Picture James Dean riding a Divvy bike instead of a motorcycle. You can’t without snickering, can you? That’s because I, you, and every other human being on earth looks dorky in the clunky-ass saddle of one. The powder-blue cruisers were designed to evoke Chicago’s starry flag. But they’re more like the dad jeans of bicycles—which is ironic considering the incredibly cool origins of the community bike-share program.
In the mid-60s, a group of artsy Dutch anarchists called Provo wanted to rage against the machine. Actually, machines. The automobile dominated city streets, and Provo saw this as a massive problem leading to more congestion, pollution, and hyperconsumerism. The group responded by proposing some avant-garde policy measures—one of them the so-called Witte Fietsenplan (“white bicycle plan”).
The 1965 scheme was sort of a guerrilla art installation. Provo painted 50 used bikes white, parked them unlocked in spots all over Amsterdam, and declared in a pamphlet that the fleet “symbolise[d] simplicity and hygiene as opposed to the gaudiness and filth of the authoritarian car.” This improvised bike share didn’t last long, however—Dutch police quickly impounded the ghost-colored cycles.
Two years later, Provo pitched a more serious plan. A group member who’d been elected to Amsterdam’s city council pushed an ambitious ordinance that would have banned all motorized traffic in central Amsterdam save some electric-powered taxis. Instead of zipping around in cars, the public would have access to 10,000 government-funded white bikes that would remain unlocked at all times. But the city council rejected the plan, saying that “the bicycle belongs to the past.”
Now, 50 years after the Witte Fietsenplan, bike-sharing systems have set up shop in global cities including London, Paris, New York City, and Chicago. According to a report by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, Americans took 35 million bike-share trips in 2017, up 25 percent from the previous year. Bike sharing no longer represents a fringe protest movement against car culture but an essential part of many cities’ transportation infrastructure.
And that’s excellent news, even if most bike-share programs don’t quite meet the utopian ideal Provo had in mind.
Just take Divvy, which is celebrating its fifth anniversary this month. Chicago’s big blue bikes may be ugly, but their beauty lies in their utility—even if it didn’t start out that way. The bike-sharing program was the brainchild of Mayor Richard Daley, who took a fancy to Paris’s 14,000-bike strong Velib system on a trip to the French capital in 2007 and believed it could be duplicated here. Chicago’s Department of Transportation started rolling out Divvy in the summer of 2013 during the equally bike-friendly Rahm Emanuel administration at a cost of nearly $28 million—mostly covered by federal funds.
Many Chicagoans justifiably made noise about the hefty price tag for a service that felt woefully underinflated. Plus, the process of checking out a bike was cumbersome, the mobile app was an eyesore, and the 30-minute time span before the bikes had to be returned to a dock was frustratingly short. To top it off, Divvy launched with only 750 bikes and 75 stations—most of them concentrated near the Loop and the near north side. Their distribution reinforced the perception that Divvy was more a two-wheeled toy for tourists than a serious public transportation option for locals.
That’s what I believed too, but I purchased a $75 yearly membership at the beginning of 2014 after the city put a dock a few steps from the door of my apartment complex in east Pilsen. For the first couple of years, I checked out Divvy bikes almost exclusively as a way to get from my apartment to Blue and Red Line stops that were just out of reasonable walking distance.
My enthusiasm for Divvy remained muted because I kept having technical difficulties and frustrating incidents—like the time I couldn’t park my bike in a two-mile radius in the Loop because eight nearby docks were full. I remember wondering if I’d catch frostbite one snowy January day while on the phone with a Divvy agent who was supposed to tell me what to do with a station so encrusted with ice that it was inoperable. Sometimes I felt like I was eternally doomed to check out bikes hampered by broken seats, crooked handlebars, or busted bells.
While I still run into occasional hiccups, the truth is that Divvy has evolved over the last half decade, and almost every change to the program has been positive. The fleet has expanded to nearly 6,000 bikes at 580 stations across the city (though many neighborhoods are still lacking in stations). Even better, at the start of 2018 the maximum trip time was extended to 45 minutes, which makes Divvy much more viable for longer rides.
Meanwhile, the Divvy-compatible Transit App has become my go-to method for deciding how exactly I will travel to a destination. Type an address into the app and you’re presented with a list of options—bus, train, walking, biking, car, even Uber. It’s striking how often Divvy makes the most sense—especially when you consider the amount of money you can save and the exercise you get in return for pedaling the beasts.
I’ve taken 225 Divvy rides so far in 2018—1,700 since 2013—and it’s cost me about 48 cents a ride when taking into account the $99 annual membership dues and a couple of $4 late fees. That puts me in the top 5 percent of users; the average cost per ride for the system’s 37,000 members is $1. When I compare my costs to what I would have spent on the CTA or on a ride share such as Uber or Lyft, it’s a steal.
It’s true I could save even more cash by relying on the commuter-style bike I already own. But with Divvy, I don’t have to sweat getting my stuff ripped off or constantly haul my bike up two flights of stairs to my apartment. I still take occasional rides on my own bike, but Divvy has increasingly become my number one way of navigating the city.
In other words, Divvy has made my life a bit easier and better. I just wish I could say the same about its overall impact on quality of life in the city. Daley hoped Divvy would help relieve traffic congestion and curb air pollution, but research has shown that bike-sharing rides only have a marginal impact on congestion. That’s because they typically replace journeys made on foot or using public transportation, not car trips.
The real winners of the transportation-sharing game of the last five years haven’t been Divvy but Uber and Lyft (both of which are reportedly bidding on Divvy’s operator, Motivate). As a result, motorized vehicles still rule Chicago’s streets, and traffic remains a hellish snarl at rush hour.
It’s not too late to change that. After their failed attempts to launch bike share a half century ago, Provo and other pro-cycling groups eventually were able to convince Dutch politicians that maybe the car wasn’t the future after all. More bike-friendly policies and better urban planning followed—and after dipping to 20 percent in the early 70s, cycling trips now make up 48 percent of all trips in Amsterdam’s urban core.
Perhaps if Chicago continues to improve its cycling infrastructure—which includes Divvy and a new batch of dockless bike-sharing programs—we can vastly improve on the still paltry 1.7 percent of locals who commuted to work on a bike in 2016.
Personally, I’d start with a Divvy makeover. v