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Green Bikes program speeds up

By James Daly '13
October 18, 2011

When Rajan Bhandari '12 wants to get to class, go shopping, or just take in a change of scenery, he heads to the library.

That’s where he can check out one of St. Olaf College's new "green bikes." The fleet of 19 new Trek commuter bicycles available for students to use is three times larger than last year. A checkout system for the bikes is administered through Rolvaag Library, and a covered, two-tiered rack housing the bikes is located just outside the library.

In addition to the new double-decker covered rack outside Rolvaag Library, St. Olaf has installed bike repair stands at Tostrud Center, Kildahl Hall, and Buntrock Commons. 

The program makes it easy for students like Bhandari, an international student from Nepal, to access an efficient, sustainable, and healthy mode of transportation. "When I want to get some fresh air, I can just bike to Northfield or to the St. Olaf Natural Lands," he says.

Green Bikes, St. Olaf College's student-managed bike-sharing program, has existed for nearly five years, but it is only in the past two years that the program has really taken off. Initially, it was hampered by maintenance and accountability issues as well as a lack of quality bikes. During his four years at St. Olaf, Daniel Novak '11 led a student effort to transform Green Bikes into a successful operation. The hard work finally paid off last spring, when Green Bikes was awarded a grant that enabled it to purchase a new fleet of bikes from Milltown Cycles.

Novak says that the new bikes will be easier for the mechanics to maintain and allow for more bikes to be available to students at any given time. Bhandari, who works at the library circulation desk where students can check out green bikes, says so far that's proving true.

"With the old bikes, five used to be out for service and two were available for checkout," says Bhandari. "Now there are always bikes available."

An improved system
When Madeline Giordana '12 saw the new green bikes parked outside Rolvaag library this year, she was eager to try one. Last year, she and three of her friends rode a set of the old green bikes to the Carleton Arboretum. One of the bikes did not have functioning brakes, and while the women were walking the bikes around the Carleton campus, one of the wheels fell off. With one bike inoperable, the group ended up walking back to the St. Olaf campus.

On a sunny afternoon at the beginning of the semester, Giordana tried one of the new green bikes for the first time by once again venturing to the arboretum. This time, she had an entirely different experience. "The bike rode wonderfully — so much better than the bike I attempted to ride a year ago," she says. Giordana was also impressed that the green bikes come in three different sizes for riders of varying heights and can be checked out for up to 24 hours.

Experiences such as Giordana's, says Novak, get to the heart of what Green Bikes is about. "The goal of Green Bikes is to make cycling accessible, enjoyable, and practical," he says.

St. Olaf has installed new bike repair stands outside Tostrud Center, Kildahl Hall, and Buntrock Commons. The repair stands feature air pumps and tools so that students can keep their bikes in working order. The college also continued its overhaul of campus bike storage by installing easier-to-use "helical" bike racks in front of Kildahl, Mellby, and Thorson residence halls.

Student-run from the start
The Green Bikes program initially began with an idea that came out of the spring 2005 Campus Ecology course. One of the members of that class, Dan Borek '07 — who had recently co-founded St. Olaf Garden Research and Organic Works (STOGROW), the student-run organic farm — introduced the idea of a campus bike-sharing program to his peers. Katie Godfrey '08 was inspired.

In 2007 Godfrey and her housemates in the Cooperative Justice Honor House gathered 37 donated bikes and painted them green. A portion of the bikes were dispersed around campus and left unlocked, but the system ran into a problem. “Invariably, the bikes ended up at the honor houses and were not brought back,” says Colin Huffer '12, who is co-leader of the Green Bikes program this year.

Colin Huffer '12 (left) and Dan Novak '11 fix bikes in the "Bike Box" in Ytterboe Hall. The operation is open Wednesdays and Sundays 7 to 9 p.m.

A trained bike mechanic, Novak was determined to improve the original system. After repairing the bikes during his first year on campus, he soon had a vision for overhauling the entire program. With the help of other students, Novak built a fleet of 10 refurbished bikes that was launched in spring 2010 and established Green Bikes as an official student organization. At the same time, he worked with Oles Advancing Social Innovation and Sustainability to develop a bike checkout system that was managed by the library and linked to the Ole Card ID system.

Green Bikes' success depends largely on two things: dedicated student bike mechanics and a dedicated space to work. That space is the “Bike Box,” a bike repair shop located in Ytterboe Hall where every Sunday and Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m. Green Bikes mechanics hold office hours. In addition to working on Green Bikes, the mechanics help students with their personal rides.

“I really think the onus is on us to maintain the momentum of this program. I want us to grow and be more inclusive,” says Huffer. “We welcome anyone who wants to help.”

Novak is delighted at how far the Green Bikes program has come. But does he think the name should change now that the new bikes are silver? Nope. “They’re silver in color, but still green in nature,” he says.

Watch the video below to find out how easy it is to check out a St. Olaf Green Bike: 

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or