Students Follow the Yellow Bike Road

In 1994, the Portland, Oregon-based Community Cycling Center helped launch the city’s Yellow Bike program, the first of its kind in the United States. Portland citizens could use any Yellow Bike they came across for their riding needs. And though the program was very successful from a publicity standpoint, it was shut down after one year because nearly all the bikes were either stolen or vandalized.

Today, more judicious bike-sharing programs are springing up in cities and on college campuses around the world. Paris released 20,000 bikes in 2007 that riders can check out for a fee, and each bike is being used seven to 15 times a day on average. Washington DC launched the first U.S. bike-share program in May 2008 (National Bike Month), which was patterned after the Paris program, making 120 bikes available for “hire” at 10 locations throughout the city.

Bikes have room to play a larger role in American transit, at least according to the League of American Bicyclists, which cites that forty percent of trips in the United States are two miles or less and almost 90 percent of them are made by car.

College life, especially for resident students, is full of short trips across campus, to work or to a nearby store, which suggests a college bike-share program has an untapped market. Campus bike-share programs also reduce demand for additional parking spaces and ease traffic congestion around schools. Fourteen bikes can be parked in the space required to park one car.

On February 15, 2009, Saint Xavier University (SXU) in Chicago will be the first American university to launch a “European-style” bike-share program. “We’re the prototype for the entire United States,” says Paul Matthews, assistant vice president of Facilities Management at SXU. “And I’ll tell you, the university that will have this system after us will reap the benefits of our product testing, so it will probably be a lot easier than what we’re going through.”

The new GreenBike program lets students, staff and faculty check out one of 65 green and yellow bikes 24 hours a day at one of 12 self-service, solar-powered docking stations across campus. The first 15 minutes of bike use is free and then the rider is charged $.60 for each additional 15 minutes. Even at a leisurely pace, a cyclist can travel almost three miles in 15 minutes.

The GreenBike program pulls out all the stops. It comes with its own vehicle used for moving bikes to other stations if one becomes congested, or for picking up stranded students. The bikes come with puncture-proof tires. And soon riders will be able to “hire” bikes with their cell phones.

A slightly different campus bike program being tested, also launched in 2008, uses a variety of incentives and disincentives to get students pedaling. Staff at the University of New England (UNE) gave away 135 free bikes to first-year students who pledged not to bring a car to campus.

“Last year at this time we were in a crisis mode,” explains Don Clark, director of safety and security at UNE. “It was very clear we were going to have to build a new parking lot on our property for over $300,000. We would have to take out wetlands and cut trees. It was unpalatable.”

Collaboratively, students, faculty and staff came up with a solution to limit the number of cars on campus. Targeting the resident student population, which was the group most often bringing cars to campus and essentially storing them, UNE raised the price of its parking permit for first-year students from $75 to $300 and then gave the students a choice. Instead of bringing a car to campus, they could receive a new bike or a voucher for UNE’s Zipcar car-sharing program. More than twice as many students chose the free bike over the Zipcar voucher.

“The proof is that when I look out at the parking lot across the street from my building,” says Clark, “and I see it two-thirds empty almost every day, that is the evidence I need to believe the program works.”

See More:

With Free Bikes, Challenging Car Culture on Campus: New York Times

Saving the World, Two Wheels at a Time: Discover(ing) Sustainability

Stanford U. Tries to Calm Bike Traffic at “Intersection of Death”: Chronicle of Higher Education


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Published: January 27, 2009