Jump On; Jump Off. That's the Goal of Bike Exhange

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A University of Michigan class focused on projects to make the campus more environmentally sustainable is bringing together the often-differing perspectives of Environment and Business Majors.

David Spiro, a 19-year-old sophomore in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, saw dollar signs in running a program to encourage biking. But as he worked with Program in the Environment majors, his perception changed to appreciate the value of the societal and community benefits it could bring.

Erin Kelly, a 23-year-old senior in the Program in the Environment, was attracted to bike sharing's potential for tangible environmental gains. "It serves as a giant PR campaign for green transport," she said. Kelly said interacting with Business School majors made her "feel like the environmental consultant." She was impressed that the business school students were receptive to her views.

"This taught us how to relate to each other while working on the same end goal," said Spiro.

The students are enrolled in Sustainability and the Campus, a class taught by Mike Shriberg. This semester, 42 students worked on eight projects designed at exploring and implementing ways to make the campus more environmentally sustainable.

While many of the projects were defined in advance of the class, the bike project was the brain-child of Spiro and 20-year-old Chad Stark, also a sophomore in the Business School. They had already begun working on bike sharing on their own, and asked Shriberg if he could include it among the choices. Shriberg was impressed and says it’s an example of how the class is serving as a perfect "incubator" to identify hurdles to see if ideas are feasible.

Bike sharing is modeled after successful efforts in European cities like Barcelona and Madrid. In concept it’s similar to the Zip Car program. But Zip Car requires pick-up and drop-off at the same location, while a bike could be picked up at one spot and dropped off at another, a system similar to ones for baggage carts at many airports.

Bikes are docked at central, unmanned stations in highly trafficked student areas, outside dormitories or class buildings, for example. Bikers swipe a card, unlock a bike, and are on the go quickly and easily. It's ideal for distances that are too close to drive, but too far to walk, or in congested downtowns where parking is a problem, says Spiro. He says that it's better than owning a bike since many students don't have space to store them and have to leave them outside year-round.

As a starting point, students surveyed residents of Oxford Housing, since the residence hall is too close to campus to drive, yet too far to walk. What’s more, a bus system called the Link that used to service Oxford University no longer exists, so now students wait longer for public transportation. In the survey of 60 Oxford residents, 53% agreed that a bike sharing system would help them get around campus.

In addition to stations at residence halls, students are also proposing to place bike racks at bus stops where commuters could debark that form of transportation and finish the journey by bike.

A major obstacle, however, is funding for a project students say would cost $3,000 per bike. Students said an arrangement in which a private company would fund the program in return for being able to display a logo on the bikes is what they identified as the largest potential source of funding. The group is still looking into whether such advertising is viable.   

Dave Miller, the retired executive director of U-M parking and transportation services, says ideally the university would work with a private company that would run the program and fund the capital investments. Another possibility would be for the university to provide seed money from central resources or parking funds. He's optimistic students would use bike sharing, even in the winter, making the idea feasible, at least on a small scale. He says employees also may prefer to bike rather than walk or take the bus.

Stark and Spiro are undertaking a second survey after the class ends, to determine the routes most conducive to bike placement. Stark is optimistic that a bike program will become a reality and when that happens, that other campuses will follow. "It's more than just a system. It's a culture," he says.