America is a cult of the automobile. We drive everywhere. You can pick up a donut and coffee in the morning, a burger in the afternoon and a six-pack of beer at night and never leave your car. But some environmentally-conscious people want us to leave the car in the garage. And they’re offering us old, ugly bikes instead. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Corbin Sullivan reports:
America is a cult of the automobile. We drive everywhere. You can pick up a donut and coffee in
the morning, a burger in the afternoon and a six pack of beer at night and never leave your car. But
some environmentally-conscious people want us to leave the car in the garage. And they’re offering
us old, ugly bikes instead. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Corbin Sullivan reports:
These bikes are old, and they are ugly. But the Michigan
State University Bike Project isn’t worried about how its
bikes look. That’s unless they’re not ugly enough.
These kinds of creaky, old bikes were abandoned long
ago for bikes with gears, handle brakes and cool brand
names. Once they’re taken in, these old bikes are painted
a bright canary yellow – really ugly.
But that’s what the bike project’s organizers want. The
bikes just need to work, but not too well. They need to
stick out, but not in a good way.
Tim Potter says, the less desirable the better.
“We don’t want to make them look too good, because
we don’t want people taking them home and keeping
them. So we try to make them intentionally ugly and
Potter says they want people to borrow the bikes, but
they don’t want them to keep them. He helped launch
the project last May. They wanted to give Michigan
State students and professors a free and non-
polluting way to get across campus.
“We just want to encourage more people to use
bicycles to reduce traffic, to reduce pollution, and to
improve their health.”
At Michigan State, the bikes are leased to campus
departments and signed out for daily use.
Gus Gosselin rides one of these old yellow bikes in
the bitter cold of winter and the dead heat of summer.
He and Potter have been working on the bikes ever
since Gosselin brought the idea back from Canada.
“I was vacationing in a cabin in northern Ontario and
my neighbor was a bicycle shop owner from
Virginia. He told me that at his university when he
was a college student, they would take these
abandoned bikes and paint ’em some color, and then
just park ’em all around for people to just use as
Similar programs have sprung up across North America.
At other campuses like Hampshire College in
Massachusetts and the University of Texas. And in cities
such as Portland, Oregon, and St. Paul, Minnesota.
Before the concept came to North America, there
were community bike programs all across Europe.
Most U.S. bike programs use yellow to distinguish
their bikes. Amsterdam and Copenhagen use white.
Regardless of color, the concept remains the same:
Use a bike when you can avoid using a car.
The Michigan State bike project is just getting
Across Lake Michigan in Wisconsin’s capitol, the
Red Bike Project is approaching its sixth birthday.
The program here started when a bike shop decided
to donate free recycled bikes to the city of Madison.
Now the bikes are in for their winter repairs.
Dismantled red frames sit on the floor in the back of
the shop. They’re waiting for a new paint job and
“For the first three years the bicycles were
completely free so they’d be launched as it were like
on Earth Day in April. And then as we repaired and
painted more, we launched more. They would go
people could hop on them, leave them anywhere.”
Roger Charly owns the bike shop that started
painting and distributing the bikes. He says the
University of Wisconsin students drive the program.
And he says Madison is a biking town. It was ripe
for a community bike project.
The project caught on, but in unexpected ways, says
“You know at bar time down on campus you hear
people arguing about, ‘that’s my red bike or I’m
riding this red bike home.'”
And Charly says the arguments for the bikes weren’t
the only problem. He says sometimes, bikes would
end up in the nearby lake, or people would ride them
outside the city and abandon them.
So, he had to make riders put a deposit on their bike.
It gave them more responsibility. And Charly says
the program has flourished.
“Our fleet is about 300 bicycles right now which is
the most its ever been, so I suppose we could top out
at as many as 1000 bicycles.”
But there are 400,000 people in the Madison area.
So, a thousand red bikes might seem like a rather
pedestrian numbers to consider a success.
But these projects don’t have lofty goals of
converting an automobile society to one of bike
Back in Michigan, the yellow bike project has 25
bikes for a campus of more than 40,000. Terry Link
organizes the Michigan State Bike Project. He says
they would be happy to have 100 bikes by spring.
“Yeah, I think sometimes we look for the big changes
and we don’t tackle things because we such very
little in the ocean of change that maybe we feel we
need. But it’s individual actions that really start. I
think people that find themselves getting on bicycles
more, it changes the way they look at a lot of things.”
And Link thinks a community bike program can work
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Corbin