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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

April 14, 2002 Sunday
It's Your Vehicle, Baby

About now, bright yellow bikes begin to appear like spring flowers along the byways of Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., free for the ride. Just stay on campus paths and park the bike for someone else to use.

Inspired by the Yellow Bike Coalition in his native St. Paul, Adam Shapiro started the community bike program at Hampshire in 1999 -- a concept that has been around in one form or another for 30 years, particularly in Europe. While there are a handful of campus programs -- Davidson College in North Carolina, the University of New Hampshire at Durham, the University of British Columbia -- bike sharing has never exactly caught on, partly because the bikes get destroyed.

Mr. Shapiro, a junior majoring in community planning, concedes that "anarchic" programs like his -- just releasing the bikes into the world -- encourage vandalism and neglect. "I can't really call it a transportation system at this point, it's more entertainment," he says. "I see people riding these bikes with big grins." This winter, volunteers reconditioned and painted more than 40 bent and twisted conveyances that had been abandoned, donated or survived fall semester.

Transportation planners think the idea is entering a new, more promising phase with the use of technology (smart cards that unlock a bike from a rack; chips embedded in each bicycle to track it down) and strategies of accountability (refundable deposits, signed waivers).

Jared Benedict, who is studying sustainable technology at Hampshire College, is writing his senior thesis on what makes a workable program and spent spring break in Rennes, France, inspecting its special bikes and racks developed by Adshel, the public-toilet people. Mr. Benedict is also building a prototype of a bike docking station.

On campuses, programs tend to be low tech. At the University of New Hampshire, locks on each of 45 bikes can be opened with one key; about 80 people have taken a required 15-minute bike safety course and paid a $5 key fee. At Hampshire College, because nice bikes are stolen and dilapidated ones are treated like junk, the approach is minimalism: reduce 10 speeds to one speed.

Mr. Benedict is working on another idea: community scooters. "There are hardly any moving parts," he says.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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