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Organizers say bike rental program for low-income adults a success

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Sharing biking tips
Jason Tanzman (right), volunteer coordinator at Sibley Bike Depot, shares some bicycling tips with Peter Letourneau after Wednesday's Community Bike Library celebration in St. Paul. Letourneau had received the rental bicycle a few minutes earlier.
MPR Photo/Madeleine Baran

Bobby Hicks no longer has to endure angry looks when he gets on the bus with a day's worth of smelly fish caught at Lake Calhoun.

Three months ago, Hicks, 52, rented a bicycle from the Community Partners Bike Library, a St. Paul-based program that provides free six-month bicycle rentals to low-income adults.

These days, Hicks gathers his daily catch into a backpack and pedals back to his Minneapolis apartment. He said he's no longer embarrassed to be fishing for his dinner, and he feels healthier than he has in years. 

Hicks joined dozens of program participants and supporters on Wednesday afternoon to celebrate the Community Partners Bike Library's first three months of operation. Since late May, the library has rented out 120 bicycles, and demand continues to grow, organizers said. The group now partners with about a dozen local social service agencies to find eligible residents.

"This particular program was really dramatic," said Betsy Sohn, a program manager with Hope Community, one of the library's partner agencies. "It really responded to what people's interests are."

Sibley Bike Depot, a volunteer-run bicycle shop in St. Paul, created the library with a $193,000 grant from Bike Walk Twin Cities. The library is one of dozens of programs receiving funding as part of a $22 million federal pilot program to increase walking and bicycling in the Twin Cities. 

Peter Letourneau
Peter Letourneau sits on his rental bicycle for the first time. He said he spent the last year getting his life back together, while battling alcoholism and bipolar disorder. He sees the bicycle as part of his recovery -- and as an inexpensive way to make the 11-mile commute to his job in North St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Madeleine Baran

Joan Pasiuk, director of Bike Walk Twin Cities, said the library could serve as a model for other cities.

"The program that Sibley put together is exactly what Congress intended, although they never would have thought of it," she said. "It's masterful."

Sibley Bike Depot provides each renter with a helmet, lock and route map. The group also offers free classes in safe cycling and bicycle maintenance. 

Jason Tanzman, Sibley's volunteer coordinator, said he expects most participants will return the bicycles during the winter months and rent them again in the spring. 

So far, only one bicycle has been reported stolen, but Tanzman said that most people still have several months left in their rental period. The program's grant proposal anticipated that 25 percent of the bicycles would be stolen each year.

Bicycle renters swapped stories during Wednesday's celebration at Goodwill/Easter Seals in St. Paul. Many hadn't ridden a bicycle since childhood and described how the experience has brought back powerful memories. 

"I began to feel nostalgic for the wind and flowers, trees and shadows that you overlook when you're driving in your car and for the smells of coffee and bread shops," said Tia Williams, a bicycle renter from St. Paul. 

Williams said she used to be an ardent "vehiculist," but then she said she realized what she'd been missing. 

"I was very determined to find the childhood freedom that I put into the basement after I received my driver's license," she said.

Hicks said that riding a bicycle around Minneapolis lakes revived his childhood fascination with the vast waters of Lake Superior.  

"I always wanted to see it because teachers would always say that it has waves like the ocean," he said. "I couldn't believe it."

Hicks said he hopes to fulfill his childhood dream by biking the 164-mile stretch of state trails from Minneapolis to the Duluth harbor.

"I think I can do it," he said. "It'll take some time, but I think it'll happen."

For Astor Green, the program offered a chance to finally learn how to ride a bicycle. 

As a child growing up in a rough neighborhood in Manchester, England, his parents barely allowed him to leave the house. He asked for a bicycle, but his parents said it was too expensive and too dangerous.

"So when I heard about this program, I decided to jump for it," he said.

Green, 53, had ridden a bicycle just once before. When he sat down on his rental bicycle for the first time and tried to pedal, he fell over.

"It was really spooky because most people learn when they're young and they're fearless and they weigh nothing," he said. "And I was full of fear." 

He spent the summer practicing along a trail behind his house in Brooklyn Park. On a recent ride, he lost his balance on a footbridge. 

"I ended up face down in Shingle Creek," Green said, laughing. "The first thing I thought was, 'the water doesn't taste as bad as it looks.'"

He said he hopes that, with a little more practice, he'll be able to ride the trails into Minneapolis and stop for a picnic alongside Lake Calhoun before heading home.