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Why is a Divvy bike like syphilis?

A full Divvy rack outside Merchandise Mart. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

A full Divvy rack outside the Merchandise Mart. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

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Updated: October 11, 2013 6:12AM

Riddle: What does a Divvy bike have in common with syphilis? For the answer, read on.

Monday, Sept. 9, 8:38 a.m.: Up the dim stairs at the Madison Street entrance to Union Station, out into the light. To the right, a 13-minute walk to the newspaper at 350 N. Orleans. To the left, Canal Street and, I suspect, a Divvy station.

Let’s go see! I take a left.

True, I do not have my helmet. It’s sitting in my office on the Selectric II. But it is a brief ride. An acceptable risk. There, at the northwest corner of Canal and Madison, a station. Plenty of bikes. Walking toward it, I imagine some kind of inflatable helmet, or a helmet that folds flat, so guys like me could carry it in their briefcases. Hmm . . . bet that idea would suck up bucks on Kickstarter.

8:42 a.m.: Key in, bike out, retrieve key. Practical tip: Remember your key. I sling my briefcase strap over my head, across the opposite shoulder, messenger style — Mad Max!

An easy pedal up Canal. At the light, burdened by the briefcase, I peel it off and transfer to the front rack; a bungee holds it snugly. Hang a right at Lake, cross the bridge, squeezed by trafffic. The coward’s way is to cross Wacker for an easy left at Franklin. But traffic is knotted and, flinging my left finger out in the classic, “I’m going left” gesture I turn, trusting fate, and glide, carlike, in the left turn lane. This is easy.

Almost . . . too easy. (Cue the echoing chord of foreshadowing doom)

8:44 a.m.: Roll on the sidewalk at the corner by the Merchandise Mart, feeling vaguely guilty for riding even a few feet on the sidewalk. Heck, that’s where the station is: 23 slots, 23 bikes. Not a slot to spare.

Wait or search out another station? Straddling the bike, pondering my options, I let go of the handlebars while pondering. The front wheel pivots, stamping an impression of tire tread on my khakis at the right knee. Mark of shame or badge of honor?

8:50 a.m.: Decide to strike out in search of other station. Right on Hubbard, right on LaSalle, right on Wacker. Back at the Mart.

8:55 a.m.: Still full. Decide to try waiting.

9 a.m.: Longest five minutes of my life ends. Back down Hubbard, figuring Michigan will have one. I’m bound to this $1200 albatross, not around my neck, but under my butt. Realize I’m shunting beneath Michigan. Carrying this monster up stairs seems a Bad Idea. Left on Rush, left on Grand, left on Wabash. Pause to heckle a Trib editor.

9:07 a.m.: Spy station below at State and Lower Kinzie. Portage bike across IBM Plaza. Clunk it down 26 stairs. One spot left. Big sigh and smile of premature relief. Roll bike in. Insert key. Light goes from yellow to red. Repeat. Roll bike in firmly. Press key in with vigor. Nothing. Another rider shows up with his Divvy. “I have five minutes before I have to start to pay,” he says, reminding me that I’m about to start paying too. Each trip must be 30 minutes, even for annual users. Let him try. Doesn’t work for him either. He suggests Gleacher station, further east.

9:15 a.m.. Back at the Mart. Still no slots. Wait. Elyse Vieni, 26, arrives from Bucktown on her Divvy. “I like it except when this happens,” says the jewelry designer.

9:21 a.m.: Phil Mikhaylov, 22, strolls up, inserts his key and begins to remove a bike. Yes! He lives at Illinois and Orleans, and is making his morning commute to the Aqua Building at 225 N. Columbus. I roll toward him to assert my right of being next (as opposed to gallantly waving Elyse past me, which a guy could spend all day doing).

Mikhaylov has been Divvying for a month. “It’s the best thing ever,” says the mobile app designer. His only issue with Divvy is not filled stations, but empty ones.

“So not being able to find an empty slot is a freakish problem limited to me?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he says, riding off.

9:25 a.m.: A hard push of the bike, a click, and the light turns green. Thank you God! I gratefully stride away, stop, return, retrieve my briefcase from the front rack (practical tip: don’t leave your stuff in the front rack). Give the bike one last tug just to make sure it’s really locked in there. Then flee upstairs.

10:35 a.m.: “Thank you for calling Divvy. . .. To report an issue with our equipment, or for technical support, press 4.”

A friendly young person tells me I should call the moment I can’t find an open dock. “Always a good thing to call us while you have an issue,” she says. They can also direct you to another station. She refunds the $1.50 charge for going over my 30-minute trip limit — 43 minutes for a 13 minute walk.

Oh, and what does a Divvy bike have in common with syphilis? Both can be a lot easier to get than to get rid of.


Twitter: @NeilSteinberg

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