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Colleges offer free bikes for everyone

College campuses that want to rein in student driving have hit on a novel solution: give all incoming students free bikes if they agree to leave their cars at home.

College campuses are really the perfect environment for this sort of transportation experiment: small, geographically constrained populations of relatively fit individuals who need to make numerous short trips every day. College campuses, I imagine, also have more discretion over their built infrastructure — roads, bike racks, bike paths, parking spaces, etc. — than a typical small town.

It’s worth noting that bicycling benefits from certain network effects. That is, the more people that ride bikes, the more appealing biking becomes. For example, it’s well documented that bicycle safety increases when there are more bicycles on the road. Given such self-reinforcing effects, it makes sense for colleges to jumpstart the process by handing out bikes. The colleges themselves also reap benefits in the form of decreased need for parking, less trouble with alcohol-related driving accidents, and progress toward sustainability goals.

Free bikes aren’t the only approach schools have taken. Several have dabbled in different flavors of bike-sharing programs, with varying degrees of success. Bike-sharing is, generally speaking, a great idea, but it addresses a different set of problems. If a bike is your primary mode of transport, you don’t really want to fuss with micro-rentals. You’re better off just owning. Although possibly only appropriate on smaller campuses, the idea of just giving bikes away has an appealing simplicity.

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