It's hard for a pedestrian to not to be constantly aware of the sea of bikes through which one must wade. But amid the faceless mass of fixies and 10-gear speed demons, there’s now an unignorable breed of bicycle in the distinctly flamboyant shade of The North Face neon orange.
“People comment a lot about how they didn’t know The North Face made bikes,” said McCormick junior Rick Fromm, a proud owner of one of these citrus-shaded ‘cycles. “But, they don’t make bikes.”
He’s right – but, as if the brand needed any more representation on campus, The North Face is indeed a brand sponsor of the bikes.
The bikes made their first appearance on campus at the beginning of the month, as a part of the FreeBike Project’s initial foundation-laying at Northwestern. The company was founded in 2012 by Danish students Johan Bender and Kim Sanderhoff after their semester abroad at the bicycle-sparse University of Southern California. It uses green marketing as a means to promote biking for social good. Campuses have brands sponsor bicycles, and students can rent one for free as long as they post a picture with the bicycle on social media once a month.
By driving revenue for the brand, this eco-marketing method funds the free bikes. In a TOMS-like model, the FreeBike Project and its partner Bikes for the World then donate bikes on a one-for-one basis to schoolchildren in the Philippines who lack access to the transportation needed to travel to school.
When he met with one of the founders over coffee, SESP sophomore and self-professed social entrepreneurship enthusiast Connor Regan decided the idea was too good not to bring to Northwestern’s bike-friendly campus.
“Northwestern’s like a mile long and very flat; it’s a good campus for biking,” Regan said. “We actually map these things out when we decide what schools to expand to.”
As its Chicago Development Director, Regan sees the FreeBike Project as “a win-win situation, because the students pay nothing and get to ride a bike for however long they want, the advertisers get this new form of advertisement that’s really never been done before, [and] we as a company – not a non-profit – are still making money.
“So it’s good for the company, it’s good for the environment and it’s good for the kids in the Philippines,” Regan said. “I don’t even know how many wins that is.”
The process of leasing a FreeBike is just about as effortless as it could be: Interested students fill out a form, pay a $130 security deposit covering the bike and a high-quality lock, and can keep the bike for the duration of their time at Northwestern, after which the deposit will be returned in full, as long as the bike isn’t mangled. The requisite social media photo posting, on which the profitability of FreeBike brand sponsors depends, is less intrusive than other college-targeted advertising efforts.
Communication senior Daniel Flores managed to get his hands on one of the coveted initial 20 free bikes. While he has had friends who have worked for other startups where “the volume of the social media posts expected of them was overbearing and downright annoying,” he sees the social media aspect of FreeBike as “totally manageable and fair.”
The approach has so far been extremely rewarding. From its West Coast roots, the project has expanded to campuses across the country including Harvard, MIT, Georgetown, Boston University and more.
“[FreeBike] was started with this big goal of becoming a big thing across the entire country,” Regan said. “Where [the founders] are from, bikes outnumber people, so it’s just … much healthier there. So that was kind of the impetus.”
The popularity of biking at Northwestern matches a growing enthusiasm for bicycling across the country as a whole. American bike commuting grew 40 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to a report by the League of American Bicyclists.
This surge comes part and parcel with the increasingly ubiquitous bike share systems in cities around the world, from Chicago’s Divvy system, to the massive systems of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Hangzhou, China.
The systems, which provide free or affordable bikes for short-term use, aim to benefit both the city’s citizens and the environment by reducing commuter vehicle traffic, so far to great effect. In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency found that for every one mile pedaled rather than driven, nearly a pound of carbon dioxide is not emitted.
FreeBike is different in that it aims to shake up not only the bicycle transportation market, but also the realm of more intrusive youth advertising efforts. By integrating their socially conscious business model with social media, FreeBike generates revenue in a seamless, completely novel and not to mention eco-friendly way. That revenue goes toward funding for more bikes, which is good news for bikeless Wildcats: the FreeBike Project received almost three times as many applicants as the amount of bikes it currently has, and it’s planning to bring more to campus.
“It’s all been word-of-mouth,” Regan said. “People see the bikes and ask someone who’s riding [the] bike.”
During his daily biking, born of an aversion to walking, Flores says he’s “had cars flag me down to ask me where I got the bike and how they can get one.”
With plans to expand into Chicago on campuses like Loyola and University of Chicago, the FreeBike Project has some serious momentum. The founders hope to supply bikes to 10,000 students nationwide by the end of 2016, and thereby supply just as many bikes to kids who desperately need them in the Philippines. And when it comes down to it, they’re the ones who truly matter. While a bike-less Wildcat might complain of being unable to more quickly flit between a dozen extracurriculars, far too many students in the world aren’t even able to find a means to get to school in the first place.
“This is an entire city of kids that otherwise would not be going to school,” Regan said. “If we take this village of kids who live far from their school and we can change that, that’s huge.”