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Urban Development

No such thing as too small

The icy northern town of 5,000 that launched a public bike share

The Doable City Reader

There is so much that can be done to make our cities happier, healthier and more prosperous places. Every day in cities around the world, citizens and city planners alike are showing us how small actions can scale up to have massive impact. And they can in your city too.

That’s what the Doable City Reader is about. In June 2014, 8 80 Cities, in collaboration with the Knight Foundation, brought 200 civic innovators from around North America together in Chicago at the Doable City Forum to share and discover methods for rapid change making. The Doable City Reader is inspired by the rich conversations amongst presenters and participants at that forum. It is a resource for any and all people who want to make change in their cities and is meant to educate, inspire and empower anyone to do so.

Anyone who thinks their town is too small, too closed-minded or too cash-strapped to create programs that will kickstart change might want to check out Cochrane in northern Ontario. This town of about 5,000 people, located far enough in Canada’s north that tourists go there to see polar bears, opened a public bike share in the summer of 2014. It’s not quite as fancy as Paris’s Velib or as shiny as New York City’s Citi Bikes, but it’s there, it’s free of charge, it’s popular and it’s getting Cochranites moving around the city and rediscovering cycling in a brand new way.

The total cost to implement the system? About $100.

Launched as part of the Doable Neighbourhood Project, the bike share was spearheaded by Cochrane deputy clerk JP Ouellette. He had been impressed and excited by bike share systems in Toronto and Chicago, but knew that in order to do it in Cochrane, they had to find a way to make it free. So he worked with the Ontario Provincial Police, who agreed to donate some of the confiscated stolen bicycles they would normally sell at auction.

Youth from the community came together and painted the bikes bright colours (the paint is where most of the $100 went). They affixed signs explaining the program to existing bike racks along the town’s main drag and attached liability waivers to the bicycles. The town’s two staff mechanics agreed to perform regular maintenance on them, and they even painted the town’s first bike lane down the main strip. Then, they left the bikes unlocked in the rack for people to use at their leisure for running errands or enjoying a recreational ride around the lake.

It probably goes without saying that the system has had its kinks so far. With an initial flurry of use when the program launched, the bikes, which were already old and used, quickly fell into disrepair. They put newer ones onto the road, and of the 40, about 20 of them are still in use. So far, Cochrane’s experience reflects, to a certain extent, that of other cities that have attempted free bike share programs: bikes are being stolen, often by children who know that if they put the bike back in the rack it likely won’t be there for them the next day.

photo-3-21But Ouellette doesn’t necessarily see that as negative. “Our perspective is at the end of the day it’s cost us nothing and if we’ve put kids on bikes, well, that’s not a bad thing,” he said. The city is also applying for funding to not only improve the quantity and quality of the bikes in the system, but also to simply give bikes to children who want and need them.

Ouellette says that, at the end of the day, they never had any illusions that it would be perfect or easy. But they did it. And how many other towns of 5,000 do you know that have a public bike share?

“You have to jump right in and try and be creative. Certainly that’s always been our key in not having a lot of the resources a city might have. As a small town you’re always looking to creative concepts to try and implement any type of program.” Hear Ouellette tell us more about the process of getting the Cochrane bike share up and going in the video above.