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Public bike system would unclutter downtown and be eco-friendly

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MAY 14, 2009 7:26 AM

What if there were a way to get around Iowa City without having to wage battle with thousands of vehicles all vying for the one spot? What if the UI decided to follow through on its promise to improve local ecology and our (humans’) constant effect on it? What if it were free of charge?

Well, there is. And the solution really is one of those light-goes-on ideas, so simple and so obvious it hasn’t occurred to anyone: bicycle hubs.

The idea’s been implemented in parts of Europe for some time, in various forms. Paris has a successful fleet of bikes for rent — just feed a few coins, ride around all day, deposit it at another kiosk across town. Even some American cities (Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore., for instance) have tried to copy this system, but they have come up against what seems to be a fundamental miscalculation: We’re Americans. Hundreds of bikes lent in good faith to the public suddenly became property of the private. Thefts left and right, mostly likely because of that singularly American ailment, our massive sense of entitlement. You pay a quarter for the damn thing, hell, you just take it home with you, sidestepping all the other bank-breaking quarters you might have had to pay in the future (gotta watch them simoleons, y’know). Unfortunately, in cities the size of Portland, a few hundred free bikes would find new homes all the faster. Fortunately, we don’t live in a city the size of Portland.

Iowa City’s population hovers around 80,000, a good portion (say, half?) of whom are students, faculty, and staff at the university who need easy and available modes of transportation. If there were around 3,000 free bikes at hubs distributed around mostly downtown — some placed near the farther facilities and dormitories — all provided for the day’s use completely free of charge, what’s the point in stealing one? There’s another just up the street. We are perfectly sized for an operation like this, and beyond its plain convenience, there are other benefits.

One of the most prevalent topics of idle conversation (beyond smokers’ rights, binge drinking, and violence) is the parking situation downtown. It’s awful, we all know this, and with wheels turning toward complicating the already-awkward Dubuque and Washington Street intersection, the traffic patterns will suffer that much more. Bicycle hubs would significantly reduce both traffic and parking … and all the crap we pump into the air every time we circle the block yet again in case we can grab a spot right out front.

It would be cheap to initiate, too. First off, the roads are already there. No further infrastructure necessary beyond purchasing aluminum bike racks. Perhaps the public-transit network could have a tie-in — ride the bus from UI Hospitals and Clinics, grab a bike from the adjacent hub, go about your business, etc. The only real cost would be the initial purchase of the fleet, and at around $300 for a decent, sturdy street bike, we’re looking at a flat $1 million, if that, which is basically a one-time buy. The only money spent afterward would be upkeep, the occasional replacement, and there are plenty of local bicycle retailers and repair shops to which that could be contracted. The university and Iowa City can arrange a collaborative committee to oversee such budgeting, with input from both city officials and our eco-friendly student government.

But the best part is what the idea can do for our sense of community. Iowa City does pride itself on its unity (even if there are many circles who often disagree with one another), and a system of bicycle hubs is a perfect way of cinching us tighter. A clean, fast, citywide honor system: We could certainly be proud of that. So the only question left is, must be, when can we get this rolling?


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