Tuesday, June 10, 2008

This Bicycle Idea

You may have read in the local paper that I came back from Quebec with the idea that Prince Albert should have free bicycles available, that people could just pick up and ride, then leave for another rider.

Just a few of points of clarification - the idea isn't new, nor is it mine, nor did I pick it up in Quebec. I was just reminded of its potential in Quebec, which is extremely bicycle friendly, with bike paths along the river, and with bike stands along the city streets, so that bike riders don't have to lock their bikes to lamp posts or parking meters.

The idea is one that is used in other cities - Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and most recently Paris, and in several American cities, where the Blue Bike program is sponsored by Dasani (a brand of bottled water). In Europe, it's more of a general get-around-the-city approach; in the US, it seems to be more focused on encouraging people to use recreational trails in parks.

When I first heard of it, I thought that it was something that could be adapted to Prince Albert, particularly with the development of the Rotary Trail. I raised it with council about a year ago, but no action has been taken.

I still think that it is an idea with exciting potential, but I also realize that there are areas of concern that need to be thought about before going ahead.

To start with, do you just leave a bunch of bikes lying around, free for anyone to just pick up, ride off, and then dump in the river? None of the programs that I've read about are quite that simple - usually the bikes are located at hubs, with some kind of controlled access, for example, in a shed that can be unlocked with a swipe card that is obtained from a central location, sometimes for a small fee ($10 - $25 for a season). Some places allow you to earn the swipe card with a few hours of volunteer work, such as bicycle maintenance. You're then expected to return the bike to one of the hubs. A thought that I had was that the shopping cart deposit system, where you put in a loonie to unlock the cart (or bicycle), then get it back when you return it, might work.

What if someone just steals the bike? Part of the idea is to have the bikes painted some horrendous, uncool colour so that it's obvious where it came from - if one is left abandoned somewhere, it would be easily identifiable to return to a hub, and, like the shopping cart, if there's a loonie in it, there's added incentive to return it!

Where would these bikes come from? Every year, the police auction off tons of bikes that have been stolen and abandoned - they usually sell for very little. And other bikes end up in the landfill, when with a little work they would be quite rideable. People could donate bikes that they no longer use, or bikes that have been outgrown by their kids.

What about bike maintenance? Perhaps the Youth Activity Centre could add a bike repair and maintenance program. Perhaps this could become a fine option. Perhaps a local bike merchant could donate his expertise to teach kids how to fix bikes.

How to start? I would start relatively small, with a pilot project on the Rotary Trail, with three or four bike stations at common starting points for the trail. I would go with the shopping cart lock system, maybe six bikes at a station. If it worked, it could be expanded to other areas of the city - a hub downtown, maybe hubs at schools, the Youth Activity Centre, the skateboard park, Cornerstone. Of course, we would need more bike racks throughout the city - right now they just aren't readily available.

This could be something that sets Prince Albert apart - people driving through the city could stop for a bike ride along the river. Families with visitors from out of town could all go for a ride. If it expanded, it could become a transportation option throughout the city.

It's a way that Prince Albert could be seen as trying to become more environmentally conscious, and encouraging physical activity among residents.

The PA Herald had a very supportive editorial last week, and I've had several people comment that they like the idea. One woman even phoned City Hall to volunteer to help with bike maintenance.

So what do you think? What pitfalls have I not mentioned? What are some ways that we could make this work? I will be raising this again at council, and it would be helpful if I had even more positive ideas than the ones I've mentioned here. Give me a call or send me an email, and let's see if we can bring about some positive change.

"It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." - Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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