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Free bikes vanish or come back wrecked

This city, home to the University of Florida, is trying to alleviate downtown traffic congestion by putting out 50 yellow bicycles that can be used by anyone, any time.

The idea is that people can just jump on the bikes, rather than take their cars for short trips.

It doesn't take a physics _ or ethics _ professor to figure out what happened next: Most of the bikes are missing in the first month, and those that aren't are mostly trashed.

"Some of the bikes are being abused," conceded Bill Harden, the program's director. "They're coming back with bent rims and bent frames. A lot of others are being stolen or just left somewhere."

Gainesville isn't the first city to try such a program. Madison, Wis., tried it. So did Minneapolis and St. Paul. Both programs failed.

"Our present society is just not geared for a free bikes kind of program," said Laurie Lundy, the Minnesota program's director. "You can educate people about your program, but that's not going to stop them from stealing bikes or throwing them in front of trains just to see what happens."

But Harden, who says he has spent less than $10,000, isn't so easily discouraged. In fact, he's pleased with the program so far.

"It's just a matter of education," he said. "We need to get the word out that, hey, it's a free bike but don't steal it."