PRINCETON, N.J. — Bill Moran has about a 15-minute walk from his home to his job. Borrowing one of the city's free yellow bicycles could cut his commute in half.
The only problem is finding one.
"If I had to rely on the bike, I would be in trouble at this point," said Moran, 61, who has used the fleet of donated bikes left across the city only twice this year.
How scarce are they?
"It's kind of like seeing Elvis," admitted Sandra Brillhart, a program organizer.
Still, Princeton's free bike program is a relative success compared to other cities where similar programs have had to be modified or cut.
Since the mid-1990s, dozens of U.S. cities have taken a cue from Europe and set up free bike loan programs to encourage people to ride instead of drive. The idea has remained attractive as gas prices and pollution levels soar.
But in Charleston, S.C., most of the 22 bikes distributed on Christmas Eve 1996 were gone a week later. There have been similar tales in Gainesville, Fla., Boulder, Colo., and Spokane, Wash.
Communities like Austin, Texas; St. Paul, Minn.; and Davis, Calif., each had to rethink the way their borrow-a-bike programs work after being faced with stolen or vandalized bikes.
Organizers have had to decide whether to live with a short supply of bikes or design a system that eliminates some of the need for trust — using locks, deposits or membership clubs.
Princeton's program — which provides bikes in 10 designated locations across the city — has managed to accomplish at least one of its goals, organizers say.
"It definitely increased awareness of bicycling for local transit," said Brillhart, executive director of the Greater Mercer Transportation Management Association, which administers the program.
More than 200 bikes have been put on Princeton's streets in the last four years. Charles Kuhn, owner of Kopp's Cycles, the shop where the bikes are maintained, guessed that maybe half are still around town.
"The biggest problem with the program is the small percentage that will take the bike and leave it in somebody's front yard," said Kuhn, who once spotted a bicycle 15 miles away in Trenton.
There are exceptions, though. The bike known as "No. 8," distinguished by its rear baskets, is one of the few from the first generation that still ends up at Kopp's for repairs.
On a recent summer morning, six bikes were available at racks at three of the busier bike hubs. The bikes have been stripped to make them one-speed, and many are equipped with front baskets for shoppers.
The Community Cycling Center in Portland, Ore., the largest of the free bike programs in the United States, considers theft inevitable when you leave unlocked bikes around cities.
"We'd rather not have people lock them up in their garages or throw them into the river," said Jae Wise, communications director for the center. "But we don't have any control over that."