May 3, 2011

Bike-share program gives Cornellians a free ride

Three years in the planning, Big Red Bikes -- Cornell's new bike-share program -- launches May 4 with 20 bicycles at Uris Library.

Now, Cornell students, faculty and staff can "check out" a free bike at Uris Library's circulation desk with a Cornell ID. Riders will receive a helmet and a key to unlock a Big Red Bike outside Uris and will be expected to return the bike before the library closes that same day.

"The reason we're using Uris as the first station is that it's a convenient location, and the staff at the library is really excited about the program," said Sarita Upadhyay '11, a founder and co-president of Big Red Bikes. "They are willing to work with us to make it work."

Unlike checking out a book, bikes will be tracked with Spark Mobility, software that will keep a permanent record of registered bike riders so individuals who damage or do not return bikes can be held accountable. Riders must register with Sparks Mobility, which also shows users how many bikes are available at a given time.

Members get 25 hours of free bike share per week; it will cost $5 an hour for the first five hours over 25 and $20 per hour thereafter. The program will run until November and open again in March, depending on the weather.

Efforts to create Big Red Bikes began in 2008 with four members of the Sustainability Hub, a student organization devoted to sustainable practices. In 2009, the group received by-line funding from the Student Assembly as well as financial and resource support from Cornell Transportation and Mail Services (TMS). TMS hired Tom Knipe, MRP '11, to review the Big Red Bikes project proposal and help the group smooth out such issues as insurance, liability and risk management. The group recently wrote a report on these issues and implemented a liability waiver that bike-share users must sign before borrowing a bike. TMS will also hire a student to inspect the bikes weekly and monthly.

Although a bike-sharing program was launched in the 1980s, it had no accountability features, and it failed within a year when all of the bikes were thrown into the gorges. Big Red Bikes has a semi-automated system that maximizes accountability and convenience at a manageable price, says Martin Leung '13, co-president of Big Red Bikes.

If the pilot program at Uris Library is successful, the group plans to expand the program to Mann Library, the College of Veterinary Medicine, Robert Purcell Community Center and maybe even Collegetown and the greater Ithaca community.

Leung and Upadhyay are also considering a higher-tech system if the program grows large enough. It would not be difficult to upgrade the system so users can check out and unlock bikes with their cell phones, they said, adding that they are also considering projects with Cornell University Sustainable Design and Cornell Outdoor Education.

"We really want to promote bike culture in Ithaca," said Upadhyay. "It is something that's really healthy and good for you, for planning and for the environment. We want to see people on their bikes -- we want to see people making that decision for their transportation needs because we think that it's an overall positive change."

Michelle Spektor '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.