Students build and repair bicycles for use on campus after launching a community bike project

By TERESA KILLIAN TATE

Students set eight yellow bicycles free on Western Carolina’s campus last year, trusting that community members would ride the bikes to their campus destinations and then leave them for someone else to ride. Nine months later, a few of the community bicycles disappeared and some were intentionally damaged, but WCU Bike Club members persisted. They repeatedly repaired the original Yellow Bike Project bicycles and cobbled together 15 new ones from donated and used parts.

“We just realized to get this program established that we just have to persevere even in the face of bikes going missing,” said Christopher Holden ’10, a psychology major from Cary who was co-president of the WCU Bike Club. “We might lose some and then hear that a bike was spotted off campus or vandalized. We’ve had bumps, but overall, steady progress. It’s just something that’s going to take a couple of years to truly get instated.”

Press Holden further and he admits part of his commitment stems from his interest in sociology, a subject in which he minored. The Yellow Bike Project challenges ideas of consumerist and capitalist cultures, said Holden. “It’s foreign to us to have communal property, and I think that’s the reason why we’ve had so many issues with bikes going astray,” said Holden. “It was almost to be expected. If people would just keep the bikes on campus, it would be so much of a benefit to everybody, and I think in time people will come around to seeing that. It’s about drawing people together as the community of Western Carolina.”

The Yellow Bike Project was initially developed under the leadership of Stephen Benson ’09 and members of the bike club as a way to promote an alternative, healthy means of transportation on campus. A WCU wellness grant helped with initial funding for paint, information stickers and bicycle parts such as tire tubes and chains. Now that the yellow bicycles are “on their own,” club members find themselves constantly looking out for them to see if they are being used or need a tune-up. They also started modifying the yellow bicycles into single speeds to make for easier maintenance.

“Chopper,” a yellow bicycle crafted from a donated Schwinn with a step-through frame and mismatched wheels, went missing earlier this year for about a month before resurfacing, said Nathan Wilson, a sophomore construction management major from Asheville. Nicknamed for its resemblance to a chopper motorcycle, the bicycle was put together by Wilson from available parts. “I just love bikes, and anything to do with bikes, I will do,” said Wilson. “When I was little, I just wanted to learn more and be able to control the bike. Now, it’s such a stress reliever for me to ride or work on them.”

What really keeps club members motivated is hearing fellow students say they rode a yellow bicycle for fun or because they needed to get across campus in a hurry. “A lot of people say, ‘I really appreciate the yellow bike. I got to class on time,’” said Holden. “I am all for people getting into riding, and the Yellow Bike Project is a good way to introduce people to the sport.”

To keep the project going, the club continues to accept donations of any bicycle and has been applying for funding to help purchase tires, chains, stickers and other items. They printed “Ride Yellow” T-shirts as a fundraiser, and still have a few for sale. In addition, they have been considering naming all of the bikes as a way to help track and personalize the bicycles, and then raising money through offering individuals or organizations a bicycle’s “naming rights.” The club may plan a “checkpoint race” for the 2010-11 academic year in which a person would ride a bicycle to checkpoints on campus to complete fun tasks, such as eating tacos.

Bill Papin, instructor of health, physical education and recreation, said he believes the Yellow Bike Project is a great example of the university’s Quality Enhancement Plan in action – students translating what they learn and believe into personal action that benefits the community. Many of Papin’s health students, who are required to get involved in a campus-related fitness activity, chose to join him this year in assisting Yellow Bike Project volunteers. “There’s not much better than spending time with students trying to figure out how to free up parts that have rusted together from years of neglect, getting dirty while wrenching on the parts, and finally ending up with a functional bike that you know will get students riding when they otherwise wouldn’t,” he said.