CHICAGO — Mike Hightower began using Divvy’s electric bikes about a year ago and “fell in love” with the bike program, signing up for an annual membership.
Hightower’s 5-mile commute from Avondale took him through the city’s fee “waiver zones,” giving him 45 minutes on the bike at no extra cost before per-minute pricing began. But Divvy’s new pricing structure eliminates the waiver zones for e-bikes, making longer rides more expensive. It also increased per-minute fees for e-bikes, added a lock fee for non-members and raised annual memberships from $108 to $119.
Paying $7 a day on top of the membership means Divvy is no longer financially feasible for any of Hightower’s commutes, he said.
“I will use my own bike now or the CTA as a result,” Hightower said. “Unless they reinstate the zone pricing they had before, I will not be using Divvy any longer.”
Hightower is among several bicyclists who have canceled Divvy memberships or scaled back Divvy use in favor of other options. Some said they are switching to their own bikes, buying normal bikes or e-bikes, taking ride shares or going back to the CTA. Some also said they’re having a harder time finding non-electric blue bikes; when they do, they often are too poorly maintained to use.
Lyft, which operates Divvy, made the pricing changes to simplify the cost structure for e-bikes, but “we don’t want anyone to feel like they are being priced out of the system,” spokesperson Colin Wright said.
But some say that’s exactly what’s happening.
“The intention was for this to be public transportation, access to opportunity. … It was supposed to supplement where the gaps in our transportation system,” said Christina Whitehouse, founder of bicyclist advocacy group Bike Lane Uprising and a former Divvy user. “That’s not going to be the case for a lot of people if it continues to be this expensive and if it’s this hard to get a base bike.”
The price changes were implemented May 10, raising costs for riders with and without memberships, bicyclists said.
A medical student who bikes the Lakefront Trail from Hyde Park to Streeterville daily recently spent almost $10 for an hour-long e-bike commute. The ride would have been nearly $25 for non-members, while a Metra and CTA trip for the same one-way trip would be $6 or less.
Her partner, Steven Lucy, posted a screenshot of the ride on Twitter, which ignited a discussion about Divvy’s updated policy. Lucy said the couple is looking into buying their own e-bikes and may cancel their membership due to the price increases.
Shanna, a South Shore resident who didn’t want to give her last name, used to ride Divvy’s electric bikes to attend protests and visit friends. It was the most affordable transit option with her annual $5 Divvy for Everyone discounted membership. She recently got a car and cut down on her Divvy use, but she plans to switch back to e-bikes more often with high gas prices and summer around the corner.
The updated pricing structure also has benefits for riders like Shanna. Those with the discounted membership still pay 5 cents per minute for e-bike trips and now have a $10 a month e-bike fee credit for the next year. The company also lowered the unlock fees for casual riders to $1 to reduce barriers to entry for short trips.
“It cuts back on gas expenses, [but the elimination of the waiver zones] and new prices are not sustainable because Divvy will continue to increase. … They know more people are biking,” Shanna said.
Other riders who prefer the classic blue bikes found at most dock stations, which are less expensive but older and oftentimes require more maintenance, also are ditching Divvy to buy used bikes.
“I’ve increasingly checked out bikes with flat tires and then seen them waste away in the stations even after marking them as dysfunctional,” said Patrick, an Edgewater resident who didn’t want his last name used. “Seats are falling apart, the handles are getting increasingly gross, and this all happens while the price for a membership grows.”
Patrick, who commutes to Evanston, said he would resort to grabbing an e-bike since blue bikes are harder to find “just to find a station with a regular bike so I don’t end up getting charged more than necessary.”
This week, Patrick finally bought a used bike for the same amount as a yearly Divvy membership as a more affordable option.
Wright, of Lyft, said the price change and elimination of the two-fare waiver zones come after they confused some riders and as ridership expands in those areas.
“Our former waiver zone pricing reflected the fact that these neighborhoods at the time had lower overall station density and fewer bikes,” Wright said in a statement. “Since then, we have made the system more accessible by steadily adding 7,000 e-bikes, expanding the number of Divvy stations, designating more than 500 public bike racks as free parking locations, and expanding our Divvy for Everyone program to thousands of new riders.”
Despite the recent backlash, Divvy membership remains strong, Wright said. For a limited time, the Chicago Department of Transportation and Lyft will provide casual riders and standard members who rode in the former waiver zone a monthly $5 credit to help with e-bike rides that start or end in these areas.
Not all Divvy e-bike riders are against the new pricing structure.
Mike Showalter, who bikes roughly 2 miles from his River North home to work at the Willis Tower, said the e-bike price increases are not meaningfully different for short rides.
Showalter said he is willing to pay a little more for a nicer ride on an e-bike that goes faster. With the inflation of food and gas prices, it’s still worth it to use Divvy, although it can be difficult to find e-bikes Downtown and find open docks to lock up blue bikes, he said.
“Divvy should be better about picking bikes up when they need service, but they are trying to do what they can,” Showalter said.
Shanna said she wants to see more e-bikes come to the South Side and better maintenance of the classic blue bikes that are often vandalized, broken or old and hard to ride.
Wright said Lyft’s focus has been on growing the e-bike fleet, and the company is committed to bringing 10,500 of the popular e-bikes to all corners of the city.
But Wright said the company has no plans to eliminate the classic blue bikes and “continues to keep them in top shape and available for riders to enjoy,” he said.
Repairs regularly occur on an incident basis and on a 60-day tune-up schedule, and mechanics are constantly fixing components like brakes, seats, and crank arms, Wright said.
Whitehouse rode Divvy bikes until 2021. She bought her own bike because the system became less reliable and financially feasible. She said she worries the new price and fewer blue bikes on the street will hinder access to those who rely on Divvy for work, like food delivery workers.
Whitehouse brought up the pricing issues at the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council before its meetings stopped.
“I feel like we have pulled the ladder up behind everyone who’s benefited from Divvy in the years prior before this pricing structure,” Whitehouse said. “We’ve priced people out of it and it’s become this thing that wasn’t what our intention was.”
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