Green Apple Bikes, a community bike-share program, has plans for expansion, but first must deal with issues including vandalism, theft and the “personal stashing” of bikes meant to address community transportation needs.
“Vandalism is an issue, primarily on Kansas State’s campus and primarily with fraternities, it seems like,” Jillian Thompson, Green Apple Bikes program director, said. “We just had a fraternity that vandalized a completely new bike and then also put it in a tree that then had to be gotten out of the tree by the power company.
“We struggle with things like that, and we think that right now all we can do is meet with those groups and educate them that it’s private money, people’s own personal money that they put into this program.”
Thompson said members of Phi Delta Theta fraternity put a Green Apple bike in a tree in fall 2016. She said Rod Harms, round-up coordinator for the program, reached out to the fraternity, and as a result, members of Phi Delta began to volunteer at some of the Green Apple bike-builds. Phi Delta did not respond to a request for comment by 10 p.m. Thursday.
Earlier this month, Thompson said members of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity destroyed a Green Apple bike. Thompson said she will meet with leadership from the fraternity to discuss consequences for the vandalism.
“For AGR, it’s going to be more punitive measures — monetary reparations — just because it was a brand new bike, and unlike what happened with the other bike, it was completely trashed, so we couldn’t salvage any part of the bike, where before the bike was just stuck in the tree and we had to get it down,” Thompson said. “This bike was just scratched up and the handlebars were off and the seat was gone.”
Ana Grother, sophomore in biological systems engineering, is president of Green Apple Bikes on-campus. She said it cost the program $200 to hire a tree company to get the bike out of the tree.
“What we try to do when we’ve got bikes that are damaged is reuse and salvage parts of the bike to put on different bikes to be as sustainable as possible, but this one was pretty much going to the scrap yard, and we couldn’t really save any parts unfortunately,” Thompson said. “We’re offering a service to the community, but we’re not total pushovers. You can’t just destroy our bikes.”
Thompson and Harms met with Alpha Gamma Rho leadership Thursday night. In an email statement, Del Adcock, sophomore in agricultural economics and president of Alpha Gamma Rho, said the fraternity apologizes for the destruction of the bike and that four fraternity members will be held responsible in the incident. The fraternity will pay to replace the bike, as well as for a few additional new bikes, Adcock said.
“That’s all we can really do for now,” Thompson said. “Unfortunately, the beauty of the system is that it’s free to use and available to everyone, and the drawback of the system is that it’s free to use and available to everyone. We can’t totally prevent people from doing things like that, so right now, our combat measure for that is just by raising awareness of the nature of the program — kind of laying on the guilt factor.”
“Bogarting” and widespread use of bikes
Beyond trees, bikes have been all over the area, including in the river, in Ogden, Wamego, Abilene, behind chain-link fencing at the IMAX theater, in a ditch near the intersection of Bluemont Avenue and Tuttle Creek Boulevard and disassembled in someone’s front yard. Thompson said a volunteer had found nine bikes in an abandoned garage once.
Within the program, Harms said volunteers refer to the act of stashing a Green Apple bike for personal use as “bogarting.”
Thompson compared the situation to shoppers on Black Friday who find good deals and stash the products in some hidden part of the store to return and purchase later.
“I think that just means we need more bikes for that dependability so people can ride a bike, put it back in a rack and then they know if they go out to the rack again they’ll still find a Green Apple bike,” Thompson said. “Right now, even when the bikes are launched, it’s hard to find them because people are out riding them so much.”
Empty racks equal success
Grother said empty racks are actually an indicator of the program’s success.
“People think that since the Green Apple Bikes racks are always empty, the program isn’t working, but it’s the opposite actually,” Grother said. “They’re empty because people are always using the bikes. I go on round-ups with Rod, and we place bikes in the bike racks, and literally as soon as we put them in, people are taking them out.”
Last year, some bikes were tracked with GPS trackers, but Thompson said the trackers cost $100, so it does not make sense to outfit all of the program’s fleet. However, a K-State class did sponsor trackers for two of the Green Apple bikes. Harms said tracking data has indicated the bikes rarely stay in one location for long.
As the university cuts down on vehicular access to campus with the goal of increasing options for pedestrians and cyclists, Green Apple Bikes provides an essential service for students who need to cross campus quickly, Thompson said.
“Bikes can be on the more expensive side, too,” Thompson said. “Not every student can afford to bring a bike with them, so having a program that’s provided totally for free by members of the community allows students to get around a lot easier. It allows students without cars the ability to explore downtown and Aggieville a lot easier, so the community is more accessible.”
One demographic Thompson said she is surprised to see use the bikes frequently was international students, who do not typically have access to cars or possess driver’s licenses.
“They ride them all the time, and they’re super respectful of the bikes, so that’s another group we hadn’t considered when we first started,” Thompson said. “It’s something that we’ve found as we’ve grown and evolved.”
Repair and replace
In an attempt to keep bikes in their best condition, volunteers take all of the bikes in during the winter months for maintenance and check-ups.
“Usually there’s harsher winter conditions than there were this winter that would prevent people from riding the bikes,” Thompson said. “What taking all of the bikes in does is it lets us go through our entire fleet, take inventory and see which bikes are accounted for and which are missing out there in the wind.”
