewed their membership, Greenberger said.
The rate is "above our expectations based on what we've seen in bike-share systems of similar size in other cities," Greenberger said. To compare, the Boston Hubway Bicycle System, which began in 2011 and boasts 140 stations, has a membership retention rate of about 58 percent, a spokeswoman said.
In Chicago, Josh Tsui did not renew his membership this year.
Tsui said he did not re-up because of uncooperative weather and the competition between bikes and cars for space on Chicago roads, although he experienced a few Divvy glitches including lack of bikes at some stations.
"That was mostly my own fault for not checking the [availability] app beforehand. It seems like it has gotten better," said Tsui, of River North.