""There are all these community bike programs around the country," [Brian Lacy, director of community cycling in Portland, OR] said, "and they all are dealing with abuse of the program, meaning vandalism or appropriating of property."
The quote is from 1997, when Portland tried to resurrect a ride-it-and-leave-it bike program that had failed a year earlier for lack of management and excess of idealism. One bike industry veteran who'd once developed a "bikes for bombs" program said:
"They (in Nicaragua) quickly discovered that when the people didn't pay for the bikes, they abandoned them," Calvert said. "It lowered the value, at least in their minds, of the bikes. I felt that was a very profound lesson about the way that people treat bikes and perceive value.
"It's not any different in that people perceive the value of objects partially based on what they paid for them, whether it's in Nicaragua or the United States."
As someone said of the stolen Portland bikes, which were refurbished junkers painted yellow, "they lost their communal nature." Portland has now tried again on a smaller scale by launching Green Bikes.
Conservative critics (I seem to recall an SCSU Scholars post I couldn't immediately locate) have made the same point. Such programs can work in the social democracies of Europe and Madison, Wisconsin. But they've experienced failures in other U.S. locales. We may want people to behave in an unselfish, communal way, but it appears enough don't to ruin it for the rest of us.
During our Portugal tour, we looked forward visiting the picturesque coastal city of Aveiro and riding community bicycles, seen here at the train station. (The bikes for our earlier countryside tour were provided by Backroads.)
Aveiro started the BUGA project (Bicicleta de Utilização Gratuíta de Aveiro) in 2000 with the aim of reintroducing the bicycle into the town's day-to-day life. Anyone can check out a bike from a tended city kiosk where your ID is scanned to ensure its return. Then you're issued a bike, lock, and helmet if you choose. The bikes are heavy 3-speeds in different degrees of workable condition — nothing you could imagine anyone would steal.
An undated use study of the Aveiro program showed slightly more than half the users were from out of town, or tourists like us. Primarily, the bikes provide an alternative to walking rather than driving, so their ecological impact is negligible.
The city has made additional accommodations to bikes, such as marked paths and even bike signals for a path down the middle of the main thoroughfare. It's possible the PR value of the program is its greatest asset. After all, it got us to choose to spend the night there versus other more distinguished towns in the region.
Another community bike model has taken hold in Paris and a few other cities — one more in line with the advice of the market economists. Velib rents the bikes on an hourly-to-annual subscription basis. Sponsored by an outdoor ad firm that can place advertising on the bikes, Velib incorporates more than the concept of deposit and pay-to-ride to make the service work.
For starters, there are more bikes available from more self-service stations with the swipe of a credit card. (Since most work and shopping trips originate from home, rather than high-density central locations, distribution of bikes is a key requirement to increase use.) A Velib website not only shows the location of stations; you can rollover the station on a Google map to confirm the availability of bikes. Check it out. The density achieved across the city is quite startling.
This is a prototypical Across the Great Divide merging of community spirit, sustainable values and market forces. I just hope I don't have to write a retraction in a few years.