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Figure out the system, first! And so the Divvy Diary begins

Neil Steinberg  |  Sun-Times

Neil Steinberg | Sun-Times

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Updated: October 10, 2013 6:05AM

So the city’s Divvy bike share program set up a rack in front of the Merchandise Mart, directly across the street from my office. Which seemed just too darn convenient not to use. I’d hike the half hour down to the Art Institute, pass another Divvy rack right there, and think, “take the bike, idiot.”

I tried one of the 24-hour passes for $7, but my credit card didn’t take, and it gave me time to think. Why spend $7 for one day pass when I could spend $75 for 365 days, which is a . . . doing the math . . . $2,555 value. It’s like getting paid to ride a bike.

Since every new system has its glitches, I thought it might be best to keep track of the Divvy acculturation process. I could call it My Divvy Year or, better, The Divvy Diary.

Aug. 21, 1:40 p.m.: “CONGRATULATIONS! Your Membership key is on its way, and you should expect to receive it in the mail within the next 5-9 days.” Give them this, the Web page is blue, attractive, clean, simple, easy to use. Did I mention “blue”?

Aug. 26: My key is mailed, I later learn.

Sept. 3, 9 a.m.: Return from a long Labor Day weekend to find something from Divvy in my office mailbox. The legal envelope at first throws me off. I expected a squarish package — have I been rejected again? AmEx noted the charge. I do the squeeze test. Something bulky. My key! I feel the thrill of every boy who ever sent in five box tops for a Captain Crunch Treasure Chest.

Inside, a blue plastic fob, a free 24-hour pass to give to a friend, and a brochure, Everyday Biking, which urges me to “persevere through a short and relatively easy learning period.” Heck, I made it through four years at Northwestern. The bike system should be simple. A few hints: Ride with traffic, wear a helmet, stay off the sidewalk. Riding on the sidewalk is illegal for adults in Chicago.

9:15 a.m. Go online and register, groping for my password, scared I forgot. Yup, the same password I always use. Whew.

Ready to rock. I grab my Bell Triton helmet. First bike helmet I ever owned, bought a dozen years ago to set an example to the boys, who ride their bikes about as often as I dance the Swan in “Swan Lake.”

As fate has it, I have an errand to run. I had planned to swing by after work. But now, as a fully verified member of the Divvy community, I can ride, as part of my columnist duties. I consult the map — you need a place to dock your bike, you aren’t supposed to lock it at your destination. As it turns out, there is a Divvy station at Wabash and Madison, half a block from where I’m going. The online map tells me: available bikes, 8; available docks, 13. In the adventure movie I would poke the map and growl: “Here is our goal! Wabash and Madison.”

9:30 a.m.: Elevator down to Orleans, holding my helmet, a look of industry in my eye. Cross the street: 19 bikes in a row, 4 gone in use. I insert my key. Nothing. Draw it out. Nothing. Flip it upside down. Zip. A yellow light. I look at the slot. “Enter your five-digit code” — really? I missed the five-digit code part. Back upstairs to retrieve my code.

9:40 a.m.: At my office computer. “Annual members simply dip their key into the slot at any station with an available bike.” Nothing about a code. Shoddy instructions? I notice my membership number. Five digits. That must be what they mean.

9:49 a.m.: Back downstairs, repeating my membership number, trying to figure out a good mnemonic device, since I’ll need it to get my key. Cross the street, a look of slightly less focused industry in my eye. Now 21 bikes in the racks. In with the key, I go to punch in my number. The keypad has only three buttons, labeled 1, 2 and 3. Why had I not noticed that before? My membership number includes a 4, a 5 and an 8.

9:54 a.m. Back upstairs. I sit before the computer, nothing anywhere about a code for annual members. There is a phone number if you need help . . . no, that’s the coward’s way. This is a system, it has to be graspable. I can’t be the stupidest person to use this. It only feels that way. Suddenly, an epiphany. If I needed a code, it would tell me so. Thus, a code is not needed. The key obviously was balky. Try the key again.

10 a.m.: Downstairs, a third time. Cross Orleans, eyes blank, thinking: I could have walked there. Stick the key in. Nothing. Pull it out. Nothing. Flip it over and insert. Wait. Suddenly a click from the mechanism. A green light. I pull the bike out. Success!

Practical tip: Give the key time to work.

Strap on the helmet. Now the issue of riding the thing. Do I take it south, down Orleans, against one way going north? That seems a Bad Idea (“The deceased was riding the wrong way against traffic when struck by the bus.”) I ease the bike off the curb, into Orleans, swing my leg over, and set off. The journey continues online on my Sun-Times Voices blog.

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