Free bicycle program must shift gears

Brant Horgen, left, of Pinellas Park and Brent Bruns, of St. Petersburg pose among their Bike Green bicycles. They are talking with St. Petersburg officials about how to integrate their free bikes in the city.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Brant Horgen, left, of Pinellas Park and Brent Bruns, of St. Petersburg pose among their Bike Green bicycles. They are talking with St. Petersburg officials about how to integrate their free bikes in the city.

ST. PETERSBURG

It began in the spring with a dream and a promise to put 8,000 bicycles, for use and at no charge, on the streets of downtown.

Yet today Bike Green has about 15 bikes in circulation, and each requires a deposit, fully refundable on return, of $40. Since those promises in March, about 100 of the neon green bikes belonging to the program have been stolen. And an original partner in the bicycle-sharing venture has gone off on his own.

Brent Bruns, who continues to run Bike Green, still has a dream. It involves a lot fewer bicycles, a lot of charity and an eco-friendly alternative to the gas-guzzling car.

Andrew Blikken, who now runs mybike, also has a dream. It still involves bicycles and green transportation, but now also includes dollar signs.

"We had big ambitions, and we figured out this is a lot of work and it costs a lot of money," Bruns, 36, said of his reasons for dissolving the partnership and beginning anew.

"The city is not interested in having brightly colored litter all over their streets, and bicycle ridership will not be improved by broken bicycles," said Blikken, 26.

Both men are now lobbying the city of St. Petersburg in different ways and to achieve different dreams with similar goals: to bring more bikes for public use on city streets — an idea that has been implemented successfully in several major cities around the world.

For Bruns, Bike Green has been an exercise in humility. A computer technician, he figured back in March it was entirely possible to flood downtown St. Petersburg with thousands of bikes. In fact, he said back then that he'd acquire hundreds of bicycles every week in order to keep up with expected thefts. He has scattered art-inspired bicycle racks all over the place.

The project would rely on donations of bike parts, labor, as well as income from 15 centrally located vending machines selling Altoids, the breath mints, for 25 cents a pop. But the donations were not as much as expected, and to date the vending machines have generated a meager sum, about $450.

Today, Bruns, who has a new partner, Brant Horgen, 33, is focused on acquiring donated bicycle parts, and obtaining bicycle racks, as well as permission from the city to install them. Bruns said he realized people wouldn't return the bikes unless they left something behind.

"It's a part-time side project for trying to do some good in the world," said Horgen, adding that he was overwhelmed by the support he and Bruns received from the community. "Whatever energy I give into it I get back."

Blikken left Bike Green almost as soon as news of the startup company's new venture hit the Internet. It was not his idea, he said, to boast of 8,000 bicycles, a goal he called unrealistic.

Blikken said he was first struck with the genius of public bike sharing programs in 2004, during a visit to Copenhagen after graduating from college with a communications degree. He came to live in St. Petersburg soon after, and realized he'd found the perfect environment for such a program.

Everything in downtown is "just a little bit too far to walk, but too little to drive," he said.

This month, he visited Montreal to study their bicycle sharing program, which launched this year. Blikken said what made that program work was that the city had a system to keep an inventory of its bikes. They also use locks. And they plan to rely partly on advertising.

He and a business partner, Lisa Thornsberry, are in talks with the city, Blikken said, though to date the discussions have been all conceptual. In an interview, Blikken said he hoped to become involved with the marketing and advertising of such a bike program that would be run by the city.

"We are waiting for them to come to us with a business plan. We're willing to look at any type of a program that's being proposed," Joe Kubicki, director of transportation for St. Petersburg, said of both entrepreneurs.

Since the city updated its trails system on major roadways in 2005, it has seen a spike of up to 40 percent in bike use, Kubicki said.

"We would certainly encourage more biking in St. Petersburg," Kubicki said.

Eckerd College has a bike sharing program, but it is contained to its waterfront campus. The only previous bike sharing program in the area was short-lived. In 1997, the Tampa Downtown Partnership put 50 bikes on the streets. The bright orange bikes all disappeared.

Both Brunt and Blikken speak respectfully of one another, and insist that St. Petersburg is big enough for multiple bike-sharing programs, albeit different ones.

"I'm doing a little program that's helping people now and that's not pie in the sky," said Bruns. "It's healthy that there's a lot of initiative. He's just more on the long term."

Said Blikken: "If he wants to provide bicycles to the public, I say more power to him. But I have nothing to do with his, and he has nothing to do with mine."

Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or lperez@sptimes.com.

Free bicycle program must shift gears 10/14/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 20, 2008 5:49pm]

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