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Bachelor of Arts in Biking

770525911_8a5eaa938f.jpgFlickr photo by sandcastlematt

In efforts to fight growing needs for unsightly parking lots, many universities have discovered a variety of options focused on separating academics and students from their cars.

The University of Washington provides free bike rentals including electric bikes to help cope with the campus’s fortunate but challenging location atop one of Seattle’s hilly districts. Emory University offers discounts for bikes and free bike rentals, while Duke University provides 1-3 day bike rentals. University of Buffalo has a seasonal bike-sharing program, and St. Xavier University in Chicago is one of the first to use a computerized bike sharing program. University of New England and Ripon College have gone so far as to give incoming freshman new bicycles for leaving their cars at home and/ or providing free zip car credits. However not all programs are created equally.

Overall, the bike sharing programs are popular.

Of course the users who receive free bikes are generally content with the programs, but the larger community adds that additional investments are needed:

  • campuses still lack safe trails linking them to neighboring urban centers,
  • bike parking facilities are still unsecure and limited,
  • and existing students/ faculty also should receive benefits from universities’ investments in sustainable transportation.

The disadvantages of cars are plentiful enough that free bikes might not be the answer to university transport issues. Universities generally have limited parking space, and most recognize the need to raise fees for spots that are in high demand. Parking lots are unsightly and reinforce cars use.

Washington University in St. Louis spent $140 million on campus renovations and went so far to get LEED certification, only to invite cars into an expensive, new 520-space underground parking garage. The University also boasted that its’ building were focused on the outdoors, with large windows and new landscaping, yet it’s new parking garage encourages people to drive to campus even though bikes are more consistent with the campus’s sustainability goals.

Instead of building parking lots, universities should build bike and pedestrian infrastructure.
Universities have a profound opportunity to shape their students customs and habits. The more they encourage biking and walking, the more likely students will integrate biking into their post-college lives.

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  • Laura Root

    Indeed, these pilot programs may not continue in the face of economic troubles. Perhaps if they do not continue, universities can use them as a learning experience and a catalyst to design programs that are economically self- sustainable. Perhaps measure to make campuses healthier and more environmentally friendly can even spark revenues for universities? They certainly can tap into a reserve of creativity to find solutions.

    It seems that the bike programs have been more successful in smaller schools. However, large universities increasingly have to fight a growing need for more unsightly and expensive parking lots which involves mainly the idea of changing how people think about commuting and public space. Creating a bike culture doesn’t have to mean additional expenditures to tight budgets: there can be larger opportunities such as expanding bike rental programs to the surrounding community for profit, working with state and local city officials to improve accessibility ( perhaps with additional funding?); expanding the network with local businesses?

    Overall, the groundwork is being laid for universities to become a breeding ground for the paradigm shift needed in sustainable transport and environment: ideally it can take more of a social entrepreneurial turn rather than become an extra burden to already limited budgets.

  • Rob

    I wonder how university endowment levels – which are down across the board – are going to impact sustainability programs such as these? I know the my alma mater (Georgetown) and my brother’s (Wash U in St. Louis – mentioned here) have both e-mailed alums in recent weeks expressing serious concern about endowment levels. The Cal State system just announced it would not accept 10,000 qualified students due to budget restrictions. Etc. Who’s going to pay for free bikes when the university cutting back on staff, scholarships, maintenance, etc.?

    I bet the only way they keep the bike programs and other sustainability initiatives is if those programs cut costs by their nature, rather than adding costs. An example is weatherproofing – sustainable, and helps cut costs. Bike rentals? Probably gone for fiscal 2009, sadly. It’ll be interesting to see it play out…does anyone see a different ending here?