The Life and Death of a College Bikeshare System in Maine
The Bowdoin Quad. Photo from bowdoin.edu.

The Bowdoin Quad. Photo from bowdoin.edu.

In 2007, a few students (including myself) and staff at Bowdoin College, a small liberal arts school in Maine, started the Yellow Bike Club, an informal system of bikes left on campus and re-purposed for the shared bike program. Spray-painted yellow, secured with U-locks and repaired in an old shed on campus, the system of just a few bikes was born. Initially, there were seven bikes and about 50 members who received codes for the locks that periodically changed.

A number of years later, the bike system is in disarray. Bikes sit piled up at apartments off campus, where most seniors live. And the U-lock combinations, given to members, were “shared like candy,” says Jackie Su, a current junior at Bowdoin who volunteers with the bike club. “That was okay except users of the program starting making the bikes their personal modes of transport by changing combinations, and thus making the bikes unusable to other members.”

One brash student spray-painted a yellow bike red but didn’t finish the process because the student could not remove a wheel. The bike was left lying on the campus green. And it got worse. Explains Su: “This all culminated when, one night, a drunk college student, frustrated upon not being able to unlock one of our fleet, pulled the bike out of the bike rack, still locked to the rack, turned it sideways, and jumped up and down on its front wheel.” And there was one other issue: “We dealt with these issues as they came, but the next year, my sophomore year, we had a big problem with an athletic team stealing the bikes en masse.”

Su just returned from studying abroad in Copenhagen, where she saw first-hand a city centered on cycling. She, along with a few other students, have been bent on building a functioning program at her school. To alleviate the problems her team purchased new custom locks, including keys that wouldn’t release until the locks were fully secured.

“This system minimized outside tampering with the bikes, since one key could only unlock one lock at a time.” But members stopped locking the bikes, creating the same problems as before.

The school has invested about $20,000 over the course of a few years to buy bikes and run a shared system that isn’t working. Too many bikes are missing. The college also pays a few students to repair, maintain, circulate and conduct an inventory of the bikes. Given the lack of success thus far, Bowdoin staff and student volunteers who run the bike club are in favor of an entirely new system – “‘unleashing’ the bikes – that is, without the locks,” Su says.

Spring should be a great time for a trial period. “We don’t launch the bikes until after spring break, and that gives us a window of about six weeks until final [exams], a good amount of time to gauge how this feels,” Su says. “There is absolutely a sense that this is the last shot we get with this program. If even one bike goes missing and we find out it was a student, the program will basically shut down.”

If this doesn’t work,  the system would revert to a sort of “long-term” bike rental program, in which students pay or release personal information to check out a bike. The program is similar to that of Yale University and a few other bikeshare programs. Su continues:

“There’s too much at stake—mostly pride, and a little money—to risk it all, so our plan is to appeal to the good of the entire student body. If they feel a sense of community and ownership of the bikes, I really hope this will work. It’s idealistic, but, like I said, this is pretty much our last shot at it. But at this point, it really feels like the best thing to do is throw all of our confidence behind Bowdoin students and see what happens.”

Do you go to a school with a successful bikesharing program? If so, please share your experience. Su and others have been conducting research on other bike share programs and have yet to find a system that they expect will work for Bowdoin. They want a simple, low-cost program that is communal and leaves bikes scattered around campus for people to pick up and use, but have yet to find an answer. Bowdoin has been supporting the Yellow Bike Club as part of its commitment to carbon neutrality by 2020; the campus has  also reduced emissions by 7 percent in the last two years.

If you have any ideas, tweet at us (@thecityfix), leave your comments below, or email Jackie Su (jsu@bowdoin.edu). She is looking for any information that might help Bowdoin run a successful communal bikeshare system.

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