River Falls Blue Bikes survive second year, ideals intact, some rims bent

Posted October 31, 2017

When the free Blue Bike Program began in River Falls on Earth Day in spring 2016, there were bikes stationed at Crankworx Bike Shop, 101 S. Main St.; Our Neighbor’s Place, 122 W. Johnson St.; Kleinpell Fine Arts Building at UWRF; Hoffman Park; and the Whitetail Ridge Corporate Park.

Now, at the end of its second season, gone are the Blue Bikes at KFA and Whitetail Ridge. Police have found others missing in action, strewn about parks and neighbors’ yards.

Police have doubts about the Blue Bike model that lets users borrow a bike without paying anything, using a credit card or leaving their name. But backers say they are committed to the class-free, self-accountability concept.

Mike Noreen, the conservation and efficiency coordinator for the city of River Falls, said that the volunteer staff tries to keep about 5-7 bikes stocked at each rack to allow as many people to participate as possible.

The program began as an idea from Blue Bike committee member Deb Lucero. She saw the idea implemented in Stockholm, Wis., as people biked from one art gallery to the next in the small town, according to Noreen. The program in Stockholm was on a smaller scale, and River Falls wanted to expand the practice.

“We worked with a couple of different organizations where we would receive free bikes,” Noreen said. “Our responsibility was to go pick them up, and we picked up about 100 to 120 bikes from Free Bikes for Kids. They provide us with the bikes we’re looking for, and they’re already repaired and ready to go.”

The program looks for cruiser style bikes with no gears and kid’s bikes with a banana seat or chopper handlebars.

“We want to have a distinct-looking bike,” Noreen said.

The huge supply of about 150 bikes is stored at the River Falls power plant. Once a rack is empty for a few days or a bike is beyond simple repairs, volunteers on the committee for the Blue Bike Program come in to supply fresh bikes.

The rack at Our Neighbors’ Place was specifically put in place to help those at the homeless shelter use the bikes for getting around town.  Hoffman Park at First National Bank Field is the most popular for children, according to Noreen. Bikes by the baseball field are even specifically sized for kid’s use.

However, bike racks at KFA and Whitetail Ridge Corporate Park have both been removed this year because of the lack of use and difficulty in supporting the number of bikes being used.

UWRF police officer Steve Nygaard has seen the good and bad parts of the program after its second year of operation.

“It’s a good program that needs fine-tuning,” Nygaard said. “We’ve picked (the bikes) up on trails, in the weeds and had complaints from neighbors about the bikes being left in their yards.”

Nygaard said that not having to purchase the rental is great in theory but makes it hard to hold people accountable. This tends to allow a minority of people to damage the bikes and just leave them, neglecting to put them back in a rack to be picked up.

Noreen said the committee plans to run the Blue Bike Program again in 2018, primarily focusing on stocking the three main locations that have shown success. While he sees a need to change up the program due to damaged bikes, he realizes there’s no simple fix.

“It’s totally anonymous, and we don’t have a chip on them,” he said. “There’s a lot of bikes returned, but some aren’t. We’re continually looking at other options, but we still want to serve the children.”

Vendors have already been coming in to the committee to pitch solutions and possible strategies for how to maximize the program. However, the program still is seeking to be accessible and community-oriented by not charging for the bike share program, which is different from the pay-to-play Nice Ride system in the Twin Cities.

Noreen said that adding a chip or card reader may also erode the mission to serve those in need. He said it might seem like “if you don’t have a phone or the app or a credit card, then the program’s not for you.”