UVic bike loan program struggles to keep up with demand

Buying a new bicycle can cost $400 and up. At a fraction of that price, members of the UVic community can borrow a refurbished bicycle through a bike loan and rental program at UVic called SPOKES (Student Promotion of Kickstands Etc. Salvaging). As of October, the SPOKES fleet now includes an electric bike. This marks the program’s first electric bike, which has a motor and battery.

But SPOKES has had some growing pains. A less-than-satisfactory workspace, lack of consistent funding and issues with borrowers not returning bikes plague the organization.

Former UVic student Sarah Webb started the program in 2003 as part of an environmental studies class project to create easy access to green and active transportation.

“We have played a key role in helping to reduce demand for vehicle parking and have acted as one of the flagship sustainability programs for the campus,” says Webb, who now works for the Capital Regional District (CRD) but is the fundraising and grants volunteer for SPOKES.

Any UVic student, faculty or staff can access SPOKES. Users purchase a one-time $10 membership to either borrow a bike for up to four years or, at $3 a day, rent one for up to four weeks. The loan periods last one year but can be renewed three times. Rentals bikes can be issued immediately, while there is often a wait for borrowed bikes.

SPOKES bikes are all slightly used and donated by members of the community, including Recyclistas, a community bike shop in Victoria. Go Time Motorsports donated the electric bike to SPOKES.

“It makes me really happy when somebody picks up a bike, and they’re really grateful for it. It’s very satisfying to see people riding off on a new bike. When I’m around town and notice a SPOKES bike, it makes me feel good,” says SPOKES volunteer co-ordinator Will Rondow.

The program also offers repair services when the volunteers have time.

“We charge for parts and ask for a donation for our time on repairs to non-SPOKES bikes,” he says.

SPOKES is located in a cage (called the “work party cage”) in the parkade under the University Centre. It’s not the most ideal location, but they make do, says Rondow, who volunteers three hours at the cage every week and eight hours per week on paperwork.

UVic allows SPOKES to operate there rent-free, but SPOKES has been asking for a better location for two years with no luck yet. Besides limited space, poor air quality in the parkade makes working conditions a potential safety issue.

“People always say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were here!’ ” says Webb of the inconspicuous location.

The cage is open four days a week: 5–6 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays and 2:30–4:20 on Thursdays.

“It’s a great place to have on campus. I wish it was open more and had more support through the university so that it could be open more,” says UVic student and SPOKES user Colin Klippenstein.

Without any funding from UVic for operations, SPOKES relies solely on volunteers.

Its annual budget ranges from $3 000 to $8 000, which goes towards purchasing tools and supplies as well as simple bike gear that SPOKES sells at a subsidized rate. The funds come from the membership and rental fees and donations from the university, the UVic Students’ Society (which designates $800 per year for SPOKES), the Graduate Student Society and the UVic Sustainability Project.

Webb and Rondow are currently raising funds to get a paid position for SPOKES.

“If we could get someone employed . . . then we can get out a lot more bikes that way,” says Rondow.

Each month, SPOKES gets about 25 applications for bikes, except in September, when up to 150 people apply. But with only five volunteers and limited space, there are not enough resources to fulfill every request in September. To add to the problem, 35 bikes are still overdue from last year’s borrowers.

“If those 35 people who got a bike last September had returned their bikes this September, we could have met that demand more easily,” says Rondow. He says there are about 70 people waiting for SPOKES bikes as of this month, some of whom applied in September.

At the moment, there isn’t any way to make SPOKES users accountable for not returning their bikes. But the volunteers are looking into ways they can do so — ideas they hope to present to the university for assistance.

“I want to dispel the notion that it’s a free bike,” Rondow says. “We’re considering raising the membership if that’s necessary to discourage people from feeling like it’s a free bike that they don’t have to be responsible for.”

When asked if the B.C. Transit strike is encouraging more applicants, Rondow says he has only heard from one person eager to get a bike due to the strike.

“I don’t think it was a big issue for a lot of people,” he says.

 

For more information on SPOKES, contact spokes@uvic.ca.

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