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Why Chicago's Divvy Trails New York's Citi Bike-Sharing Program

By Ted Cox | July 30, 2014 5:25am
 New York's Citi Bike has 100,000 members — more than four times Divvy's 23,000. In its first year, 7 million rides were taken on Citibikes, compared with 1.6 million in Divvy's first year.
New York's Citi Bike has 100,000 members — more than four times Divvy's 23,000. In its first year, 7 million rides were taken on Citibikes, compared with 1.6 million in Divvy's first year.
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Citi Bike/DNAinfo

DOWNTOWN — No matter how fast Chicagoans pedal, the city can't quite catch up to New York.

At least that's the case when comparing the cities' two bike-sharing programs. New York's Citi Bike has 100,000 members — more than four times Divvy's 23,000. In its first year, 7 million rides were taken on Citibikes, compared with 1.6 million in in Divvy's first year.

Yes, New York got a few weeks' head start last year, but why is the Second City so far behind in this race?

"It's kind of apples and oranges, but it's still an interesting discussion," said Julie Hochstadter of the Chainlink bicycle blog.

Ted Cox explains some reasons why Chicago may be pedaling behind NYC:

 Active Transportation Alliance Executive Director Ron Burke says Chicago has nothing to be ashamed of in lagging behind New York City in bike-sharing rides.
Active Transportation Alliance Executive Director Ron Burke says Chicago has nothing to be ashamed of in lagging behind New York City in bike-sharing rides.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

"They've got more bikes on the street, more people living in a more dense environment," said Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance. "It's OK to compare, but you just have to keep in mind the differences that will inevitably drive different numbers."

New York has three times the population of Chicago, just within the city limits, and an equally expansive commuter culture. That density, both of population and in places to go, is especially pronounced in Manhattan.

So Chicago officials insist there's nothing to be ashamed of if we're not yet in New York's league when it comes to cycle-sharing. Besides, both services are operated by the same company, Alta Bicycle Share, which runs bike-sharing programs from here to Australia.

"Both bike-share systems are very popular, but the differences are a matter of the cities’ population size, scale of operations and rollout approach," said Peter Scales, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation.

"Last year, New York started with all of their Citibike stations on the ground at once. Divvy, which followed a few weeks later, has been building momentum and membership from our launch of 60 stations to 300 today. New York also has about three times the population of Chicago, and should expect to have more bike-share members making more trips."

Yet those obvious differences also lead to more subtle nuances between the two cities.

"Their public transportation is more connected than ours," Hochstadter said, a point confirmed by an academic study that found three-quarters of Citi stations are within a quarter-mile of a subway station. "New Yorkers are already more used to this idea of alternative transportation. So a majority of them already don't have cars. Here in Chicago, we're still very attached to our cars."

Chicagoans are attached to ownership in general, when it comes right down to it. Burke said Chicagoans are more likely to own their own bikes.

"I've heard people speculate that in the typical New York City dwelling, mostly apartments, they're less likely to park a bike indoors or even outdoors for that matter," Burke said. "In Chicago, on average, the apartments are bigger, and maybe you can park your bike in the apartment, or there's a basement in the apartment building or there's a back patio, and you can lock it out back or whatever."

Both Burke and Hochstadter cited city plans to add 1,750 Divvy bikes later this year at 175 new stations, which would give Chicago almost as many shared bikes as New York, and more stations.

"It didn't hit the outlying areas," Hochstadter said, pointing out that, so far, the northernmost Divvy station has been at Winnemac Street, just a couple of blocks north of Lawrence Avenue, thus ignoring a significant cycling community along the lake in Rogers Park.

"I think we're gonna continue to see growth," Burke said. "That will partly depend on expanding the system."

The soon-to-be-added Divvy bikes, Burke added, "will create another surge, we think, in ridership. The sooner they can do that, the better."

 Divvy bikes lined up at a station at Daley Center Plaza
Divvy bikes lined up at a station at Daley Center Plaza
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

Burke and Hochstadter both emphasized that Second City envy shouldn't keep us from appreciating the benefits of Divvy.

"The current ridership levels and the growth trajectory that we're on now are very consistent with what we expected, and I think, what the city expected," Burke said.

Hochstadter said that Divvy had worked to "grow the bike culture here."

And there may yet be a chance for Divvy to grow and catch up with New York. Divvy began with $22 million in federal funding to reduce traffic and pollution, augmented with $5.5 million in Tax Increment Finance funds. It picked up Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois as a corporate sponsor this year, to the tune of $12.5 million over five years.

By contrast, Citibike received no New York City subsidy. It launched on $41 million in sponsorship money from Citigroup over six years. It ran into funding trouble earlier this year, however. While the city rejected a hike in the annual fee from $95 to $140, it delayed the planned expansion to 10,000 bikes and 600 stations.

Divvy's annual fee is $75, which covers unlimited rides of 30 minutes or less. New Yorkers have 45 minutes.

While some users have complained the 30-minute time limit isn't enough, Hochstadter said she finds that to be enough time to switch bikes at a station for each half-hour leg of a trip. Her only peeves were that the bikes could be outfitted with some sort of basket or rack — and the oft-mentioned idea of supplying helmets with the same availability as the bikes themselves.

"I wish they could figure out a way to have helmets available," Hochstadter said. "I always have to carry my helmet with me. I know a lot of people do that, and others just ride without a helmet, which I'm not comfortable with."

And there's an old, familiar tactic insecure Chicagoans can use to feel better about themselves: Stop comparing Chicago with New York.

"You could also compare our system to Denver or to Minneapolis-St. Paul," Burke said. Chicago's Divvy is bigger than either of those, because "we have more bikes and more density."

So there. At least we top Denver and Minneapolis. At least until we add those 1,750 bikes and make another run at New York City's dominance.

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