When you’re a budget-tight student in a 555-square feet studio apartment, owning a bike can be a hassle–from scraping together the money to buy it to storing and maintaining it. And you have to weigh the odds of the bike getting stolen–it’s already happened to me twice. But my dream has finally come true: Chicago now has an unlimited bike sharing program called Divvy. My life as a full-time student of optometry isn’t exactly a thrill a minute, but THIS… IS… EXCITING! Last Thursday, after two weeks of unexpected delays, Divvy finally unleashed its awesomeness onto the city’s commuters and visitors. The $75 annual fee gives members unlimited 30-minute rides, or people looking for a shorter commitment can opt for unlimited 30-minute rides for $7 per day.
When I heard about Divvy a few months ago, I really thought it was too good to be true. I believe that Portland, Ore., is home to the first bike-share program in the U.S., and I’ve seen similar programs in cities like Montreal, New York and D.C. But I just didn’t know how bike-sharing would fit into the lifestyle of Chicagoans–particularly this Chicagoan. Yes, I had some doubts, but I went ahead and paid my hard-earned (erm, government-borrowed) $75 to sign up before the launch and become one of Divvy’s founding members (no joke, that’s what they call those of us who signed up early).
As a founding member, I got to join them in a pre-launch event on Thursday. Despite the nasty storm that rolled through right as the beautiful blue bikes were being setting up in Daley Plaza, about 100 bike enthusiasts showed up to celebrate Divvy’s launch. We talked about how awesome biking is and we ate free cups of gelato. Delicious! My pistachio gelato did not distract me, though, from going straight to meet my first Divvy bike. It even had my name on its handle to make the experience extra special.
I must say the bike wasn’t the fastest, but it was a solid ride. It doesn’t feel that great to be passed by road bikers who take a second look at my beach cruiser and smile (patronizingly?), but it sure feels great to be passing all the cars stuck in traffic or imagining those crowded downtown busses. Divvy bikes are heavy-duty commuter vehicles with fenders, chain guards, built-in-lights and a small front basket, big enough for a purse or briefcase—but not a load of groceries. The bikes are painted the same sky blue as the stripes on the Chicago flag. They have three gears and feel really stable, which is good for beginning riders and people who are riding just to get from point A to point B.
I know you’re just dying to know exactly how Divvy works. The bike that I rode around town on Thursday is one of 700 bikes that are distributed throughout the city at 65 stations with solar-powered docking systems. Once Divvy’s initial phase is fully implemented, there will be 4,000 bikes at 400 stations. A smartphone app (“CycleFinder” for the iPhone and “Chicago Bike” for Android) transmits the real-time status of how many bikes are available at any given station. With the annual membership, I got a little key chain that I insert into the side of the bike to undock. This is when my 30 minutes begins, and you can dock it back anywhere you want before the time is up to avoid additional charges on your credit card ($1.50 for the first 30-minute overage). If I imagine myself having a trip of longer than 30 minutes, I can intermittently dock the bike on my ride and rent it out again to avoid any charges, since the number of rentals is unlimited.
I have blogged in the past about the pros and cons of having a car in Chicago, and I would throw that blog out in the internet trash if there were one. Why have a car when you can sign up for Divvy? The program will solve a lot of my problems in the near future. I do suspect some glitches here and there–if you’re going to a popular area, there may not be any bikes left; or worse, no spot to park the bike when you have two minutes left on your 30-minute clock. These issues will obviously become less likely with the arrival of additional bikes and stations. Another concern is of course the warning sign on the bike that says “If you do not properly dock this bike on a station appropriately, you will be fined $1,200.” Well, I guess I will have to try my best to dock the bike properly!
At this point, I think the city needs to pay me for my enthusiastic marketing of this new program. I have been telling everyone I know to consider it. Haven’t I convinced you to join the fun yet? You’ll know what I mean after a day of unlimited rides! I’m excited for all the South Side docks to open so that on those mornings when I have an 8 a.m. exam, I can just hop on a bike to start my day at ICO and never be nervous about how long my wait for the bus might be.