The bright blue bicycle bandwagon

Opening Statement

Marc Karlinsky


August 2016

In what’s become a summer ritual since moving to Chicago a few years back, I renewed my Divvy membership last month.

Though it will never win me a single style or cool point, I am secretly pretty proud of how early I jumped on the bright blue bandwagon. (I even have a special black Divvy key the bike-share program only issued to “founding members.”)

You won’t hear me claim that I had any foresight into how Divvy would turn out. I hardly understood how the system would work when I enrolled — city biking was something I’d never attempted before, and I hadn’t used a bike-share program in any other city.

If anything, it was going to be a cheap activity to do over a few nicer weekends. Now, three years later, it’s a critical part of how I commute around the city (mainly during the less snowy parts of the year).

In areas where Divvy has docking stations, it’s a solid complement to other forms of transportation. Because you can dock and walk away, you’re not obligated to make a round trip. And with the ability to ride on the edge of the street, the bikes are far more immune to urban gridlock than their four-wheeled friends.

I can’t imagine I’m the only customer to be surprised by the value the bike-share operator has provided — and, yes, it’s still a value even after the price of a membership jumped by a third since last year’s bill.

There are plenty of gripes to be had in this town about how so much of our infrastructure, both physical and social, has been compromised and battered by poor planning and bad decision-making. So when a project works, I think it’s worth giving credit when due.

The system isn’t without its critics, for sure — it’s easy to remember the images that made the news of Divvy riders who somehow made their way onto the Dan Ryan Expressway and Lake Shore Drive. And plenty of us who work downtown have had a close call with the big, blinking bikes on crowded sidewalks.

The barbs against bike sharing typically center around the idea of novice riders putting themselves in environments they don’t have the experience to handle. There’s definitely a learning curve, and biking safely requires careful attention to your surroundings. But it’s overwhelmingly a safe activity, and the system’s numbers show it.

The city announced in late June that Divvy bikes had logged more than 7.8 million trips and 16 million miles since the summer 2013 launch. The number of injuries on those bikes is miniscule in scale. Sadly, only a few days after the city’s announcement, a 25-year-old woman was killed in a crash on the Northwest Side — believed to be the first in Divvy’s history and in the history of any bike-share program in the United States.

That such a tragedy happened along a stretch of Belmont Avenue which I travel often offers a stark reminder that it’s not a 100 percent safe way to travel. That simply doesn’t exist in any mode.

But it’s important to keep those other 7.8 million rides in context the next time someone wants to condemn the idea of novices (like me) traversing the city on two wheels.