Hometown U: UAA bike-share will make campus easier to navigate

Kathleen McCoy

UAA, often criticized for tight parking accommodations on its growing campus, is poised to launch a student-driven bike-share program as soon as an icy campus and nearby city trails clear up.

Fifty taxi-yellow, one-speed cruisers are already on campus, locked up in front of the Central Parking Garage waiting for fairer weather. They were introduced April 10 during Sustainability Week, when student groups featured events and information sessions on renewable energy, local foods, recycling and alternative transportation.

Cities like New York and Paris, and more than 33 college campuses across the U.S., feature bike shares like this. At UAF, the inventory even includes fat tire and studded tire bikes for winter.

With a swipe of a UAA ID card, students, staff and faculty will be able to check out a bike through the campus library circulation desk. They can use it for an hour, a day or up to a month, for free. The bikes come with fenders, lights, a back rack and a front basket.

Users will sign a one-page contract agreeing to wear a helmet while they ride and accepting responsibility for damaged or stolen bikes. Only with a helmet in hand can they retrieve a key to their locked bike and locate it in the storage area. Bikes are recalled once a month for a safety check.

UAA has 15,000 students and a campus area of 362 acres. While campus Parking Services can point to sufficient parking spaces over the entire campus area, certain lots near popular buildings like the Student Union and the library get high intensity use, while perimeter lots go half- or a quarter empty.

A trip from the Wendy Williamson Auditorium on the west side of campus all the way to the Arts Building on the east side of campus is a brisk 20-minute walk and involves crossing a city-maintained street, UAA Drive.

The campus accommodates 1,000 students in residential housing near Providence Alaska Medical Center just north of the new Alaska Airlines Center, about a third of a mile from the main campus. Trips like these will be quicker by bike and, it's hoped, free up tight parking on campus.

The bike-share program is funded with money from the $3 "green fee" paid every semester by students taking three or more hours. UAA's students voted to pay the fee in 2011 and then set up a Green Fee Board to select and fund student proposals leading to a more sustainable campus.

The idea for a bike-share program originated with student Max Bullock in 2012. He applied and won approval through the Green Fee Board for a grant of $13,000 to acquire the bikes.

Bikes, still in parts, arrived in fall 2013. Student and staff work parties assembled them over a long weekend. But then the project stalled.

Finally, staff in UAA's Office of Sustainability and a volunteer transportation working group, plus a few members of the Green Fee Board, stepped up and devised a plan to loan out the bikes like library books, managed by the circulation desk.

Much like unreturned books, a lost or damaged bike will mean a hold on a student account until cleared. Class registration and graduation can be delayed until financial holds are cleared.

This level of accountability is a good idea, the campus community learned. A UAA Bike Club active for several years between 2008 and 2010 created a more casual sharing system by supplying old bikes that they had restored and made available for campuswide used.

The club had no checkout system and no user accountability. The result, according to Paula Williams of the Office of Sustainability, was abandoned bikes left in creeks and dumped all over town.

Discouraged, the club shut down its bike-share program but maintained other popular campus services, like free spring bike tune-ups and winter-riding clinics.

Members of that same crew eventually launched the Off the Chain Community Bicycle Collective, a nonprofit bike repair shop operating out of the old Matanuska Dairy building at 814 W. Northern Lights Blvd.

With an accumulated bankroll of about $50,000, the Green Fee Board hopes to stimulate more initiatives. The board even organized grant-writing workshops this spring to help interested students apply for funding.

Nikita Robinson, president of the campus Sustainability Club, said upcoming pitches for Green Fee support include repurposing an unused campus greenhouse for growing local food, adding solar panels to buildings to cut down on energy use and beginning a more assertive partnership with administrators to increase energy-saving goals campuswide.

Kathleen McCoy works at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.

Kathleen McCoy
Hometown U