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Eckerd's plan: A free ride for every student

The college has put 50 yellow bikes around campus for students to use. So far, the plan seems to be working.

MONIQUE FIELDS
Published March 27, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - The yellow bicycles started showing up at Eckerd College last month.

Parked at the foot of staircases. Leaning against trees. Outside classrooms.

"They're everywhere," says Libby Shannon, a junior at the private liberal arts college. "It's easy to get around."

That's what Eckerd officials had in mind when they decided to scatter 50 bikes around campus and see what happened. Students, faculty and staff members are supposed to ride the bikes around the 188-acre grounds, then leave them behind for the next rider.

The goal is to provide a safer and environmentally smart form of transportation. The college plans to eventually move its parking lots farther north of the campus, leaving the school's center free of cars.

Other colleges and cities have tried similar experiments, with less than encouraging results.

The city of Tampa started an "Orangecycles" program in 1997. It ended a few weeks later, after some of the bikes broke down and others were stolen. The same problems plagued free bike programs in St. Paul, Minn., Little Rock, Ark., and Portland, Ore.

Eckerd president Donald Eastman said he is convinced yellow bikes will be a cost-effective addition to his school, which enrolls about 1,600 students. Parking lots cost the college as much as $10,000 a space, he said. Bikes cost just $129 each.

"We're not going to be unfriendly to automobiles. We're just going to put them in their place," Eastman said. So far, the plan appears to be working. It's hard to find anyone on campus who hasn't taken a yellow bike for a spin.

"I can just park (my car) someplace and find one and ride it around all day," says Gabe Erhartic, a sophomore.

"It's become the cool thing to do on campus," says Yasmine Wilt, a junior.

But popularity isn't always a good thing.

A few riders already have done minor damage to the bicycles, while others have found creative ways to ensure the bikes stay put.

Some bikes have been found hidden behind trees. Others have been found without seats because the previous rider took it to class. Some bikes are being stashed overnight in dorm rooms.

Eastman says he never expected the program to be perfect. He and other administrators say they expect problems to ease after a new shipment of 50 bikes shows up in a few weeks.

The problems never got better in Tampa, where a similar program ended just a few weeks after 50 orange-painted junker bikes, donated from the Tampa Police Department's store of unclaimed merchandise, were put on the streets.

The bikes were stationed downtown, in Ybor City and around Hyde Park. Some were quickly stolen.

"Someone said they found one way out in Oldsmar," says Jim Cloar, who was president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership in 1997, when the initiative began. "Just for a prank, some ended up in the Hillsborough River."

The biggest problem, Cloar says, was maintenance.

"We did not have enough money to really hire somebody to do all the maintenance, and we were relying on some volunteers to keep it up," says Cloar, who is now president of the Downtown St. Louis Partnership. "It was a struggle."

As it was for other cities that tried the concept.

Portland was a leader in the free bike movement, distributing hundreds of yellow bikes around the city. But they broke down so often volunteers had to conduct nightly sweeps in a futile attempt to fix all the bikes in disrepair.

The program was tweaked three years ago and renamed the Create-A-Commuter program. It now delivers refurbished bikes of various colors to low-income residents who don't have cars.

"They have a lot more respect for it because it's theirs," said Ayleen Crotty, director of operations for the Community Cycling Center in Portland.

Small colleges such as Eckerd have had some success with free bikes, Crotty said, in part because bikes are particularly useful for short trips.

But Davidson College in North Carolina abandoned its campuswide program, opting for something more limited. The bikes now are assigned to freshman halls, where students take responsibility for them, said Bill Giduz, a Davidson spokesman.

No changes are in the works at Eckerd. Some say they wish there were.

"I don't think there is a need for them on a small campus," said Chelsi Molina, an Eckerd freshman.

Administrators say they learned several lessons from the first shipment of bikes. The next batch will have seats that are harder to remove. And they will have heavy duty tires to reduce the number of flat repairs.

The college is working with Lou's Bicycle Center in Seminole, and plans to establish a work-study program that will pay students to perform minor repairs, such as tightening seats and handlebars.

Alternative forms of transportation also are in the works, including golf cart trams for those who are not physically able to ride a bike.

Cloar, the former Tampa Partnership official, has some advice for Eckerd officials.

"Monitor where the (bikes) are and keep an eye out on the maintenance," he said. But resist the temptation to overregulate.

"It should be a service that's easy to use."

- Times staff writer Kevin Graham and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

OTHER EFFORTS

ST. PAUL, MINN.: Launched program in 1994. About 100 bikes put on the street; 75 of them disappeared. Regrouped and provided bikes to neighborhoods.

ANNAPOLIS, MD.: Touted program for SmartBikes, which can be tracked, in 2001. Program still waiting for SmartCards needed for tracking.

LITTLE ROCK, ARK.: Started 1998. Seven bikes disappeared. One was run over by a dump truck. Several were found more than 15 miles from downtown. Program shut down in 1999.

TAMPA: Orangecycles program began in 1997. The program failed weeks later when the city had trouble recruiting volunteers to fix the bikes, some of which had disappeared.

PORTLAND, ORE.: Led Yellow Bike trend. Running joke in Portland is that rivers are lined with the bikes. Program is now called Create-A-Commuter and gives bikes to anyone 18 or older, who is low-income and doesn't have a car.

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