Bike Sharing comes to AthensPosted: February 19, 2013
Dressed in a “Talk Nerdy To Me” t-shirt, an engineering student tore through a notebook filled with sketches of wheels, rods, frames and handlebars — all components of an automated bike rack. As he shared his ideas, the eight others in the laboratory listened and offered feedback.
The seven University of Georgia students and two professors, huddled in a small room in the south campus engineering building, are developing one of the most advanced and environmentally sustainable methods of transportation seen by the University.
“Bike Sharing” is a modern movement in which urban cities provide readily available bicycles to the public as an alternative way of transportation. The system began in Europe in the 1960’s, and spread throughout Asia, the Middle East and North and South America in the past two decades. Numerous cities across every region of the United States implemented bike sharing operations, including a large system in downtown Atlanta. According to USA Today, the systems are also popular on college campuses. Over 90 universities in the U.S. contain a public bicycle program.
Back in the engineering building at the University of Georgia, the head coordinator of the transportation project, Kareem Mahmoud, is bringing the bike sharing trend to Athens. Mahmoud is a third year finance major at the University, who recently received a grant from the Office of Sustainability to advance the current university bike sharing program and make it more efficient and wide-spread.
“It will be completely automatic where you put in a pin number or swipe a card to check out a bike, and then you can turn it back in somewhere else,” Mahmoud said. “It’s very stream line, very easy.”
The University implemented the current system, called Bulldog Bikes, last fall but has seen little traffic. There are only ten bikes available and students can only check them out at three separate locations, that is, after they complete an online safety course and fill out administrative paperwork.
Nigel Long, who lives at one of the three check-out locations, is one of the few students who uses Bulldog Bikes. Headed for class on a Tuesday morning, he stopped by the front desk of his residence hall to take one of the bikes. While he signed his name in a notebook, he flipped through the pages and laughed at the pattern he saw.
“You would think this was filled with hundreds of students who use the bikes everyday, but if you look closer, it’s all just my name, and then a couple random ones here and there,” Long said. “Biking is such an easy way to get to campus. I think a bigger bike sharing program would be awesome.”
Mahmoud attained the idea of expanding Bulldog Bikes after class one day over the summer. As he sat on North Campus, he looked towards downtown at Broad Street and noticed the immense amount of bikers that passed by. The young entrepreneur thought it would be beneficial to implement an automatic bike system where one could check in and check out public bikes, when needed, at any time of the day.
“At first I brushed it off and thought, ‘No that’s too complicated’,” Mahmoud said. “Then one day I just sat down and began doing the schematics for it to see how hard the coding would be, and realized that this could actually work.”
He researched the bike sharing programs of multiple cities and towns and based his own model off of successful systems of others.
“There is a system like it in Atlanta, a system like it in Miami,” Mahmoud said. “They are all over the place. Even a large number of college campuses have incorporated them, like Texas
Christian University, University of Kentucky, Ohio State, and even Georgia Tech. I figured UGA needed something like this too.”
Some University of Georgia students, like sophomore Hayley Magill, expressed worry about the safety of additional bikers on the road.
“I did bike sharing in Sweden and I loved it,” Magill said. “The only thing that concerns me is if people know all of the biking laws and would be safe on the bikes. I know cars aren’t always looking for bikers on the road so I might be nervous in trying to figure out the safest places to ride. I guess to get to places around campus without having to wait for a bus would be nice though.”
The expansion of the improved Bulldog Bikes beyond campus and into downtown Athens is a longterm goal for Mahmoud and his engineering team. To achieve that aspiration, however, downtown Athens needs to do some progressive development of its own.
BikeAthens, a local organization that encourages the growth of bike transportation, works with the Athens-Clarke County government to make the city more “bike-able”. Tyler Dewey, the director of BikeAthens, thinks there is potential for Mahmoud’s bike sharing program to work in downtown Athens, but he said that it will take time.
“The difficulty with a bike share is it sometimes takes a while to catch on,” Dewey explained. “I know in D.C. they started one and then it kind of fizzled out. Then they started one again about 10 years later and it has been a wild success.”
He said BikeAthens is supportive of anything that increases ridership and awareness of bikes.
“You can always tell the popular areas of town because you’ll see five or so bikes locked up, even if its to a tree because they can’t find parking. To me that suggests that there is latent demand for something like a bike share.”
With a large bike culture present in Athens, Mahmoud is confident that people will embrace this “cleaner” way of travel and, in turn, reduce the traffic congestion on campus and downtown.
He and his engineering team are in the process of designing a prototype that they will test this semester, and then present to the University administration in order to gain approval from Legal Affairs and move forward with further implementation. The main funding of the project comes from the Office of Sustainability grant and student green fees.
Bike sharing programs are successful across the globe for both environmental and economic reasons. According to the American Society of Landscape Architects, who helped re-map Washington D.C. to be more bike-friendly, a car emits 15 pounds of air pollution into the atmosphere for every eight miles that it drives. When that distance is biked, however, there is no harm to the environment and there is less strain on the biker’s pocketbook.
Bulldog Bikes is in its infant stage as a program, which Mahmoud and his engineering team intend to mature into a state of the art transportation system. After an hour-long debate over non-rustable metal, the nine University of Georgia students and staff ended their meeting on a playful note in an argument about the color of the new Bulldog Bikes.
“We said we wanted the bikes to be distinct,” Mahmoud said with a sly smile. “I say we go with hot pink.”