By Kyla Gardner on November 21, 2013 6:57am | Updated on November 21, 2013 6:57am
CHICAGO — At the end of June, 17-year-old Yvonne Eao bought one sky blue beach cruiser bicycle.
About the same time, the City of Chicago purchased 4,000 of them.
Chicago’s Divvy bike-share program debuted in late June, filling the streets (and sometimes sidewalks) with pedaling commuters, tourists and joyriders on the easy-to-spot, low-seated bicycles.
Eao was occasionally stopped by tourists in the Loop on her way to the beach from Bridgeport with friends.
“Random strangers did come up to me and ask me where I rented my bike,” she said. “Someone was like, ‘Where is everyone getting those bikes from? Where do I rent those bikes?’ That was when I was new to the Divvy bikes, so I wondered why everyone had thought I rented mine.”
Eao was drawn to the Schwinn at a suburban Wal-Mart mostly because of its color: a “really pretty … nice sky blue.”
To the designers responsible for Divvy’s markings at Firebelly Design, that blue was more a matter of civic pride.
“The blue is the exact same blue as the Chicago flag,” said Dawn Hancock, who added that there are four Chicago stars on the chain guard of Divvy bikes, also inspired by the city flag.
And that vintage beach cruiser look? Eao just heard Schwinn was a good brand. But for Irving Park resident Jessica De Oliveira, 31, her Fernet-brand promotional, mint-blue cruiser was hard won in a bar’s costume karaoke contest as Lady Gaga.
“I wanted this bike. I wanted it really bad,” she said. “I love the look of the beach cruiser, I love retro, I love vintage things. It seemed like it fit what I like, fit my style.”
Unlike Eao, who doesn’t mind that her style of bike has gotten a bit less unique in Chicago, De Oliveira is not a Divvy fan.
When she first saw Divvy bikes, “I thought mine was way cuter. I thought they were clunky and ugly. Mine looks really sexy and curvy,” she said, adding that she uses a road bike for long rides, and her cruiser just for neighborhood jaunts.
“The people that are renting them are not real bikers,” she said.
But that may be exactly the point.
“It is a bike that anybody in the community can use,” said Michel Dallaire, whose Montreal-based company designed the bike frame and docking station now used in more than 13 cities worldwide.
His inspiration was a boomerang — which always returns, like a bike-share bike must. That design element can be seen in Divvy’s main tube, from the handlebars to the center of the rear wheel.
“I wanted to design a very elegant bicycle, and the first image in my brain was the boomerang,” Dallaire said.
The absence of a top crossbar is also practical for commuters, said Scott Kubly, Chicago Department of Transportation deputy commissioner.
“We wanted a bike you could step right through whether you’re in a skirt, blue jeans, a suit, whatever,” he said. “A bike that has that upper bar, the older you get, the less flexible you get. Throwing your leg over a bike all the time, for some people, that might be a barrier to being able to use it, whether they’re not limber or wearing clothing that doesn’t work well with that. You don’t want to rip your pants throwing your leg over your bike.”
The upright seating position — compared to a racing bike — also allows for more visibility, both for riders to cars and cars to riders, Kubly said.
Dallaire said he studied bike-share programs in Paris and Stockholm before starting on the design for Bixi (a portmanteau of “bicycle” and “taxi”) in Montreal, the first city to implement his system in 2008. Bixi and Divvy’s thick frames, made of aluminum, are more durable than the thin steel ones used in Paris’ Vélib bikes — of which 9,000 were reportedly lost or “mangled” in 2012 alone.
“When you see our bicycle riding in the street, you will see it’s very elegant but very robust, very sturdy, very solid,” Dallaire said. The frame also conceals wires to deter vandalism, and the front rack doesn’t collect trash like a basket would.
Above all, Dallaire’s system — now used in New York City, Washington, D.C., and London, among others — is meant to integrate as seamlessly as possible with a city.
He calls it “mobile street furniture.”
Docking stations are easily moved, as they aren’t connected to existing city infrastructure and operate on solar power. Montreal removes all of its bikes and some of its stations for the winter.
Fearless Chicago cyclists, however, will be able to brave winter with Divvy.
By the time Eao pulls her bike sky-blue cruiser out of storage next spring, she thinks Divvy will be widespread enough so that she doesn’t become an impromptu spokeswoman for the company.
“I think people will already know where to get them,” she said. “Or notice a difference between my bike and regular Divvy bikes.”