Free Cycles falters 

Student hopes to salvage Free Cycles

Bike program transitions with new 'resource center'

When Bob Giordano, founder of Free Cycles Missoula, looks into the future what does he see? A utopia of free bikes on every corner? University towns with similar programs across the world? Or does he simply hope to complete his thesis and move on?

It's a time of transition for Giordano, who started the non-profit organization that sponsors the free Green Bikes program, putting a fleet of bicycles out on the streets each summer for anyone to use. This summer, he's working to complete his graduate degree in Resource Conservation, and is ready to move on.

That leaves plans for his bicycle program up in the air.

"Should I sum up the last few years, write a thesis and that's it?" he wonders aloud. "It's tempting to do that, to close the book. I'm ready to move on to planning and policy."

But Giordano cites two things that prevent him from letting the program die. "The bikes themselves, and that trust thing-the civility I see-it spreads good energy around, and so I'd rather not see the book close. But it still could happen."

Missoula has been the beneficiary of Giordano's energy and vision for the past three years. The bikes were part of his graduate work, and in the pursuit of a degree he raised roughly $14,000, coordinated hundreds of volunteers and borrowed $10,000 in student loans to subsidize his own involvement.

He envisions that the program will out-live his tenure in Missoula. Ideally, he sees an expanded Free Cycles board of directors that will oversee a network of check-out bikes stations all over town.

Giordano has permission from the University of Montana to open a "resource center" on campus-for now a five-foot square information hut, picnic table and bike rack-at the southeast corner of the Madison Street bridge. An architect is drawing up plans for a more elaborate structure, but Ken Willett, head of security at the university, says starting with the "exalted telephone booth" will allow Giordano "some breathing room" to iron out the plans for the larger building project.

If the program is successful-that is, if people check-out bikes-Willett wants Giordano to move his operation nearer to the center of campus into the parking garage next to the library, where there's a possibility of locking up as many as 200 bikes.

But such grandiose schemes are premature. "I don't know if it's going to get used," Giordano says. Plus, he is a busy guy. He has three years worth of data to sort through, a thesis to write, volunteers to coordinate, and money to raise. And he needs to find his own replacement. All by a self-imposed deadline of September-a scenario even he agrees is unlikely.

With such obstacles, Green Bikes risks being no more than a graduate student's academic exercise. Optimists and skeptics both agree that free bicycles are a nice thing, but many say they will not be surprised to see the idea fail. Of the 100 Green Bikes released over 2-1/2 years, 30 are still active, 20 are worn out from normal use, 25 are worn out from abusive riding, and 25 are unaccounted for.

"Something totally free like this wasn't realistic," says Giordano, though he insists the program successfully raised awareness of cycling in the community.

The check-out system has better potential. "It's a great idea," says Lynn Tennefoss, coordinator of the Bike Bank at the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center, which takes in donated bicycles and gives them to folks who need them. With 20 people on the Bike Bank's waiting list, Tennefoss says she thinks the check-out system could relieve pressure on her program.

Many of those on the waiting list are sponsored by Kit Hearst of the Poverello Center. Hearst says, Giordano has been talking with her about setting up a check-out station at the Pov, "but there has been no really formal discussion. It's just been kind of bantered around." In the meantime, she says, there are people in need of bikes. "They can't get work, they can't get around."

Still, the question remains whether a check-out system will get used. Giordano imagines customers ranging from commuters who want to park their car for the day to tourists who want to ride trails. He'd like to see stations all over town-maps on the walls, books about cycling on the shelves, and positive interactions between people that build "social capital."

Photo by Lise Thompson
Bob Giordano hopes to salvage his free bicycle fleet and lend bikes out from resource centers. The hut, shown above, will be forklifted to a spot on the southeast corner of the Madison Street bridge by August 1, Giordano says.


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