Bicycle built for you

Dear Ace: Whatever happened to those yellow bikes that were set up around town for anyone and everyone to use when in need of a little free transportation?—Schwinn Dixie

Ah, Schwinn, Ace remembers fondly that age of innocence when the sweet, idealistic liberals of Charlottesville still believed that the concept of community bikes might help solve the city’s persistent traffic problem. However, as Charlottesville’s most earnest citizens soon learned, “sharing” is not easy. Moreover, this town is hardly a transportation utopia: Ace conjures the image of SUVs sharing the road with communal bikes and cracks a smirk.

   Charlottesville’s Yellow Bike Project, inspired by similar initiatives in the world’s (other) most liberal cities from Amsterdam to San Francisco, started back in 2001. The brainchild of community activists Steven Bach and Bruce Dembling, the project survived on private donations for about a year before calling it quits, says Todd Ely, a local bike expert and owner of 10th Street bike shop Basic Cycles.

   Ely worked with the project as a private contractor, fixing up donated bikes and getting them ready for the street. There they were left, free for the sharing. According to Ely, over the course of the year, the Yellow Bike Project put out 150 bikes total in three installments. Within a few weeks of each release, the bikes disappeared.

   The idea of thieves popping wheelies was something of a blow to Ely. “I remember bikes more than I remember people,” he says. “I see a certain bike and I remember it.”

   That’s how Ely estimates that of the approximately 150 original community bikes, “a third broke, a third were taken for private use, and a third were deliberately vandalized and destroyed.” In short, the people spoke: privatize, privatize, privatize! So when reality set in, the Yellow Bike Project admitted defeat and folded.

   Then in 2003, local bike activist Alexis Zeigler got a yen for the defunct Yellow Bike Project, which was refuncted, reimagined and renamed simply as “Community Bikes.” (Yellow was so five minutes ago, anyway.)

   Zeigler directs the project from the Community Bike warehouse at the end of 9th Street NW. There, his crew takes bike donations, and volunteers can fix up the cycles and take them home free of charge. Zeigler estimates that over the past couple years, 400 to 500 bikes have passed through the shop and are now taking their riders through town.

   “We just take donations, fix ‘em up and let ’em go,” says Zeigler.

   To which Ace responds, “Phew! No more of this ‘sharing’ nonsense. Yeesh!”

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