Bike-lending library program proposed for Ottawa

Ottawa residents may soon be able to borrow bikes as easily as they borrow books from the Ottawa Public Library.

Charles Burke and Justin Hall are two graduate students at McMaster University who launched a bike-lending library program aimed at school children ages five to 15 years old, and they want to bring it to Ottawa.

Based in Hamilton, the Start the Cycle program allows library cardholders to sign out bikes, which come fully equipped with helmets, lights and other safety gear, for a short period of time.

It has already found considerable success at the McMaster campus library, and Burke is hoping the project’s first expansion will be to Ottawa. 

“Ottawa is such a great cycling city; there are a lot of bike paths and a lot of great places to ride,” he says. “It’s a progressive city when it comes to transit in general, especially active transportation, so it’s really a great fit for us as a potential early adopter of our program.”

According to Burke, they’ve chosen to focus on youth because “we want to create a culture of active transportation, and studies have shown that to develop a new generation of cyclists and to create a culture shift, you have to start at a young age.”

Burke and his team began the program because they wanted to make a practical impact in their own community. As avid cyclists and transportation planning professionals, that meant encouraging people to get around using active modes of transportation.

“We do a lot of work that ends up in journals and other academia but it’s rarely read by the general public and we really wanted to get away from that,” he says. “We wanted to ask simple questions that would go further in helping the community. One of the questions we asked ourselves was ‘how do we generate the next generation of cyclists?’ We can start by providing access, and libraries are uniquely situated in communities as potential hubs for that.”

Ottawa’s main library and Start the Cycle have touched base about the project already, but as of now, discussions have stalled.

“At this point, we are not partnering with them,” says Anna Basile, communications manager at the Ottawa Public Library. “They have sent us information and it is something we’ll look at in the future, but at this point it’s not something we can do.”

Valoree McKay, executive director of the Canadian Library Association says she supports the idea, although it is up to individual libraries to determine whether a program like this would work in their community.

“Reading and physical activity are both good for the brain and the body, so from that perspective, I think it’d be a great idea,” she says.

Start the Cycle partners with local maintenance companies to care for the bikes, so that librarians do as little work as possible. It uses charity drives and corporate sponsorship to acquire bikes at low costs. 

The team have hopes that one way or another; their bike lending library program will eventually make it to Ottawa.

“It is something that’s going to take some time for people to really come around on, the idea that you can borrow a bike just like you borrow a book. We are also talking to local councillors who sit on the library board and we hope to convince them this program is not resource-intensive and will add value to the community,” says Burke.