From The Oregonian, Monday, October 20, 1997:

Failed Yellow Bikes project will get another go-round.

Revival of a free bicycle program is greeted with skepticism because of the high theft rate in the first attempt

of The Oregonian staff

    News that Community Cycling Center is working to resurrect its free Yellow Bikes Program in the spring surprised Tim Calvert.
    For all he knew, the program's quiet death was permanent. And Calvert, who has worked in the cycling industry in Portland for several years, thought it was best left that way.
    "The idea that you can get a manufactured bike for nothing is a fallacy," he said recently. "I don't think it works."
    The first time around, it didn't.
    Still, the program is worth a second look to Brian Lacy, executive director at Community Cycling.
    "Because it provides a community service," he said. "You're saying, 'Look, here's this non-polluting, athletic way of moving from place to place."'
    Launched three years ago with fanfare that brought national attention to the city's growing bicycle movement, the program was a novel, if not noble, experiment.
    The no-frills bikes, identified by their color, were clunkers distributed throughout the city. Anyone could use them.
    Ideally, a person would take one trip - two at most - on a bike and then leave it at the desti-nation for someone else. Long-term possession or claims of ownership of the bikes violated the integrity of the program.
    Yet, even in bike-friendly and well-mannered Portland, adherence to the honor system proved too much to expect.
    Joe Keating, who helped Tom O'Keefe launch the yellow bikes as part of United Community Action Network, acknowledged as much.
    "I think the bikes were used, and that a lot of folks took the bikes," he said. "They have, at this point, lost their communal nature." In other words, they got stolen.
    Keating said there were about 350 yellow bikes on the streets four months into the program. However, the program was unable to maintain or increase that saturation, and abuse and attrition of bikes soon stalled progress.
    To survive, the program needs at least 1,000 bikes - what Keating calls a "critical mass" - on the streets consistently.
    "I think there's a need for folks to understand: There's a fleet of bikes out here, and I don't need to take one," he said.
    Lacy said the problem during the program's first run stemmed as much from the way it was administered as anything. He said organiz-ers were too optimistic that  goodwill would sustain it.
    "There are all these community bike programs around the country," he said, "and they all are dealing with abuse of the program, meaning vandalism or appropriating of property."
    With some new safeguards, Lacy said, the program can be reintroduced in Portland and operate efficiently and successfully in the long run.
    "Not to denigrate the idea Tom had," he said, "but there is more management that can be done with the Yellow Bikes program."
    Lacy said Community Cycling is planning to start anew with the yellow bikes in the spring by distribut-ing about 200 citywide. In the mean-time, the center is reevaluating the program.
    Although the center has not de-termined how much reviving the program will cost, lacy said that during the winter, it will try to develop:

  • A budget to provide ongoing finan-cial support, particularly for maintenance and volunteer training.
  • A process for bike and monetary donations.
  •  An education and public awareness campaign about proper use of the program.
    The new fleet of bikes will be low-maintenance. They also will be low-tech to discourage theft for parts. Tires might be filled with foam to reduce flats, and seats might be welded to the frame so they can't be taken.
    Calvert said his participation in a Bikes, Not Bombs project in the 1980s left him skeptical that the Yellow Bikes project could succeed in Portland. Bikes, Not Bombs was an organization that delivered bikes to Nicaragua.
    "They (in Nicaragua) quickly discovered that when the people didn't pay for the bikes, they abandoned them," 
    Calvert said. "It lowered the value, at least in their minds, of the bikes. I felt that was a very profound lesson about the way that peo-ple treat bikes and perceive value.
    "It's not any different in that peo-ple perceive the value of objects par-tially based on what they paid for them, whether it's in Nicaragua or the United States."