The Nuts and Spokes w/ Divvy

Editors Note: This is the second installation of Alex Vickers’ accounts from his trip to Chicago. Don’t miss his third installment next Thursday.

The Divvy bike share system is revolutionizing how Chicagoans experience their city as the newest form of public transport in fifty years. The program has captured the city’s imagination as Chicagoans are abuzz about bike share. (If I had a nickel for every time someone asked, “Hey, how’s that bike ride?” I’d have enough dough for another Divvy day pass.)

The system launched June 28th and has been growing all summer, recently reaching their 200 station mark for this year.  With over 230,00 trips and 680,000 miles traveled in the systems first two months,  it is quickly becoming one of bike share’s biggest success stories.


Scott Kubly (left), Sean Wiedel (top right), and Morgan Whitcomb (bottom right).

During my time in Chicago, I sat down with part of the team who planned and organized the system for a unique look into Divvy Bikes at CDOT’s headquarters. In attendance were Scott Kubly, the Managing Deputy at CDOT, Sean Wiedel, CDOT’s Assistant Commissioner, as well as Morgan Whitcomb, who represented Sam Schwartz Engineering. We wasted no time in getting into the nitty-gritty of Divvy.

Alex Vickers: In terms of operations and equipment procurement, how was Divvy organized? 

Scott Kubly (CDOT): The City of Chicago purchased and owns the equipment. The City has a contract with Alta Bicycle Share to operate the equipment, and Alta has a contract with PBSC to purchase the equipment. Sam Schwartz does the station siting and planning for the system. The City and Sam Schwartz worked together to define the service area and the station densities, and we came up with a grid of where we want the stations. We then passed that along to Alta who sized the stations on a site by site basis.

Morgan Whitcomb (Sam Schwartz): From the very beginning, we did a bunch of test fits to understand how big we could get. If we went with a Paris-style density, the system wouldn’t extend beyond the Downtown Loop area. We interviewed a bunch of other cities to see how they tackled the problem, including D.C., Boston, and some others. We then came up with some goals with CDOT to see how far they wanted the system to go based on the amount of equipment we’d be able to procure. Downtown was planned to be more dense with surrounding areas to be filled in at later phases.

AV: With Citibank’s sponsorship of Citi Bike, everyone is talking about bike share sponsorship. Whats the structure of the advertising and sponsorship arrangement in Chicago?

SK: We’re in the process of selecting a sponsor. We’re talking to a few companies right now. But at this point its too soon to say what the deal will look like. As per the agreement, itss run through Van Wagner. When we did our bike share procurement process we put out an RFP for an operator and an equipment provider. Under a separate RFP, we found a sponsorship broker and a ad panel broker. We did that because we wanted to be able to select the best of both versus awarding the contract to an operator who may not be the best at selling sponsorship. Buying and selling advertising isn’t necessarily in the skill set of a bike share operator, and running a bike share system isn’t in the skill set of an advertiser.

AV: How do you think Citibank’s sponsorship has affected the industry?

SK: It’s fantastic New York was able to get Citibank to sponsor Citi Bike, but it has also skewed people’s sense of reality of what it takes to implement bike share. And the process of courting Citibank took a long long time for arguably the best media market inCallOutBoxDivvy1-01 the world. London is also a huge media market–they have Barclays. There’s only so many Londons and New Yorks around. If you’re a small Sunbelt city and you’re trying to do everything on the back of a sponsor, it’s probably going to be pretty tough.


A section of Divvy’s station map. Planned stations are in yellow, operational ones are in blue.

AV: How did you approach the first phase of station siting?

SK: There are different approaches–some cities choose to make very dense systems whereas some are more spread out. We took an approach that was somewhere in the middle; we launched a little broader and plan on densifying as we mature.

Sean Wiedel (CDOT): We set the outer boundaries, started sort of in Chicago’s center and grew outwards. We’ve been filling out that boundary all summer and within the next two to three weeks we’ll have met our goal for 2013.

AV: What are your priorities as you continue to expand the system?

SK: There are operational priorities and policy priorities. From a policy standpoint, and from a marketing standpoint as well, you want to serve as broad an area as you can as early as you can. Bike share is a public service. You want to provide access to as many people and as many different types of neighborhoods as you can. That pushes the boundaries out and broadens the catchment area from which you can draw members.CallOutBoxDivvy2-02 So if you go with a very dense station siting, you’re missing on serving a larger group of people. It’s a double-edged sword; it helps meet a policy priority of serving as many people as you can and it helps from a marketing/membership acquisition standpoint as well.

AV: With Sam Schwartz, Alta, and CDOT all at the table, what does the station planning process look like?

SW: It’s a really collaborative process, basically we broke down the roll-outs into groups of 75 based on equipment orders. There’s a lot of give and take with Sam Schwartz Engineering, Alta, and CDOT all in the room to figure out politically and operationally what works. For example, we say “Okay, this station was going to roll out now, but we can’t roll it out for X, Y, or Z reason.”

SK: You might find that you’ve got to repair the street or install a concrete pad…

SW: Or theres a construction project happening and we can’t install it, so we have to put it on hold.

AV: I’ve noticed that you targeted Chicago’s L-Train system, focusing on the Blue/Red lines extensively and largely ignoring the Orange Line and the Pink Line. Is there a reason for this?

MW: The Orange Line runs parallel to that highway (points to highway in upper left part of the map below) and all along that river, areas that are not conducive to bike share.

The orange line refers to the CTA line and the red arrows point out industrial land uses.

