Pedaling an idea

Gompei’s Gears will set bike share idea into motion

March 14, 2016
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Kevin Ackerman

In his sophomore year, senior biomedical engineering student Kevin Ackerman had a lab meeting at Gateway Park that started five minutes after his class let out at the main campus. It was an unfortunate result of a busy schedule. “I’d end up sprinting” to make it on time, he says; and never mind time chatting after class with other students or professors. It just wasn’t an option.

That experience—and reading a 2014 alternate transportation IQP done by other students—helped lead Ackerman and senior aerospace engineering student Jack Colfer to take it one step further—creating their own IQP for a bike share program at WPI. Students who needed a bike could use one, and then return it for other students or faculty members to use. And the plan—dubbed Gompei’s Gears—is on the fast track.

“It just started as ‘maybe someone could make a bike share on campus,’” Colfer says. “Kevin was the big creative force.”

“Our goal was to find a project that didn’t just end in a big report. We wanted a project with a chance of being implemented,” Ackerman says, which it is.

GEARS IN MOTION

The plan is to install automated key box bike kiosks at Gateway Park, Faraday Hall, Salisbury Labs, and the Quad by the middle of April, with an overall start-up cost of around $31,000.

Bike share locations on campus

The benefits of a bike share—in addition to getting students to classes and meetings on time—include a decrease in single-occupancy car use, an easing of campus parking strain, less environmental impact, and better health for students and faculty. A bike share is also a clutter-buster: reducing the bikes in residence halls, and making for more space, the report found.

To estimate demand, extensive surveys and interviews of students and faculty went into the research of the bike share idea, Ackerman said, and the cost will be shared among various groups. The majority of the funding—$26K—will be borne by WPI undergraduate and graduate student government organizations, an expenditure that was approved last month. Private donations are also being accepted through the Alumni office.

There will also be a yearly cost, for software fees and bike maintenance, Ackerman says. But most of the maintenance work, like checking brakes and pumping tires, as well as promotion of the program, will be handled by the Green Team, a sustainability group on campus.

John Colfer

The surveys and interviews were just a portion of the research that went into the proposal. Other college bike shares were studied, and in some cases, campus visits were made, Ackerman says.

For instance, Wellesley College and Skidmore College have similar bike-share systems in place to the one WPI will be using. “You can operate them 24/7, the system is modular, real-time data is collected, and all information is tracked,” Ackerman says; WPI will follow the lead of Boston University when it comes to helmets, purchasing them from Helmets R Us, a Tacoma, Wash., company that sells helmets at prices as low as $6–$8, which the school will give out for free to encourage helmet use.

The bike share will be of the “ride-and-return” variety, says Ackerman, where riders return the bike to the kiosk where they got it. Other colleges and universities have found that a station-to-station system, where riders can return bikes at any other campus kiosk, doesn’t work. “People tend only to ride them downhill,” Ackerman says, creating a need for “bike returners,” making a ride-and-return system the best choice for hilly WPI.

User education on helmet use and wrangling with WPI’s hills and weather conditions were identified as key to conquering potential challenges, the IQP report states, as well as bad habits among bicyclists and drivers, and bike theft. With the correct information out there, those factors will not make a bike share unsustainable, the report found.

TO CAMPUS AND BEYOND

In addition to students, Ackerman and Colfer reached out further in their quest for information about how a bike share might fare. “[We initiated conversations in] other areas of the community and talked to them as well,” Colfer says, such as community members and government officials. “There are a lot of different factors and details that went into this program,” he said.

Not the least of which is student desire to bike to nearby Price Chopper, Union Station, or just off campus for exercise, Colfer says.

As for what’s ahead, Ackerman and Colfer look forward to the spring bike share implementation, and later adding things like bike headlights, and canopies over bike racks.

Both Clark and Worcester State universities have existing bike share programs, Ackerman said. He added that there are no immediate plans for the city to get involved, but he and others this week will meet with city and regional officials who wish to hear about the university bike shares, in hopes of  increase biking in Worcester in the near future.

As students and faculty take advantage of the new bike share, Ackerman and Colfer, former roommates, will be right there along with them.

“I’ll be riding any day the weather lets me,” Ackerman says.

– BY SUSAN SHALHOUB

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