Friday, July 19, 2013

Still a few bugs in the system


     It is against the law to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk in Chicago. For adults, that is. Kids under 12 are okay.  One of the many rules, instructions and pieces of advice learned while preparing for my debut ride on the new Divvy bike share program, which the city rolled out in early July.
     To be honest, the idea of taking one of the communal bikes for a spin normally would never have crossed my mind. There is nowhere I need to go that can't be walked, cabbed, trained or avoided. And the whole shared bike thing has a distinct European tang to it. Something they do in Amsterdam, or Brussels, or France. Not in Chicago, that most American of cities. We Americans get behind the wheels of our Barracudas and blast down the highway. We own things, we do not share things. That's socialism. 
     Yes, I see a flaw in that thinking. Maybe that logic could be maintained when we were on top of the world and burning through its resources. Now, in dwindling times, well, perhaps some reconsideration is in order.
     That isn't what got me studying the Divvy web site, however. Riding one of its bikes was not to be a political statement. Actually, fate played a hand. I looked out the window of our office this week and saw, directly across the street, a rack of robin's egg blue Divvy bikes. It hadn't been there before. And now it was, a personal challenge. Life sometimes serves up these go-to-Nineveh moments, and when it does, you better get yourself to Nineveh. Otherwise, you end up in a whale. 
      So I began planning a brief bike excursion downtown, to satisfy capricious fate and keep myself on the breezy side of whales.  I read up on the Divvy system. The site is very friendly, with a map of bike docking stations, and brief helpful videos, explaining how to pay, how to unhook the bikes from their moorings (lift at the seat, not at the handlebars). It all seemed so simple. And only $7 for 24 hours, provided you break that into 30 minute rides, returning the bike to a station before your half hour is up. Ride more than 30 minutes at a time, they add more fees. If you keep the bike for six hours, you're out $102. 
     Wanting to be thorough — and to stay alive — I asked a devoted bicyclist pal of mine for extra advice. A professor of literature who thinks nothing of hopping on his bike and tearing across the city, I knew he'd tell me what I should know. I've ridden a bike downtown exactly once in the past 25 years — in 2000, when we were about to move from East Lake View to the suburbs, and biking to work seemed something worth doing at least once in my life—another challenge to be overcome. It was a pleasant spin on my lumbering black one speed Schwinn balloon-tire cruiser, down the lakeshore bike path, a trip that didn't turn slightly terrifying until I left the bike path and headed west toward 401 N. Wabash, the newspaper's old home. A lot of trucks in the city.
    My pal's central suggestion: be alert at all times. 
    "Head on a swivel," his reply began. "I have a three part routine: look ahead at traffic/ground conditions (potholes), then at the parked cars for potential doorings, then in the rear view mirror for what's coming up behind me. Then front, side, rear, repeat perpetually. I've actually rewired my damn brain doing this."
     No wonder I've let more than a dozen years go by since I last attempted this. He wasn't done. "And go slow," he warned — not an issue for me —"most people I know who get doored were going fast and so did not have time to stop."
    If "door" as a verb is unfamiliar to you, it refers to a bicyclist riding into a flung open car door. Riders get killed that way. 
     Despite this chilling advice, I decided I was going to do it. On Thursday. Even thought it was supposed to be nearly 100 degrees. I can be determined, when I choose to be, and I've always thought that scuttling plans due to weather is for the elderly and the weak. I also had inspiration, a manageable goal: Skrine Chops, at 400 S. Financial. Off the beaten track for walking. But perfect for a bike jaunt. I haven't been there in months, so am Skrine deprived. The plan was, I would ride my Divvy bike across the Loop, Skrine up with a pork chop sandwich, and return. The dangers would be slight and acceptable—this is a pork chop worth risking your life for. 
      But I didn't want to face any more risk than was absolutely necessary. Before leaving for work, I went into the garage and dug out my bike helmet, a Bell helmet covered in dust and cobwebs. At first it seemed like a lot of bother, to bring the helmet downtown. But the phrase, "not as much bother as learning to type with a stick held in your mouth" formed in mind, and that decided it. I cleaned the helmet off with a damp paper towel and tucked it in my briefcase.
      Just before lunch, a look of steely determination in my eye, I stood up, snatched my helmet off my desk and marched down to the street. On my way, I felt something unexpected: fear. Real fear. I was afraid to ride a damned bike downtown. I stiff-armed the anxiety. Too late now. Stepping into the oven-ish air was like being hit at the back of the knees with a mallet. I pressed on, crossed Orleans, and presented myself to the cheery blue-faced Divvy pylon. Clicked through various screens, dipping my credit card, giving my phone number and Zip code, agreeing that if I lose the $1200 bike I'm on the hook. (At least I assume that's what the fine print said —I couldn't bring myself to actually read it). All I had to do now was wait to receive a receipt that would give me a five-digit code to punch in and remove my bike. 
    I rubbed my thumb and forefinger together, anticipating the slip of paper, eyeing the blue bikes, trying to decide which one I'd pick.
     "We're sorry," the screen said. "We cannot process your request at this time." 
     Oh.  I stood there a moment. Briefly considered starting the process all over again. No, I had worked up a sweat just clicking through the screens. Maybe riding across the Loop at midday in this heat was in fact a Bad Idea. If fate had nudged me here, perhaps there had been a change in the cosmic order, and now I was being rescued, directed back upstairs. Okay then. Skrine Chops will have to wait. My helmet still under my arm, I retreated to the cool of the office, not without a certain sense of relief. I will definitely try out Chicago's Divvy bike sharing system. I am committed to doing that. Some day very soon. When the system is operational. When the fates decree the day apt for adventure. And when it's a lot cooler. 


