How to Start a Bike Co-op

woman holding a bike

Perhaps you want to bike more, but you don’t actually own a bike and would rather not shell out the money for one. Bike-sharing programs are a convenient, low-cost alternative to buying a bicycle that also build community.

Bike-sharing programs are generally either bike shares or bike libraries. With bike shares, there are typically multiple kiosks of bikes throughout the city, and people rent bikes for short day-trips. In a bike library, people check out bikes for longer periods of time. At some, members can borrow bikes for as long as two weeks at a time and also have access to a repair shop.

Co-ops now serve as a collection point for used, broken, and old bikes—as well as those abandoned by college students forced to leave them behind when they can’t find a way to transport them home at the end of the school year. Members pool their bike mechanic skills to refurbish the donated bicycles, which then go into the bike-share fleet. Eric Cornwell, an avid cyclist from Athens, OH, visited Austria last summer and was inspired by a bike share program he saw in Vienna. He was already a member of the Athens Bike Co-op, a student group at Ohio University aimed at encouraging students and community members to bike more and drive less. When he came back from his summer vacation and told the co-op about Vienna’s program, and they all agreed to start a bike share of their own. (Note: since the publishing of this article, Athens Bike Co-op was renamed to UpCycle Bikes, but still serves the same purpose and is run by Cornwell)

Their initial goal for the bike share was to start with at least 25 bikes. They had just started pounding the pavement, asking local citizens and businesses for donations, when the manager of an off-campus apartment complex provided more than enough abandoned bikes to start the program. Cornwell estimated that it took eight hours and about $25 to $30 to refurbish each bike. Some local businesses helped by donating their services, such as Athens Paint and Decorating donating sheets of coroplast, which Cornwell used to make the bikes’ baskets.

Some bike-sharing programs are solely based on trust and don’t require a fee for bike rental—a fleet of specially marked bikes are simply parked around a city for people to use at will. However, to prevent bike vandalism or theft, many have introduced a mechanism—such as a fee, deposit, or electronic kiosk that can track the bike sharer’s credit card—to regulate bike use. Some bike shares customize the design of the bike fleet with unique wheels or frames that aren’t compatible with any other type of bike, making them useless to thieves looking for parts.

The Athens bike share’s yellow bikes are chained to various bike racks around Ohio University’s campus, all with uniform locks. For a $10 membership fee, bicyclists get a key that unlocks any of the bikes. The bike share currently has about 20 to 25 members on and off campus (including the city’s mayor), who can unlock any yellow bike they see, ride it to their destination, and then lock it to the nearest bike rack for another member to use.

Cornwell says that the program was fairly simple to launch. “There’s no requirement that you have to have some special instruction to do this. People can pretty much figure it out for themselves,” he says. “It basically takes the will to want to do something like that, and the rest follows.”

In the year that it’s been operating, the Athens bike share still has all of its original bikes in working order, and the co-op continues to gain a lot of positive buzz. “People I don’t even know will tell me what a great thing it is, and what a valuable resource it is for the community,” says Cornwell.