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Yellow Bike program takes off

WILLMAR -- Willmar's free bicycle-sharing program has hit a few bumps in the road in its early months but has gone well, overall, according to its organizers.

Yellow Bikes at Rick’s Cycle
Bikes are in the process of being converted to Yellow Bikes at Rick’s Cycle and Sports in Willmar. (GARY MILLER | TRIBUNE)
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WILLMAR - Willmar’s free bicycle-sharing program has hit a few bumps in the road in its early months but has gone well, overall, according to its organizers.
For the Yellow Bike Program to continue, though, long-term community support will be needed.
Residents or visitors to Willmar are free to take a Yellow Bike bicycle from one of 21 racks around the community, use it for the day and return it to a rack when they’re through.
The program started May 15 with 42 bikes. Twenty more have been added since then, said Steve Brisendine, director of the Willmar Community Education and Recreation Department. By next year, Yellow Bike hopes to have 100 bicycles available around the community.
The bikes have come from donations or from the city impound lot. They have been refurbished and painted using donations from community businesses, most notably $5,000 from Jennie-O Turkey Store.
“We haven’t spent any tax money on this,” Brisendine said.
Some vandalism and theft was to be expected, Brisendine said. It’s happened to a minority of the bikes, though.
“The minute I get down about that, I see people using them as they were intended,” he added. “We think it’s been successful.”
To keep the bikes on the road long-term, community volunteers will be needed to fix bikes and donations to pay for parts, he said.
People of all ages and all cultures have used the bicycles this summer, according to Brisendine and his staff.
Pam Vruwink, aquatics and wellness coordinator said she saw kids in a city park using youth-sized bikes to teach younger children how to ride.
The original plan was to make the bikes available for recreational use, part of making Willmar a bike-friendly community. Users have had other needs, though.
“A lot of people rely on it for transportation,” said Casey Hagert, recreation coordinator for the department. Just recently, he said, he saw a man with grocery bags riding a yellow bike in the Cash Wise parking lot.
Some of them like to take ownership of a bike if they have used it a lot, he said. It’s a pilot program, and “we’re all learning as we go.”
For a low-income adult who needs a bicycle for transportation, there is the option of “earning” a donated bicycle through volunteer work.
Brisendine said the Wheels 4 Kids program, which gives refurbished donated bicycles to children, always needs volunteers. A person needing a bicycle could volunteer some time helping to fix donated bikes in order to own one of them.
At this point, about
10 percent of the bicycles have disappeared, and others have been found abandoned with flat tires or missing tires, seats or handlebars.
“We’re not overly alarmed,” Brisendine said. Any program like this can expect some level of problems.
Vruwink said some people have been frustrated that bikes are not being returned to the same rack they were in, but that’s how the program works.
She said the staff frequently redistributes bikes if one part of town has more than it needs.
Complaints of empty bike racks don’t bother him that much, Brisendine said. “We don’t want them to sit in the racks.”
Rick Norsten of Rick’s Cycling in downtown Willmar has worked on the yellow bikes. The bikes are put into safe working order, but they aren’t fancy when they go out to a yellow bike rack.
They have been retrofitted as single speed bikes with coaster brakes. The bright yellow paint makes them a distinctive color and is intended to make them a bit less desirable for thieves.
Brisendine said he and the staff have joked as they put bikes in the racks, “Who would steal this?”
Rick’s has done a great job with the bikes, Brisendine said, but that probably won’t be a long-term plan for the program.
“We’re looking for the potential to grow,” Brisendine said, and that will require community volunteers and commitment to keeping the bikes on the road.
“It’s up to the community to tell us if we’re doing things they want us to do,” he said. “I think Yellow Bike is a quality of life thing that can help Willmar be happy and successful.”
People who see a yellow bike in disrepair or abandoned may call 320-231-8490. Visit the website willmar.k12.mn.us/communityed for a map of rack locations and other information.

RELATED STORY:

Free bike share program to launch Friday in Willmar

Yellow Bike fix-it station
Fix-it stations containing air pumps and some tools for basic bike repairs are located at the Glacial Lakes State Trailhead and Swansson Field Recreational complex in Willmar. (GARY MILLER | TRIBUNE)

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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