#54 – Free Cycles Program

Missoula, Montana

Bob Giordano
Executive Director, Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation
Program Director, Free Cycles Missoula


An umbrella advocacy organization helps monitor and advocate for bike facility.

Free Cycles Missoula was formed in 1996 as a non-profit to address the following issues:

Before Free Cycles Missoula began operations, roughly 500 bicycles a year were going to the local recycling center and landfill. These “throw-away” bikes presented an opportunity to increase access to bicycles by all citizens, especially low-income individuals. The act of giving away bicycles also provided increased opportunities to distribute safety information to individual citizens and to the community at large.

The decision to start the project by providing ‘free-roaming’ green bikes was based on the perception that people would gladly donate unused bikes and broken bikes to an organization that would get the bikes back to the community in working order. Another factor to start the project was the knowledge that many short motor vehicle trips could be replaced by bicycle trips (40 percent of local motor vehicle trips are less than two miles) if convenient alternatives existed.

While community awareness existed about these issues, overall there seemed to be a general sense of frustration that motorized traffic was increasing unabated and that cycling conditions were deteriorating. A just-completed Long Range Plan for Missoula County (population 90,000) earmarked several roads to be reconstructed with additional lanes for motorized vehicles as a way to relieve congestion. Yet, it seemed that bicycling was being overlooked as a legitimate mode of transportation that could be planned for and encouraged. No bike lanes existed at the time, which often forced an awkward and dangerous sharing of road space on arterial roadways.

One justification for not spending more resources on bicycle infrastructure was that cycling made up a small portion of the local mode share. To the founders of Free Cycles this seemed to be a “catch-22” situation: without safe facilities bicycling might not grow, but without bicycling growth, the safe facilities may not be supported by decision-makers.

Goals of the project

At the start of the project, a primary goal of Free Cycles Missoula was “to obtain old, unused bicycles, give them a paint job, fenders, reflectors, and a wire basket, and place them in public places around Missoula” (MIST Web site, 2005). Community involvement in building and maintaining the bikes was also an important goal. By making rebuilt bicycles widely available throughout the city (the bike is ridden, and then parked at any public rack) it was thought that the sheer numbers of bicyclists and bicycle trips would increase.

Longer term, a goal of the project was to embark on a process that would eventually lead to elevated community awareness about, and utilization of, bicycling as a legitimate mode of transportation. By creating a better cycling atmosphere in the city, more facilities and thus more cyclists would eventually exist. Overall, the project aimed to initiate a positive feedback loop that would release and create the latent demand for bicycling.

Several research studies indicate that safety for bicycling increases when more bicyclists are on the street. One paper found an inverse relationship between the number bicyclists on the street and the number of crashes involving bicyclists being hit by motor vehicles (Jacobsen, 2003). Another study similarly found that the risk of a cyclist incurring a severe injury is decreased when numbers of bicyclists increase (Robinson, 2005).


n the spring of 1996, 50 green bikes were released to the community. At the end of the riding season, twenty-five had “survived.” While this survival rate peaked at 83 percent in 1999 (MIST Web site, 2005), it became apparent from the middle of the first year of the project that a multi-faceted approach with a variety of community cycling programs would be needed in order to meet the project goals and objectives.

This multi-faceted approach had already been conceived in the Green Bike Proposal that had circulated throughout the city prior to the initial green bike release in April, 1996. This approach reads:

Free Cycles Missoula will be responsible for continually bringing in additional bikes, maintaining the ones in use, conducting seminars on education and safety, working with the city in improving bicycle corridors, and monitoring the success of the program (MIST Web site, 2005).

Years two and three of the project (1997–98) saw an evolution to four more programs:

In 2000, in order to address research, design and advocacy for better bicycle systems and, more generally, better transportation systems, an umbrella group, the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation (MIST) was formed. And finally, 2003 saw a 6th program added to Free Cycles — Pedal Technology. The aim of Pedal Technology is to extend the reach of what the bicycle is capable of being used for (i.e. load carrying, protecting the rider from the weather, improving efficiency) and increasing the availability of existing bicycle attachments (i.e. trailers and racks) to more people through inexpensive fabrication (utilizing a stock of 1,000 recovered bikes for parts).

Evaluation and Results

The bike lane was originally striped too narrow and then fixed a few days later. The new line to the left makes for a proper bike lane. The old lane was only 30 in wide, forcing cyclists too close to the gutter pan seam. The city engineer originally wanted to wait a year until the paint wore off to correct the problem but, under direction from city council, fixed the problem within days. MIST was effective at advocating for bicyclist safety.

One of the outcomes of this project has been the successful recovery of over 5,000 broken and unused bicycles from the community and region. 2,500 of these bicycles have been given away to those in need. The recipient of the free bike learns the skills to fix the bicycle at the community shop and learns the skills to ride the bicycle safely either at the shop or at a variety of workshops taught throughout the community. In addition, over 10,000 individuals have interacted with the community bicycle shop in the form of getting information, getting parts, or using tools. Efforts are made by shop personnel and volunteers to ensure that some element of safety is expressed to these shop participants. These efforts take the shape of:

Other outcomes of the project include a successful Festival of Cycles that has run continuously for eight years with average attendance of 1,000 people, approximately 1,000 bicycle checkouts from the bike library (Checkout Missoula program), and several successful bicycle facility improvement projects run by the umbrella organization, MIST. One particular project by MIST improved a bike lane that had been inadvertently narrowed to under three feet by the city of Missoula. The bike lane was restriped at a more proper five foot width within one week of the mistake due solely to the engagement of MIST with the Missoula City Council.

Finally, the original project goal of increasing bike trips by providing free green bikes to citizens was successful in that over 10,000 trips are estimated to have been taken by this method of transportation (primarily in the years 1996–2000). It is unknown how many of these trips replaced an auto trip, a walk trip, or another bike trip. However, there has also been substantial positive feedback from citizens on the effectiveness of the green bikes with respect to 1) providing a fun alternative to driving and 2) spawning a whole range of bicycle and transportation programs aimed at getting more people bicycling as a form of transportation. Further research would need to be conducted to obtain more detailed numbers on the overall effect of all Free Cycles and MIST programs on mode share and bicycle safety.

Conclusions and Recommendations

In hindsight, starting with a very simple, highly-visible community-based program with the willingness and intention to change, grow, and expand, has proved very effective. Recommendations for other communities include:


Costs and Funding

Free Cycles started with $2,500 in local business donations. The budget has grown approximately $1,000 a year, mainly through fundraisers, bike sales, fees for services (workshops and classes), and local private donations.


Robert N. Giordano
Executive Director
Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation
91 Campus Dr. #1412
Missoula, MT, 59801
(406) 880-6834