Thompson said the bikes have also been thoroughly inspected, with volunteers making any necessary repairs.
“During the winter, every bike is looked at at least once, and every bike gets touched when we’re getting ready to launch bikes for the spring,” Thompson said. “It also lets us do the needed maintenance for things that are a little more drastic, like repairing rear wheels or putting in new handle bars and things like that. Then we launch them again in the spring.”
Thompson said volunteers will start distributing about 150 bikes to 12 off-campus racks and five on-campus racks beginning this evening and going through Saturday morning, although a limited number of bikes have been available since around St. Patrick’s Day.
Students had begun to express concern that Green Apple Bikes had stopped operating.
“The bikes were widely available, and then they just kind of disappeared,” Katharine Kellogg, sophomore in chemical engineering, said. “I’d like to use them, but I can’t find them. It’s really good to have an easy way to get around town rather than the bus or by car. I think they should have more of them, and they should make sure people don’t just hog them in their front yard.”
Although the volunteers check every bike during the winter off-season, repairs and maintenance on Green Apple bikes occur daily throughout the school year, Harms said.
“Our volunteers are out almost every day of the week,” Thompson said. “We have different people dedicated to doing a round-up run those days; the bikes themselves are looked at every day of the week. We have people pulling them and determining if they need maintenance. Some things we can fix in the field, and other things we have to bring in.”
Common issues include flat tires and bent wheels, Thompson said.
“They’re pretty basic beach cruiser bikes,” Thompson said. “They’re not really meant to do anything fancy at all, just general riding. So if somebody tries to pop a wheelie or go up on a curb, that can damage the wheels. We see a lot of issues with bent seat posts. The issue we have right now is the seat post stem isn’t long enough. What that means is if somebody taller is trying to adjust the seat to fit them and they’re on the heavier side, that can actually bend the seat post itself, which then makes the bike unrideable.”
Thompson said Green Apple Bikes recently upgraded to thicker inner tubes so punctures and flat tires will be less common.
While Green Apple Bikes uses its budget to buy more bikes, a portion of its budget goes toward maintaining the bikes. Some donations the program receives are specifically earmarked for bike repairs.
Businesses also contribute to the program by sponsoring racks for an upfront cost of $2,000 — covering the cost of the rack, the purchase of six new bikes, and some maintenance fees — and a renewal cost of $1,000, which goes toward maintaining and replacing parts for the bikes or even the entire bike itself.
Thompson said Green Apple Bikes is completely funded through private donations, and some of that funding is then matched by K-State’s Green Action Fund.
Expansion on the horizon
After starting a little over a year and a half ago, the bike program has found great success both at K-State and in the Manhattan community.
“When the program was first started, it was believed that we’d buy 100 bikes — which we did for 2015 — and we’d lose all those bikes, or they’d fall apart and be damaged or bogarting when people take a lot of bikes because they’re not sure if there’s going to be bikes when they need them the next day,” Thompson said. “What we very quickly found out is that out of the 100 bikes we launched in 2015, we were able to account for all but three of them. We got 97 of those first bikes back.”
Those 97 bikes, which represent the first order of bikes, are distinguished by their white color schemes. Newer bikes from a subsequent order are painted neon green, Thompson said, and Green Apple Bikes board members have tossed around the idea of having purple bikes in the future.
Green Apple Bikes will order bikes until it meets what Thompson said is the program’s target density ratio, a point at which users of the program can be confident they will find a bike at a rack the next day. The program has yet to reach that availability of bikes, but Thompson said she believes that point might be around 500 bikes.
“We’re a pretty simple model,” Thompson said. “Basically, right now, I’m working on getting a new order in. Every bike order that we put in, we try to see when we’re going to hit that ratio and see when there are bikes in racks instead of people having to do scavenger hunts to try and find them around campus or downtown.”
Each bike costs around $100, so any bike purchased by the program means an investment of several thousand dollars into the fleet. Thompson said about 250 additional bikes will be purchased in the coming months, but students will likely have to wait until next semester before the bikes are available.
“It’ll probably be next school year, because it’s usually student groups who want to do bike-builds,” Thompson said. “In a perfect world, we’d be able to have bike-build events incrementally, but with 250 bikes — they come in boxes from China, and the first step is literally to unload an 18-wheeler full of bikes. Once we have unloaded, we still have to unpack them and then build them. We need a lot of volunteers to do 250 bikes all at once.”
Grother, the student president of Green Apple Bikes on-campus, coordinates with student groups to build the bikes.
“We’ve learned a lot since we purchased the first round of bikes,” Grother said. “We know what we need improvements on, and we’re getting really good at getting and building more quality bikes.”
Thompson said the bike program is something that sets Manhattan apart from other college towns.
“I think Green Apple Bikes makes Manhattan a little more special than any other town in America,” Thompson said. “It’s a big enough town where you’ve got a lot of stuff here — you know, 55,000 people, it’s a pretty sizable chunk. You’ve got the university and a lot of people coming in and out with the military base, and I think it’s a way for Manhattan to say it cares about itself and building a tight-knit community.”