River Falls to debut bikeshare program on Earth Day

Posted March 30, 2016

River Falls will join dozens of U.S. cities with bikeshare programs, launching what is dubbed the Blue Bike Program on Earth Day, April 22.

The idea to start a bikeshare program was conceived about four years ago, according to Mike Noreen, River Falls Municipal Utilities’ conservation and efficiency coordinator. He said the city wanted to find a way for lower income residents and those without cars to have easy methods of transportation to get to their jobs in the city.

“A few years later, the Blue Bike Program is an offshoot of that, and it’s essentially about offering more transportation options for people,” Noreen said.

The number of bike share programs in the United States has increased dramatically in recent years. A Pew Research Foundation report found there are more than 32,000 bicycles now being used in bikeshare programs in about 80 U.S. cities. Bikeshare programs are usually found in larger cities, and Minneapolis was one of the first in the country to offer such a program. The city now has 1,550 bikes that residents pay a small fee to use, and towns like River Falls are taking note.

The organization We Bike River Falls analyzed the Minneapolis bikeshare program, Noreen said, but concluded that River Falls was not big enough to support a pay-to-use program and suggested the city work toward something else. It was then that the city decided to pursue a model based on one by the same name in Stockholm, Wisconsin, 40 miles south of River Falls on the St. Croix River.

One thing that makes the Blue Bike Program interesting compared to those in other cities is the funding and sourcing of the bikes. According to Noreen, the St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development received a grant from New Belgium Brewing, maker of the Fat Tire beer that features a bicycle on the logo, to promote “sensible transportation and bike advocacy.” Part of that money is now going to buy the racks and fix-it station supplies. One of the bike racks will be located on the UWRF campus, replacing an old rack by the Kleinpell Fine Arts building.

Another thing Noreen said the city had to consider is what impact this would have on the local shop Crank Worx, where owner Issac Curtis makes a living selling and fixing bicycle.

“We didn’t want to compete with Crank Worx, so that’s why we decided to partner with the local business, since he sells bikes, and he knows a lot more about bikes than we do anyways,” Noreen said. “It doesn’t hurt to have the expert helping you out.”

Crank Worx opened in 2010 next to the Grateful Bread shop, and moved across the street to a shop next to Veterans Park in January of this year.

Curtis has been involved with the process of getting the bikes, all of which were donated, ready to be put on the racks for public use.

“We painted all the bikes, repaired them, though they’re all pretty basic, changed tires, tubes, lubed ’em up, basic stuff to get them ready,” Curtis said.

The River Falls High School National Honor Society also was involved with fixing up the bikes, Noreen noted.

Though bikeshare programs are becoming commonplace in communities, Curtis didn’t express any worry about what impact this would have on his business.

“Typically the people using the bikes are out-of-towners, so they won’t buy one from me anyways,” he said. “They’re people who can’t afford bikes or don’t have one of their own, and in all reality they’re low end, get you from point A to point B type of bikes. They work but they’re not state of the art. It might cut in a little here and there, but we’re working with the city so I’ll be reimbursed for the work I do, too. Hopefully it’ll get some people into biking and they’ll come in and buy a brand new one of their own eventually.”

The city developed a bike maintenance contract to work with Crank Worx of $1,500. The shop will repair bikes that are broken, and the necessary funds for labor and supplies will be allocated through quarterly invoices.

To officially launch the program, We Bike River Falls and POWERful Choices! will co-host an event that will take place on Earth Day.

The event will start at Veterans Park downtown. Participants can take bikes from the rack there, or their own, and ride in a group to the next rack in front of Our Neighbor’s House, a homeless shelter, where a speaker will talk and a snack will be offered. From there, the route will take bikers to the next rack on the UWRF campus, where Travis Roy, who works for Recreation and Sports Facilities, will give a short talk. Hoffman Park is the third rack location, where the fix-it stations will be explained by another speaker, and finally riders will head back to the Veterans Park rack location by Crank Worx, where 50 reusable water bottles will be available for participants to get people mingling and into the store.

Aside from the transportation availability aspect, Noreen said the city’s commitment to sustainability was another factor in implementing bike sharing. The Wisconsin Department of Tourism promotes a program called Travel Green Wisconsin and the Blue Bike Program will certainly give River Falls points in that category, he said.

“We’re trying to make River Falls a green destination. From a public relations standpoint, it also just shows that we’re a small trusting town, and that you don’t have to drive to get around. The more bikes, the better,” Noreen said.

The Blue Bike Program also has the support of the River Falls Police and Public Works departments, and Noreen said they know that the program won’t be perfect initially.

“Since they won’t be locked up, we know some are going to have to be fished out of the river, and that’s why we’ve got the RFPD to help us out with this, too,” he said.

Noreen is optimistic about the project, though, and said he hopes to see it run for at least a couple years as a sort of trial period.

“It’s been a fun community project,” Noreen said. “It’s come out of a great partnership with the city, Pierce County Health Department, that always wants healthier options for people, and people in the community who just want to see this happen.”

After warm weather is over for the year, the blue bikes will go into hibernation for the winter, when biking conditions aren’t optimal. They’ll be put back in the racks for public use again the following spring.