Blue Bikes: When the sharing economy gets tested

The sharing economy arrived at Washington and Lee University in 2012 thanks to 1981 alumnus Jamie Small.

Small, who works in the energy industry in Midland, Texas, endowed the Blue Bike program with about a $15,000 grant, which provides 40 blue bikes that students and faculty can take from bike racks around campus, and then leave at their destinations for other students to use.

An additional 20 bikes are available for students and faculty to rent for free for up to a semester.

“I saw kids driving from Davidson Park to the parking deck,” Small said, “and I thought that was stupid.  Why not use a bike?”

Rolf Piranian, an associate physical education professor, retired men’s soccer coach, and alum of W&L, volunteers with the blue bike program, which is run by the university’s campus recreation organization, the Outing Club.

Washington and Lee University provides 60 "Blue Bikes," free bikes that are shared in the Lexington community.

Washington and Lee provides 60 “Blue Bikes,” free bikes that are shared within the university community.

“I’m a big bike believer, and when I was a sophomore at W&L I lived off campus and biked,” Piranian said, “I believe that bikes have an important role in society today.”

But, he said there are valid concerns about the abuse of the free program.

“I see the bikes all over town, and we get calls about picking them up in strange places, but they end up back here,” Piranian said.

Out of the initial 60 bikes, 55 still remain, and the endowed program might purchase replacement bikes before the start of the next school year, Piranian said.

The original 60 bikes came in parts, Piranian said, and it took the blue bike team, comprised mainly of volunteers and student workers, a couple of months to assemble them.

Piranian believes the W&L honor system has enabled the program to succeed; he doesn’t believe a free bike program would work at many other schools. The 40 shared blue bikes are not locked on racks.

Going forward, he said he hopes the program will expand and that blue bikers will take good care of the bikes.

“With the free bikes, we just hope people will use them in the community and treat them with respect,” Piranian said.