My date with Divvy

A first ride-through on Chicago’s new bike share.

June 28, 2013

Blackhawks fans way outnumbered bicyclists in Chicago’s Loop today. But that didn’t stop excited riders from checking out the launch of Divvy, the city’s new bikeshare program.

I wanted to test out the new system as any other commuter might. So I started my commute on Metra to the Ogilvie Transportation Center. My plan from there was to rent a Divvy bike from one of three kiosks within a block of the train station and ride it to my office at Navy Pier.

At the corner of Clinton and Washington I found a Divvy station with room for 28 bikes. There were 19 there, and nine empty spots – enough to make room for anyone returning bikes here.

There were also three very friendly bike minions there – two bicycle ambassadors from the Active Transportation Alliance and one Divvy employee.

Over the course of a few hours I saw at least a dozen people renting Divvy bikes. A few, like North Sider Katie Heupel, had already purchased a $75 annual membership. She checked out her bike with a quick swipe of her new key fob.

“I’m so excited!” Heupel exclaimed with a wide grin. She normally takes Metra into downtown from the Ravenswood stop before making her way to her office by the Thompson Center.

“It’s too far to walk on a normal day,” she said. “But there’s another [Divvy] stop right by my office, so I’m thrilled.”

But most people I saw Friday morning purchased $7 day passes, saying they intended to try out the system first before they committed to a membership.

Korey Campbell, for example, said he had never commuted by bike before. Normally he takes the train in from Schaumburg, then walks about 25 minutes to his office in River North. This would be faster for him, he said, and cheaper.

“I get a Link-Up pass with my Metra ticket, which lets me ride the bus or subway,” Campbell explained. “That’s $55 a month. This is $75 a year.”

None of the cyclists I saw checking out Divvy bikes seemed to encounter any serious technical hurdles.

My own ride though, was not so smooth.

First I encountered problems with the checkout kiosk. The machine had behaved beautifully for the people who had checked out bikes before me. But when I got to the end of the checkout process, I wasn’t given an access code that day-pass users need to unlock the bikes. When I tried to request the access code again, it did not offer one. Instead, the Divvy employee suggested I go through the checkout process again.

I did, but it didn’t work that time either.

I called the customer service number advertised on the kiosk, in part to see how they might try to resolve this problem. I waited on hold for about five minutes before I gave up. Instead, I tried to checkout with a different credit card, thinking that might help.

But no dice -- and no bike. Instead, just an error message on the screen: “We are sorry, but we cannot process your request at this time.”

Luckily there was another Divvy station just two blocks away, at Clinton and Lake. I walked down Clinton, away from the Blackhawks parade, and asked the attendant there if his kiosk was working.

Yes, he said, it was.

And he was right. I went through the checkout process again, only this time, I was rewarded with an access code, and then a bike.

The bike itself took some getting used to. I found it heavy and slow compared to the bikes I normally ride. It was sort of like riding a pedicab or a cargo bike -- very steady and upright -- but with a squirrely front end. For me, the ride required some patience. I knew I would not be able to zip over to my destination at my normal speed. I just hoped I would make it there under the 30-minute limit.

I rode east on the buffered bike lane on Kinzie over to Dearborn, then jogged over to Illinois. As I approached Lake Shore Drive, I came to the Divvy station at the corner of Illinois and McClurg. I asked the volunteer stationed there if this was the closest station to Navy Pier. He said no, because there was a station actually on the pier.

I had left work at 9 p.m. the night before (thanks, deadlines!) and hadn’t seen a station there yet. But I decided to head down there anyway, to see if Divvy had installed it overnight.

They hadn’t.

So I circled back back to Illinois and McClurg, but by now I was worried about the time. My ride had been slow enough that I wasn't sure I would make it to my destination in under 30 minutes. And unfortunately, there was no way for me to tell during the return process.

So I popped my bike back into a holster and checked the time on my phone. Based on the time stamp on the tweet I had sent as I left Lake and Clinton, my trip had taken 32 minutes.

I was about to say something to the attendant, when he came over and noticed that my bike wasn’t properly secured back in the dock. “The green light didn’t go on,” he said.

I hadn’t noticed. But he was able to pull the bike right out again. It was clearly not secured.

“You have to really jam it in there,” he advised.

I tried, first at that dock and then at adjacent one. But the green light wouldn’t go on, no matter how hard I forced the bike back in.

I tried another dock, and then another, as the volunteer got increasingly nervous and worried. I felt bad for him.

“There might be a problem with power at the station,” he said, pointing out that some of the docks had no lights on at all.

He stepped aside to call his supervisor, while I kept jamming the front wheel of the bike into a holster. 

The volunteer asked for my name, and promised to make sure that I wouldn’t be charged for the overtime.

“Can you go to another station?” he asked.

“I’d really prefer not to,” I told him. The next closest station to Navy Pier was at Grand and Fairbanks. It was two blocks further from my destination, which was already about a 20 minute walk away.

Neither of us seemed sure of what to do. I tried to get the bike in one more time. And finally, after about a dozen attempts, I got it secured.

This issue with the docking station was by far the most serious problem I encountered. Had the volunteer not been there to point out the problem, I would have walked away thinking the bike was secure. Someone else could have then taken bike, which would still technically be linked to my credit card. If anything happened to the bike then, I’d be the one the hook for $1,200. And that person would technically be riding for free.

None of these problems, though, seem to be unique. Here’s the New York Times’ account of some of the technical glitches Citi Bike members encountered in the first few weeks of that bike share:

Many docking stations have proved temperamental, refusing to accept bikes or process credit card information. Others have at times shut down altogether. On some occasions, passers-by have been able to pull a bike from a station without paying, probably because the last user was unable to lock it back in place. Some riders have grown weary of testing individual bike docks in search of one that works, pedaling off to another station before the system eventually allowed them to end their trip. And when these riders have called to complain, they have been put on hold for 45 minutes or more.

Coincidence? Both Divvy and Citi Bike are run by the Portland-based company Alta Bicycle Share, and use equipment manufactured by the Montreal-based Public Bike Share Company.

New York’s technical glitches, including station outages, have improved, according to a data analysis by WNYC’s Transportation Nation blog.

“We're a month into the program now and the glitches have gone from onerous to occasional,”  Transportation Nation’s Alex Goldmark told me in an email. “NYC Bike Share still hasn't said what the causes were, but we know that software problems delayed the whole program launch almost a year.”

Before New York, the software that powers Citi Bike kiosks had only been used in Chattanooga, which has a system of 31 stations and 300 bikes.

In an email, Divvy spokesman Elliot Greenberger said that "the vast majority of riders' first-day experiences with Divvy have been positive. We did have some minor technical issues with a few stations as they first went online, and we have technicians on site addressing them."

I hope so. Even though there’s no Divvy station at Navy Pier yet, I’d like for there to be.

I have an unlimited number of 30-minute rides left on my day pass.

Robin Amer is a reporter/producer on WBEZ’s digital team. Follow her on Twitter @rsamer