Local schools test out bike share programs

11/11/10 Kate Bradshaw
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The University of Tampa is rounding out the first month of its bike share program. This green initiative comes amid a nationwide conservative backlash.

The concept is nothing new. Some schools provide communal bicycles so students can traverse a university’s sprawling grounds without having to get into the car. Programs range from those with high-tech tracking systems to those that let students hop on any unoccupied cycle. Katie White, University of Tampa's Assistant Director of Campus Recreation, says the school’s fledgling program is somewhere in between.

"Students, faculty, and staff with their valid Spartan ID can come into the center during specific hours and check out a bike. They just have to be back before dark."

White says the program didn’t come about from demand, but because the school suddenly found itself with more than a dozen extra bikes on hand.

The program started in mid-October. White says there haven’t yet been any issues with theft or damage.

"Bikes all come with a u-lock when the students check them out so they are instructed if any time you're not with the bike it needs to be locked up. The students have done really well at being accountable for the bikes. It's kind of like renting a car where the company walks around the car with you, 'okay this scratch was here, there's nothing on the bumper'. We kind of do that same thing, make sure every thing is working correctly."

Finding parking on UT’s Downtown Tampa campus – or any college campus, for that matter – is usually a Herculean feat. For those living on campus, not having a car can obviously alleviate stress, but being sans vehicle also makes it tough to get around. Gina Zito, a freshman hoping to major in public health and exercise physiology, says the bikes make a huge difference.

"I think it's amazing, especially how as a freshman my parents didn't want me to bring a car here, it's really convenient."

Across the bay, St. Petersburg-based Eckerd College’s Yellow Bike program is less formal. Students can ride any free bike they see, and leave them for the next user once they reach their destination. Weston Babelay, assistant director of campus activities as well as the program’s coordinator, says the college is revamping its Yellow Bike program to make the campus more pedestrian-oriented.

"They're going to eventually move all of the parking to the north end of campus. That way you can move in on move in days. You can use your vehicles around dorms and everything else. But other than that they're going to try to do walking paths and bike paths."

Eckerd adopted the program in 2004, and Babelay says while there has been theft and vandalism, the yellow bikes have been a success overall. He says this might be due to the campus’s relative isolation, but also to the philosophy the small college embraces.

"The main focus that we try to change is the mentality of the students to where it's not just Eckerd College's bikes but it's their bikes as well as a community so that way they'll want to take care of the bikes, have ownership of the bike program, as well. Instead of just saying 'oh, Eckerd, they have a bike program'. We are Eckerd, that is our program."

College campuses aren’t the only population centers with bike share programs. Amsterdam adopted the first one in 1965, and they can be seen all over Europe and Asia in various forms, as well as US cities like Washington, DC, Minneapolis, and Denver. As for the Bay area?

"If there's a chance it's going to make it, it might make it in the University of Tampa because of the campus setting."

Alan Snel is head of the Southwest Florida Bicycle United Dealers, or Swiftbud. He says it makes sense that a bike share program would appeal on campus, but he says another bay area city seems more bike-share conducive than Tampa.

"St. Pete, also, there's a chance there as well because of the culture and interest in bicycling and because of the urban 'milieu', if you will, of their business district."

But cyclists on both sides of the bay fear for their safety, especially in light of recent strikes. The latest occurred today, when a car struck and seriously injured a 13-year-old boy in Port Richey. Snel says, yes, safety is a major concern of his, but it also seems to be a work-in-progress on the part of local governments.

"The city of Tampa and the city of St. Petersburg are really two different animals. The city of St.Petersburg has a funded bicycle program, if you will. They have a city bicycle-pedestrian coordinator. They have had a program up and running for several years now. There's a budget, there's projects, and there's bike lanes. They have a comprehensive program. The city of Tampa doesn't have that level of bicycle program rignt now. It runs out of the transportation department. They don't have a bike-ped coordinator per se, although bicycling has been identified, I think as part of the transportation system."

The campus programs are getting into full swing as Hillsborough County voters rejected a proposed sales tax boost that would have funded countywide transit overhaul. Advocates had hoped the overhaul would result in less dependence on cars. But Paul DeMaio, a managing partner of MetroBike, a DC Area-based bike share consulting firm, says sooner or later, the need for transit will override the dominant political sentiment.

"Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Greens, Tea Partiers, we all need to get places and if the easiest way to get to our places is via transit, or by biking or walking, then that's how we're going to get there."

But he says that in order for there to be real movement toward a city-sponsored bike share program, political will has to be there.

"You really have to have a great network of stations out there to cover the core of the region and neighborhoods, so that costs money and the elected officials and staff. Whether it be the department of transportation, or health, or environment. People need to support it."

University of Tampa's bike program

Eckerd College's Yellow Bike program


Alan Snel

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