Urban bike-share programs point to a low-carbon, high-tech urban vision. GPS-enabled bikes dock to solar-powered stations, and riders find them with smartphone apps. However, one of the biggest day-to-day expenses for such systems is a gas-guzzling, low-tech operation: Workers driving big vans, shlepping the bikes where they’re needed.
One June afternoon, I ride along with Caleb Usry, who has been moving bikes around Chicago since the city’s Divvy bike-share program started up, about a year ago.
“OK,” he says, as we buckle our seatbelts. “Let’s go where the action is.”
We get downtown around 4:30 p.m. “You’re here at a good time, for doing rush hour,” says Caleb. “Monday through Friday, this is basically the same every day— I don’t think this changes as long as the weather is warm.”
Our first stop: A docking station in the city’s financial district, to drop a load of bikes.
“People who work in those office buildings,” Caleb says, “they’ll come out, they’ll empty ‘em out and take ’em to the train stations. Guys in business suits, they’ll put on their helmets and get over there. You can set your watch to it. Over by the stock exchange, that place will empty out three times between five and six-thirty.”
Having dropped more than twenty bikes, Caleb heads to the train station, where bikes come in faster than he can grab them and wedge them, artfully, into the van. He’s worked out the optimal number that can be jammed in without making them hard to dig out: “Twenty-five,” he says. “Twenty-two back-to-back, and then three up the middle. Yeah, this is a great gig if you have OCD, which I do. I keep telling my bosses: ‘Hire guys with obsessive-compulsive disorder— it works out great for everyone involved.'”
Caleb Usry loads a Divvy bike as part of his weekly rounds.
Caleb estimates that he’ll touch more than 200 bikes before his shift ends. Mostly, he’ll haul them away from the train station to re-stock hotspots like the financial district.
“But at some point around 8:00, when it slows down, we stop going to pick up at the trains, we let ‘em fill up,” he says. “And the morning guys come in at 6:00 a.m., they do the exact opposite of what you and I are doing right now— they take bikes from the loop back to the train, fill it up.”
When Divvy started, the bike-haulers — Divvy calls them rebalancers — conferred from the field by text message to make sure they weren’t all heading to the same spots at once. Now, a dispatcher tracks them from headquarters via GPS, and sends out instructions.
“It’s funny,” Caleb says. “Even though we’ve got more stations and more people, the system we’re using now is working better than what we were doing last year.”
So, even with 3,000 bikes, the system has only about a half-dozen vans in the field at a time. “With six or seven in the city during the week, we can get by OK,” says Caleb. “So we don’t have to worry about the day we’re sitting in traffic like this, and it’s all Divvy vans, I guess is what I’m saying. That would be ultimately ironic, I imagine. Nothing but blue vans in the whole city.”
Serendivvity shares Divvy ridership data in the style of a dating site, allowing exploration by romantic interest and neighborhood.
A sample video of “Sound of Divvy,” a web app created by Team Magnani that allows users to watch and listen to all the Divvy rides from three stations on a given day. The action starts about 40 seconds in, at 6 a.m. Play with the full app here.
The creators of this graphic calculated that “rebalances”—bikes being schlepped by Divvy staff from station to station—represented about one-fifth of all the trips the bikes made in the program’s first six months.