Bikes for cars, for life

Posted Aug. 28, 2008, at 7:27 p.m.

The University of New England in Biddeford is leading a growing trend among colleges around the country by encouraging — some might say bribing — incoming freshmen to leave their cars at home. UNE this fall will offer freshmen planning to live on campus a free bicycle if they do not bring a car.

To date, the Associated Press reports, about a quarter of the incoming freshmen have accepted the offer. The university is trying to avoid building another parking lot, according to Dean of Students Barbara Hazard. Parking on campus, as is the case with most colleges and universities, is at a premium.

In addition to offering the free bicycle, bike helmet and lock, UNE raised parking permits from $80 to $300 this year to further tilt the equation in favor of car-free living. The university also provides access to Zipcars — vehicles that can be used any time day or night, if reserved in advance, for an hourly fee. If the incoming student doesn’t want a bicycle in exchange for leaving the car, he or she instead can receive 28 hours prepaid on the use of a Zipcar.

Another quarter of the freshmen class accepted the Zipcar deal, meaning that nearly half agreed to leave their cars at home because of the incentives.

Ripon College in Ripon, Wis., was the first to give bikes to students in exchange for leaving cars at home. Bowdoin College in Brunswick will ban freshmen from bringing cars next year, and the college currently has a bike loan program and bike storage facilities.

“Our goal here really is to shift a culture,” the AP quoted Ms. Hazard as saying. And that goal suggests other behavior modifications could be achieved with similar carrot and stick approaches.

College students, though they live within the protective nest of dormitory and dining halls, are learning to live on their own as adults, and will form habits that may carry forward for the rest of their years. Maine students, especially, are not familiar with the urban lifestyle that leans heavily on public or pedestrian transportation, so the bikes-for-cars swap is a new, but important life lesson. Learning that your community, in this case a college campus, has what you need to survive — and maybe even thrive — without driving to the mall or downtown bars, is another important lesson.

And maybe the happiest group in the bikes-for-cars swap is parents, who see the hefty cost of keeping another vehicle on the road disappear, if only for a semester or two.

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