Ride On, Yellow Bikes

Austin Bike Program Pedals Toward First Anniversary

photograph by John Anderson

To the cynic, it may seem a foolish idea: Spend hours repairing and painting something, leave the fruit of your labor untethered on a city sidewalk, and invite complete strangers to borrow it for a while. Yet since January, that's exactly what Austin's Yellow Bike Project (YBP) has been doing. With volunteer labor and donated bicycles, the fleet of schoolbus-yellow two-wheelers has grown from 24 to 157 in about 10 months. People are using the bikes to go to class, the store, the bank, or just to cruise. And while some have been stolen or vandalized, many are still on the street, waiting for a rider.

All this for less than $500 -- impressive, considering the city is spending $28,000 toward the purchase of a mere 10 bikes (complete with storage lockers) for city employees to ride during the workday. Those funds would come from a grant from the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. Amazed that Austin would spend thousands for what the Yellow Bike Project could provide them for virtually nothing, YBP organizers are hoping to meet with city officials later this month to discuss a more efficient way to use the money, said Damon Rosenzweig, YBP planning consultant.

The community bike project began as an offshoot of Bikes Not Bombs, a non-profit organization that collects and repairs bicycles to donate to groups in Central America and sell to the public. Over the past year, the Yellow Bike Project has drafted its own by-laws and applied for non-profit status, which will make it easier for the group to accept the donations on which they depend, said John Thoms, YBP outreach representative. "Bikes Not Bombs is like the parent that gave birth to this project," Thoms said. "Now the child has grown up."

But the whole family is about to be evicted from the Hyde Park garage that has been on loan to the two groups since 1989. The owners of the property are adopting a child and remodeling their home, and they need the extra space currently housing countless bike frames, gears, and tires.

"It's a totally friendly eviction," said Thoms, leaning against a bike frame in the crowded Avenue H garage. "We have been given a fair amount of notice. They have been really generous and supportive over the years. We couldn't ask for anything more from them."

Volunteers have been scouting various sites around the city in their search for new digs. And Rosenzweig says the project is willing to provide city employees with bicycles and maintain the fleet in exchange for work and storage space. The ideal space will be centrally located, have about 1,000 to 2,000 square feet, electricity, and plumbing -- and of course, carry a cheap price tag or, better yet, be free of charge.

YBP volunteer Meri Jayd O'Connor said she rides around the city taking down phone numbers on buildings with "For Lease" signs. "It's a challenge," she said. "There aren't too many cheap, large, empty buildings out there."

Finding a home may be the most immediate challenge for the burgeoning program, but not the only one, judging from the experience of other bicycle programs in the U.S. and Europe. While coordinators of community bicycle programs may want to believe the best about their fellow man, it's sometimes difficult.

After releasing over 800 bikes to the public and inspiring volunteers in cities like Austin, Portland, Oregon's Yellow Bike Project is virtually nonexistent these days. Thomas O'Keefe, the force behind the three-year-old project, has reportedly moved out of state and the program's number is disconnected. It's difficult to find a yellow bike on the street, and many of the ones that have not been stolen are in need of repair.

Ira Grishaver and the non-profit Community Cycling Center are working to get the Portland program rolling again. Volunteers continue to maintain the dozen or so yellow bikes still out there, while rebuilding a fleet of old Huffys and Schwinns to be unveiled in May. The new models will include a few changes to make them last longer: Tires will be filled with foam to prevent flats, seats and other parts will be welded on, and some cycles may be outfitted with "big, ugly buckets" on the back to make the bikes less desirable, yet utilitarian. "You just have to keep the faith in humankind," said Grishaver. "It's such a great concept. There are so many people who really want this to work."

Organizations in Missoula, Montana, Madison, Wisconsin, Fresno, California, and San Francisco continue to restore and release to the public cycles in various garish hues. Many of the projects teach at-risk youth about bicycle repair, and some provide the opportunity for kids to "buy" a bike through their labor. In Fresno, state prisoners help with cycle refurbishing. And while everyone admits that bikes get stolen and vandalized, it seems a worthwhile test of faith -- particularly if the end result is even a slight reduction in traffic congestion and pollution.

The idea has even caught on in the cynical Northeast. Princeton, New Jersey recently announced it will launch a program this spring. The bikes will likely be painted day-glo orange in honor of the Princeton University Tigers and be kept in accessible locations around town, said Sandra Brillhart of the Mercer County Transportation Management Association.

But some groups, like St. Paul, Minnesota's Yellow Bike Coalition, have modified their philosophy a bit. After watching fleets of yellow bicycles disappear, the nonprofit group is now issuing a Bike Card to borrowers in return for a $10 deposit. When riders are done, they bring the cycle back to a specific location.

Brillhart said Princeton is not deterred by the setbacks other programs have faced: "We expect to have some theft; we'd be naïve if we didn't. But that negativity doesn't really outweigh the benefits of a program like this."

Austin's Thoms agrees: "It's not that I just believe the best about people, because I really don't. We put a lot of work into this project and sometimes it's frustrating when the bikes don't come back or get trashed. But I do believe that we can all learn different things and change our ways based on what we learn."

If you are interested in donating money, time, or an old bike to the Austin Yellow Bike Project, or if you know of a possible workspace, call 916-3553.

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