Tour de Whidbey Bicycle Paper

The Fate of the Yellow Bicycle

By Nicola Fairhead

As bike-sharing networks took center stage at the 2008 Pro Walk/Pro Bike Conference in Seattle, it made me wonder about a past attempt in the Northwest. Whatever happened to Portland’s Yellow Bike Project? In late 1994, Portland had the national media buzzing over its new bike-sharing program, but what has happened since then?

The concept behind the program was dazzlingly simple. Collect used bicycles, get them into working order, slap on some yellow paint and release them to the public; no membership fees, no solar-powered holding stations, just a fleet of yellow bicycles.

In an interview by Marla Williams that was published in the Seattle Times on December 28, 1994, Yellow Bike Project founder Tom O’Keefe expressed his surprise that “even hard-nose news types” were “blown away” by his idea. “It’s like, sharing is radical news,” he told Williams.

Williams also spoke to Brian Lacy, then director of Portland’s Cycling Community Center (CCC, co-sponsor for the project). Lacy described the project as an example of “common sense to achieve a common good.”

The public was so enamored with this project that there was no initial shortage of donations. The paint and signs that adorned the donated bikes were provided free of charge by a sign-making store and two local auto shops. Along with widespread popular support and media attention, the project even received the city’s endorsement, complete with a warehouse to work in.

But what became of all those good intentions? Have people actually been “sharing” for the last 14 years?

Unfortunately not.

Though it took place before her time, Alison Hill Graves, current director of community and programs for the CCC, offered an abridged version of the Yellow Bike Project’s demise. Managing the project was “very challenging,” says Graves. “The funding was incomplete, the maintenance was challenging and people kept keeping the bikes.”

“But there was a nugget within the idea that made a lot of sense: some people need bikes, but don’t have access to them,” she adds. That basic idea has been “revised” and transformed into the CCC’s Create-a-Commuter program, part of its larger Earn-a-Bike program. The Create-a-Commuter program allows participants (low-income adults) “to earn their own free bikes while learning basic bike safety.” The CCC helps “about 250 people a year” through its various Earn-a-Bike programs, says Graves.

Joe “Metal Cowboy” Kurmaskie is also keeping the spirit of bike sharing alive in Portland, and hopes to ignite it in cities across the U.S. On August 9, 2009 (the day of Bridge Pedal in Portland), Kurmaskie’s “One Million Bicycles” will feature upwards of 100 simultaneous cycling rallies across the country, with an ultimate goal of getting one million cyclists together to raise awareness about the numerous benefits of cycling, according to the press release. Along with providing food, music, activities and presentations on Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer’s National Bike Bill, the rallies will also feature bicycle giveaways. For every dollar of the five-dollar registration fee of each rally across the U.S., 75 cents will be put towards repairing donated bikes and purchasing new ones for a cross-country giveaway. Through this project, Kurmaskie aspires to provide one million bicycles to create a movement of new riders nationwide.

Other bike sharing reincarnations include the Austin Yellow Bike Project (YBP), founded in 1997 that is still thriving. Unlike the original project, the Austin YBP is a “bicycle collective,” with a community bike shop that acts as “a free educational facility, open to anyone who wants to learn about fixing and riding bikes,” according to their official website. Though the organization continues to release yellow bikes for communal use, the main focus has shifted to education, especially since many of the bikes released are taken for personal use and painted over.

The original Yellow Bike Project may have been too bare-bone to survive, but its newest variation may have what it takes to last. External funding is proving to be a necessity for successful bike sharing networks such as Montreal’s Bixi and Washington, DC’s Smartbike DC. Although the membership fees and time restrictions may seem like a far cry from O’Keefe’s original vision, these new networks share the same basic principle: providing bicycles for the public good.

For more info about the One Million Bicycles Movement, visit: www.onemillionbicycles.org.

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