Say, can I borrow your bicycle?

By Kevin Sonoff, Bicycle Friendly Campus Initiatives Intern

Bicycle sharing is all the rage. What’s been commonplace in many European cities for well over a decade is now beginning to catch on in a handful of cities around the U.S. Short-term and one-way rental options make sharing programs very appealing to tourists and locals alike in major metropolitans like Washington, D.C. and New York City.

Paris’ Vélib’ bicycle sharing program, created in 1997, boasts 18,000 bicycles and 1,200 bicycle checkout stations.

I was surprised to learn that bicycle sharing has an equally well-established presence on many college campuses throughout the country. I was less surprised once I began to realize that college towns share many important attributes with their bustling urban counterparts that contribute to successfully implementing a bicycle-sharing program.

First, many college towns have a fairly captive audience, not unlike that of a major metropolitan, only on a different scale. Most college students, faculty, and staff live within biking distance of their professional or academic destination, making cycling a feasible commuting option and putting them well within the reach of public transportation. Given this high percentage of last-milers (people whose commute is < 1 mile), creating a bicycle-sharing program greatly increases the appeal of other alternative and public transportation options. Bicycle sharing and alternative transportation enjoy a fruitful symbiotic relationship when it comes to college towns and metropolitans as the two in combination make for a simple, stress-free transportation option for would-be weary cyclists.

UC Irvine’s ZotWheels bicycle sharing program is the only fully automated system in use on an American college campus.

Second, parking is a premium in nearly every university. Many campuses were built without single-passenger commuters in mind. Thirty years ago, college students didn’t dream of bringing their own car with them to campus. What was the need? Everything you could want was available on campus and the pubs were all in walking distance. Likewise, most major metropolitans were thriving long before the horseless buggy caught on. As the cost of parking permits, fees, and single-passenger infrastructure continue to rise, multi-modal commuting options begin to look very nice and very affordable. After all, parking garages leave a much larger void in a university or municipal government’s general fund than does a simple bicycle-sharing program.

Lastly, we must address traffic. We all hate it. It seems to be everywhere, even in a small college town like Bloomington. Everyone is well aware of the traffic issues facing metropolitans like Chicago and Los Angeles, as they are well documented and perpetually debated. Traffic increases stress, lowers productivity, and is very costly to health of citizens and the environment alike. Bicycle sharing opens the door to a vast array of alternative transportation options, many of which are very effective traffic remedies (think busses and subways). That said, it’s important to view the issue from a high-level, macro perspective. Traffic management is about balancing demand and shifting the load. If bicycle sharing can encourage more commuters to use public transportation, it will help reduce congestion on our streets and highways. The argument makes itself.

Indiana University, located in the heart of Bloomington, Indiana, is one of the nation’s most bike-friendly campuses.

So, back to my original question: can I borrow your bicycle? Our hope is that in the not too distant future, the answer for students, faculty, and staff here in Bloomington will be a resounding yes.


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