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  • Writer's pictureWorld Half Full

You want a bike with that book?


At Madison, Wisconsin’s nine public libraries, residents can check out books of all kinds, from hardbacks and paperbacks to ebooks and audiobooks. They can check out movies as DVDs and Blu-rays. And since last year, library cardholders can also check out electric bicycles.

It’s part of a growing number of bike libraries in cities and towns across the US that now number at least 35. While they all work a little differently, they all do the same thing — increase free access to bikes.

As a 2021 report by People for Bikes notes, there are a number of barriers that keep cities from creating inclusive biking communities, from unequal distribution of biking infrastructure to prevailing perceptions that only white men cycle. A study in Portland, Oregon, found that car traffic, know-how, and space needed to maintain and store a bike are among the biggest barriers to bike use. But cost, the researchers found, gets in the way, too. Even the cheapest road bikes still cost a couple hundred dollars; most electric bikes cost at least US$1,000.

Enter bike libraries. In Madison, as long as you’re one of the 62% of city residents with a library card, you can check out an electric bike from one of the city’s libraries for free. This is thanks to a partnership with Madison BCycle, an e-bike sharing company in the city whose parent company is Trek, a well-known bike brand. Last year, Bcycle approached Madison’s libraries with an idea for a Community Pass Program that would give library cardholders access to more than 300 electric bikes across the city.

“Making bike share more accessible in our community is a top priority for us,” Madison Bcycle’s general manager Helen Bradley says.

Instead of requiring a credit card or a smartphone to unlock an electric-assist bike from one of the city’s more than 50 docking stations, Community Pass users check out an access fob from the library instead. The fob pass can be checked out for up to a week at a time.

“We have nearly two million visits a year in our nine libraries in Madison, so it’s a place where a lot of people are coming and going every day,” explains Tana Elias, Madison Public Library’s digital services and marketing manager. It’s an equity initiative, she adds, noting that it gives people the chance to rent a bike if they haven’t ridden one in a while as well as the chance to choose a bike over a taxi or an Uber. “It’s an opportunity to choose to be a little healthier in your day-to-day activity. But also, if you haven’t ridden a bike recently, it’s a good opportunity to get out there and try it without making a huge commitment.”

Because Madison Bcycle’s infrastructure was already in place, including docking stations outside several libraries, there were only a few puzzle pieces to fit into place. In the end, the waiver that riders sign is from Bcycle so they’re handling the liability. There are also helmets available, so users can check those out too if they like.


Over at the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus, the Student Government Association bike library has been running since roughly 2011 and it checks out cruiser bikes — chosen for their durability, accessibility and comfort — to the school’s students, faculty and staff. The program has been on pause during the pandemic, but Ibrahim Akar, the SGA’s chief-of-staff, plans to relaunch the program in November, with bikes that can be checked out for an entire semester and eventually a full year. The bike library is free to use, each bike comes with a lock, and repairs are covered by an on-campus bike co-op that SGA has partnered with.

“Working in the SGA, we work towards meeting the needs of students on campus and a lot of students would highly prefer to ride a bicycle than wait for the bus,” Akar says. “When you have a bicycle, you can leave on your own schedule and there’s a lot of fun that comes with riding a bike as well. You get to just enjoy the view and breathe in some fresh air. So obviously, if that’s something that students want, we’re going to work as hard as we can to be able to bring that to them.”

ABOVE Library cardholders can check out a Madison BCycle pass and a bike helmet at any Madison Public Library

PHOTOS Macy O'Malley/Madison Public Library

It’s an opportunity to choose to be a little healthier in your day-to-day activity. But also, if you haven’t ridden a bike recently, it’s a good opportunity to get out there and try it without making a huge commitment.

Tana Elias

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