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March 29, 2012

Bike racks, repair shop earn praise for USC

If the gears get out of whack on a University of South Carolina student’s bicycle, he or she can take it to the repair shop at the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center and get it fixed for free.

If the gears get out of whack on a University of South Carolina student’s bicycle, he or she can take it to the repair shop at the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center and get it fixed for free.

USC students or employees who don’t have a bicycle can get one for navigating around campus for almost nothing. They just choose from among a pile of abandoned bikes and pay for the parts needed to get them rolling.

Those are just a couple of the initiatives that helped USC become one of 35 campuses nationwide considered Bicycle Friendly Universities. The League of American Bicyclists announced Wednesday that USC had earned bronze bicycle friendly status.

Stanford is the only platinum status university, and there are only two schools with gold status (Cal-Davis and Cal-Santa Barbara). Another 14 have silver status. Joining USC in the bronze category are several other schools from the region – Georgia Tech, Duke, N.C. State, Virginia, Maryland, UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Wilmington and Emory.

In terms of being cycling-friendly, USC is the Southeastern Conference champ. No other SEC school has made the list. (Georgia and Kentucky made it to honorable mention status last year.)

The same group honors cities, and South Carolina has one silver level city (Hilton Head Island) and four at the bronze level (Columbia, Charleston, Greenville and Spartanburg).

USC got credit for the high number of bike racks, having a master bike and pedestrian plan and a bike committee with a diverse group of students, faculty, staff and neighbors. The repair shop and abandoned bikes program helped, too.

While almost every major university offers a computer repair shop for students, few provide such a service for bikes. Katie Coley, director of outdoor recreation at USC, saw plenty of broken down bikes in campus racks. She thought a bike shop would be a good way to encourage cycling on campus.

“Tune-ups in town are expensive for students,” Coley said.

She looked for similar efforts to copy when starting the program three years ago. She couldn’t find any. With some advice and basic tools from Outspokin, a local bike store, the on-campus shop began in 2009. It has grown from one part-time student employee to five who staff the shop 20 to 30 hours per week.

The shop is a focal point in the effort to make cycling more accessible on campus.

“We want to make it easy to bike,” Coley said. “Before (the bike shop opened), who was the bike expert on campus?”

For a few hours each day, the staff simply moves some of the other outdoor recreation equipment to the side, brings out the bike-repair stands and helps anybody who drops by the shop in the back of the building students call the Strom. Students are expected to help with the repair in hopes they can fix the bike themselves the next time.

Student William Henderson works in the USC shop as well as at Outspokin. “I’ve worked in a shop since I was 16, but I learn something new every day,” he said.

Students bring in all kinds of bikes, from Walmart specials to high-end racing bikes. And when Henderson and the others want a real challenge, they head back to the abandoned bike area. It’s the Island of Misfit Bikes, with many missing seats or wheels and very few in rideable condition.

The abandoned bike program began this semester. Coley found out the school’s parking service division for years had been piling up bikes left on campus at the end of the school year. They had accumulated a mountain of about 150 bikes.

The bike shop crew attacked the mountain and came out with about 90 salvageable bikes. Most still need a part or two. Students or school employees looking for cheap transportation can claim any of those bikes, paying only for the parts needed to fix them. Eleven have found new homes so far with little publicity about the effort. Coley aims to move out 10 recycled bikes a month until the current supply is gone.

She would prefer there not be any abandoned bikes. In an effort in that direction this week, 10 heavy duty air pumps are being bolted down in strategic areas throughout campus. Cycling enthusiasts noticed how many bikes in racks outside dorms had flat tires. Making it easier to fill those tires should encourage more students to use them, Coley said.

The pumps are just another of the little steps toward creating a cycling culture on campus. At least one outsider thinks the effort is working.

Olin Jenkins, a S.C. Department of Natural Resources employee who rides his bike to work from Shandon through campus to the State House complex, has seen remarkable improvements on campus in recent years. More bike lanes have helped, but the major change has been in attitudes.

“Everybody’s super-duper courteous on campus,” Jenkins said. “Nobody’s trying to scare a bicyclist. They don’t honk, and I never get the finger around campus.”

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