  1. I'm sitting here laughing at the picture you painted, of you riding your old one speed Schwinn balloon tire cruiser downtown. Many, many, MANY years ago, I rode my bike to work every day from my apartment in Lincoln Square to my summer job at Chicago & Michigan so your journey brought back memories of that. I am curious though, did the Divvy system explain why it couldn't process your request?

  2. Seven bucks for a daily rental??? And if someone swipes the bike while you're leasing it, how much money are you out then?

  3. No, it was mum on that, and I wish it had given me a clue.

  4. So far Divvy has been pretty glitch-free for me, but I'm using the yearly pass/key thing. Between the barrier bike lanes on Dearborn and the downtown bike lanes on Grand/Illinois, Wells/Franklin and the lakefront path this scardy-cat feels halfway safe biking downtown.

    Re: David's comment, the $7 is for an all-day pass, so theoretically you could use it several times. But yes, you only want to use it station-to-station: if it's stolen you could be on the hook for $1200 (I think if some thugs took it from you they'd waive it but the Terms of Service says you have to report the theft to police within a certain period of time).

    1. Anonymous,

      Thanks for the update! My concern having worked with computer systems for well over 30 years is if you return the bicycle and the system doesn't register that. Then, you can run into all sorts of headaches. By way of comparison, my wife has had similar issues at a local library. Fortunately, she's been able to point out a few times that the "missing" book was actually there on the shelf. I'm not sure it would be that easy to do the same thing with one of those bicycles. Again - thank you for the info.

    2. The docks at the stations light up green to tell you if your bike is locked in place and registered. And DC has had this same bike share system full up and running for years, and losing bikes is almost a non-issue. In two years, only 15 bikes have been lost or stolen from DC's Capital Bike Share. Theoretically, there's the possibility of some computer error, but the same is true with just about anything in life these days, including every time you swipe a credit card anywhere or use an ATM.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. If you're heading from your office (presumably the Sun-Times offices in the Apparel Center) into the Loop, you may want to wait to try a Divvy trip to Skrine Chops until the Wells Street Bridge (and its southbound bike lane) is reopened this fall.

    I'd recommend starting your trips using low-volume streets (if you can find any in River North) or staying on bike lanes. If you're just joyriding and want to see a good cross-section of the City's bike facilities, head northbound on Orleans (traditional bike lane, except for Hubbard-Illinois), turn right at Illinois (traditional bike lane), turn right at Wells ("buffer-protected" bike lane, a little wider than a standard bike lane), turn right again at Kinzie ("barrier-protected" bike lane, a.k.a. cycle track), cross the river, turn left at Clinton (standard bike lane), and dock outside Ogilvie. A quick little jaunt that you can easily work into an evening commute.

    (N.B.: The trip is not reversible... bikes are expected to follow the same one-way rules as cars and bike lanes are provided accordingly, with the notable exception of the new Dearborn two-way track through the Loop, so Ogilvie-Apparel Center would probably be a simple Washington-to-Franklin/Orleans trip instead. Always plan your trip ahead.)

  6. They have the same program in Washington DC, except the first 90 minutes is included in the 7 dollars. After that, it does ratchet up rather steeply if you don't turn the bike in every 30 minutes. For two of us, we racked up the $14 (2 @ $7 ea.) and an additional $46 for extra time. It was a bit steeper than I thought it would be, but I think my husband took a long ride in the 2nd part of the 24 hours. And it was TOTALLY worth it!! I'm glad this has come to Chicago.

  7. I guess I don't understand the point of restricting each segment to just a half hour--or charging so much. What if you just want one 20-minute ride? 7 bucks? No.

    1. The idea is to basically keep the tourists and joyriders off the bikes and reserve them for commuters. It's $7 per 24 hours, but only $75 for a year, so if you plan on using a bike as part of your commute less than once a month, you're better off getting the annual membership.

      These aren't recreational cruise-and-relax trail bikes; these are commuter bikes that help bridge what transportation planners call the "last mile" problem of transit -- that is, the distance between your door and where you pick up whatever mode of transportation you're using. For instance, if you take Metra in from the 'burbs and your office is in, say, River North, instead of waiting for a bus or making a long walk or hailing a cab (which will probably be more than $7, by the way), you can grab a Divvy and bike to a corral near your office and vice versa in the evening.

    2. Scott,

      I just can't see many people who still have to wear formal business attire to work or have to take to work items like laptops or briefcases using these bicycles. You don't want to arrive at work sweaty and it's still considered a bit odd to change clothes when you get to work. Plus, how do you hold your laptop or say briefcase while riding? If it helps, that's great but I'm a born pessimist. Just ask Neil.

    3. Scott,

      Thanks for the helpful comments. My question is, if this became really popular, how would they maintain the inventory at each docking area correctly? If a train arrives and X number of people take all the bikes and ride to their offices, how are there enough bikes there, at that docking spot, for the people getting off the next train?


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