Go online and look at a map of Chicago’s Divvy bike system. You’ll see a mass of blue tags densely packed on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan, each tag marking a dock where ride share bicycles are located.
Zoom in, and the docks separate out, and you can see they start, at the north, at Central Street in Evanston, spread as far west as Austin Avenue at the Oak Park border, and are concentrated in the Loop, sometimes with two on the same block. Scanning down the map, they thin out until the southernmost Divvy station, at 87th Street and Wabash in Chatham.
Eyeing the 580 or so blue inverted raindrop markers, you might not even notice a vast chunk of the city has no Divvy stations at all: Nothing south of 26th Street between Western and Harlem avenues, all the way to the city’s southern border at the Little Calumet River and 138th Street. An area of about 20 square miles.
Quite a lot, really.
Since the system debuted in 2013, residents of the Southwest Side have been pestering Divvy to come to their communities. And for years Divvy, which is owned by the City of Chicago, has said: patience. We’re on our way. The system has to expand contiguously: otherwise, you’ll have bikes but nowhere to go.
Finally, the South Side lost patience, gave up on Divvy, and, on Tuesday, welcomed not one but two new bike systems: LimeBike of California and Pace of Massachusetts.
In my capacity as the Sun-Times unofficial bike share chronicler, I grabbed my helmet and headed to Beverly to see how the new bikes work.
Getting on one of 50 LimeBikes being tested for the next six months was easy. Download the app, which generates its own little map marking available bikes with a slice of lime. Alighting from an Uber at 103rd and Western, the map directed me to a bike tucked a few feet away, against a wall at the Walgreen’s.
Tap a button telling the app you want a bike, it generates a camera. Hold it over the QR code on the bike, it is unlocked and hums a happy little song of welcome. Unlocking costs a buck, plus 15 cents a minute.
The bikes have an electric motor assist, which takes getting used to. The battery turns a LimeBike into a 60-pound beast — they make a 40-pound Divvy feel like a titanium-frame racing bike.
I needed a place to ride to and, it being lunchtime, headed to Top Notch Beefburger on 95th Street, where a central advantage of the LimeBike presented itself: no need to search out a dock. Just click the locking mechanism and leave it.
I could carp: LimeBike’s battery will need constant charging (they offer to pay you to do it). You wonder how capitalized both companies are, given their generic videos: “We’re thrilled for you to rediscover your city with LimeBike.” If they can’t make a video for a big market like Chicago, how are they going to care for our bikes?
Worse, Pace’s introductory video says nothing about safety — what lawyers call “an attractive nuisance.” The LimeBike video is better, urging care and showing riders being handed helmets. One actually puts it on. Yet when LimeBike riders are shown navigating the streets of some generic burg, those unphotogenic helmets are nowhere to be seen. Given how often bike riders ignore lifesaving helmets as it is, this seems irresponsible.
So why didn’t Divvy ever make it to the South Side?
“I never got an explanation,” said Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) who spearheaded the effort to bring these companies in. “I was told it was coming, then it wasn’t.”
A representative of Motivate, which manages Divvy and most bike share systems nationwide, said all decisions regarding where new docks will be placed rests with the city. So I asked the Chicago Department of Transportation: why no Divvy bikes in this 20-square-mile block of Chicago?
They sent a very long statement which said, in essence, the South Side is very big and federal money ran out before we could get there, but we’re committed to reaching every corner of Chicago, and should money start flowing again, Divvy will be right there “in the coming years.”
Back on my LimeBike, heading up Bell Avenue, the weather summery and lovely, passing by these gorgeous, well-tended brick homes, some with slate roofs, I had a thought so unexpected I would have considered it impossible only a few minutes earlier: “Man, Beverly is nice. We should move to Beverly.“