SK: You’re looking at industrial land, freeway, railroad track, and then a river. There’s also quite a bit of heavy truck activity due to the industrial land use, so it’s not really ideal bike share territory. I don’t know if you ever read “The Jungle” when you were in high school, but this is the former Union Stockyards where “The Jungle” took place. The “Back of the Yards” neighborhood is a great area that we’d love to serve, but it’s a bit of an island until you can wrap around it. The biggest issue is that it’s really hard to get southwest due to the industrial nature of the area.

The pink line indicates CTA line and yellow icons indicate a planned bike share station.

SK: As for the Pink Line, we will be moving out towards it in 2014. Our station density isn’t what we’d like it to be, but that gets back to the policy debate we mentioned earlier. Do you have a tighter cluster that is operationally and financially more desirable? Or do you have a system that serves a public policy goal of serving the most people? Our density around the Pink Line is meeting that public policy goal.

AV: Were there any sites that posed a particular challenge?

MW: There are some places where we wanted to put a station at an intersection and for the life of us we couldn’t figure out a place where one would fit! Either we couldn’t remove parking, there wasn’t parking to remove, or the sidewalk was too narrow. So we’d have to move to a less visible location.

Spotcycle (left), PBSC's CycleFinder, and Bike Guide (right)

Bike share apps: Spotcycle (left), PBSC’s CycleFinder (center), and Bike Guide (right)

AV: Are there any plans for wayfinding signage to point out station locations? One of my critiques of the system is that I have to always use my phone to find where stations are which can get dangerous while bike riding.

SK: Well, first of all, we encourage you to pull over to use your smartphone! The reason we decided to use smartphone-based maps is because they enable us to be flexible. Part of the beauty of bike sharing is that its totally modular. You can pick it up and move it around based off demand, political considerations, all sorts of different reasons. If you talk to a transit authority, they don’t like to print maps of their bus routes. The reason why is bus stops change, bus routes change, timing changes, etc. which means they have to reprint everything. If you do see a printed map it has as limited information as possible to prevent that cost…

The beauty of the smartphone is that there’s less of a need for physical maps and it’s far more up to date than a paper map could ever be. There’s a fine line between providing wayfinding for people that don’t have smartphones–yet–versus having potentially inaccurate information out there.

AV: Are there any plans to move north into the Evanston/Northwestern area?

SK: In fact, today–literally today–we have a grant application for ITEP (which is the Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program) that we’re putting in for funding to expand Divvy north to cities border into Evanston and west up to cities border into Oak Park. If we’re successful with this grant, we’ll grow into both of those directions and create an interoperable system within both of those communities.

I’d like to thank Scott Kubly, Morgan Whitcomb, and Sean Wiedel for their valuable insights into the planning of the Divvy system. For more Nuts & Spokes interviews, click here.

  • Slow_Factory

    Lots of thorough thinking here, but I am curious if this applies to conditions, if any, for sponsorship. It is sad to see Scott Kubly call the Citigroup deal in NYC “fantastic” — isn’t he supposed to be agent for sustainability? Citigroup is an environmental disaster, but now it gets major “bikewashing”* in NYC. See my blog post here:

    The CDOT crew is sensitive about smart phone penetration, but this general type of technology is what makes the new bike share system in Copenhagen truly 4th generation (the PBSC system is considered to be 3rd gen.): It allows the user to find a bike and a stand and find a stand for their bike, i.e. you can reserve a bike to check out and a space to park it. No empty stand, no full stand issues… it can all be done through a dedicated tablet built into the bike. Sure, the Copenhagen system is expensive, but I think a lot of this is due to other features of the bike.

    Going up a level in customer-focus, one reason for bike share is make it easier to cycle since a user does not have to worry about having a bike stolen, or carrying it up to their apartment (in older cities). While some form of bike share IS a good thing, secure parking solutions at street level both in commercial and residential zones complement it well, but as far as I can at least in the residential side of things, there is very little happening to solve this issue except for some newly adopted regulations for new buildings in San Francisco and perhaps some other cities.

    Finally, Alta Bike Share seems to have some outstanding labor issues (a longer discussion here: but CDOT seems safe as at least in the “progressive” San Francisco Bay Area – where a bike share system also operated by Alta opened earlier this month – no one seems to care.

    • Bike

      Slow_Factory thanks so much for your comment! We were unaware of Citigroups involvement with the coal industry, thanks for the heads up.

      Regarding your 4th Gen bike, we recommend you check out Social Bicycles their 4th Gen system accomplishes a lot of the goals you mentioned without the huge cost of the Copenhagen system. Check out their website here:

      Regarding parking, I noticed a ton of bike corrals while I was in Chicago. Check one out from Milwaukee Blvd here:

      • Slow_Factory

        Right about Social Bicycles… I have written about them before, and they have quite a few systems running. In relation to them, I hope that actors promoting and implementing bike share in the East Bay area are more objective about what system they are looking to get. San Francisco and the Peninsula have a PBSC-Alta system, but there seems to be no over-arching reason for the East Bay to use it, too. Of course it makes no sense to have separate memberships for the East Bay & SF-Peninsula systems, so authorities who design the RFP should make a requirement for any new systems to have combined memberships with the existing one. The real barrier to this is political rather than technical as it has to do with expanding the Clipper Card into a truly integrated public transport payment system. (By the way the smart card for transport in all of Denmark will also work with the bikes I mention — and finally, City CarShare will have electric-assist bikes next year, but they will require a separate membership from Bay Area Bike Share: Just the normal City CarShare plan. It is meant to be a complement to their main business of providing automobiles, but then again it is a government-supported e-bike share in SF (and Berkeley) and it requires having a driver’s license.