WILLMAR — With its miles of trails, lake shore and scenic parks, Willmar has much to offer bicyclists. This year it has added something new, a bike share program that allows residents and visitors alike to rent a bike and get out and enjoy the area, whether for an hour or a day.
"Biking is really being built in the community," said Leah Schueler, Statewide Health Improvement Partnership coordinator for Kandiyohi and Renville counties and a member of the bike share launch team. "This is just another step. Biking is really important to a lot of people."
BikeWillmar was established to offer a new biking opportunity in Willmar, following the Yellow Bike program. While the Yellow Bike program had the best of intentions, providing bikes free of charge for people to use and return, many of the bikes were never returned. It also became difficult to find the volunteers and time to fix up the bikes donated to the program.
A team from the Willmar Bikes program started researching bike-share programs, looking for one that could meet Willmar's needs. Koloni, based out of Iowa, came forward as the top choice. The company focuses on smaller cities, with Willmar being one of its largest members.
"Its business philosophy seemed to be a good fit," said Pam Vruwink, Willmar Community Education and BikeWillmar launch team member.
BikeWillmar provides 40 bikes at 10 hubs throughout the city. The bikes can be rented by the hour, for $1 an hour, by using an online application and a credit card. The bikes and hubs are owned by the city, while Koloni provides the software to run the program.
The hubs are located at the Glacial Lakes State Trail Head, Robbins Island Regional Park, Miller Park, Selvig Park, MinnWest Technology Campus, the Willmar Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, Archery Park on 19th Avenue (across from Walmart), Swansson Field on Willmar Avenue, Rice Park and Southfield Park on 28th Avenue Southwest. The bikes will be available from at least May through October, though nicer weather could extend the season.
"We really wanted hubs throughout the community," said Vruwink.
To rent a bike the user must be at least 18 years old and have a credit or debit card. They also must have a smartphone with internet access. The first step in the process is to download the Koloni bike share application on to the phone either through the Apple App Store or Google Play. From the app, the person can make an account and add a credit card to that account. To rent a bike the user just scans the QR code on an available bike at a bike hub. Once the rider is through they must return the bike to any BikeWillmar hub and lock it onto the rack.
A user can either rent the bike by the hour or purchase a $20 season membership. Membership gives the rider the first hour free each use, and then is charged $1 for every hour after that.
While helmets are not provided to riders, they are highly encouraged.
If the bike is not returned the user will be charged a $10 late fee. The bikes can also be tracked through the Koloni app, allowing for the city to find any bikes that are not returned. The launch team isn't all that concerned that people will damage or steal the bikes. The fact that you have to spend money to use them will be a deterrent against vandalism they believe.
"People want to use them to enjoy them," said Kristin Anderson, executive director at the Center for Community Health Improvement and launch team member.
Based on the data gathered through the Koloni app, the BikeWillmar program is off to a good start. There have already been at least 200 individual rides, with 15 users having purchased a membership. Most of the rides seem to be for recreation, but a few look to be for transportation purposes, like to work or a store
"It is being utilized very well," said Britta Diem, community coordinator with Willmar Parks and Recreation and launch team member.
Sponsors of the Bike Willmar program are the city of Willmar, Willmar Community Education, Carris Health, Bernick's, Statewide Health Improvement Partnership and the Willmar Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
For the CVB the bike share is another way to entice people to visit the area.
"From a tourism standpoint, we are always looking for more things to do," said Beth Fisher, CVB executive director and launch team member.
The launch team and program sponsors hope the bike share helps continue to grow Willmar's biking community, which in turn will help make the overall community healthier. It is also another way the community can get outside and be part of the overall Willmar experiences.
"There is a focus on bringing people together," Anderson said.
The team hopes to continue improving Willmar's biking infrastructure and to find more ways to make biking accessible to more people.
"We are a region that is seen as a leader," Schueler said. "As a team we've talked about the desire to grow."