For four days this September, a bike-sharing program returns to the Twin Cities -- this time in a sleek modern form.

And hopes are that the program will continue on a permanent basis next spring, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said at a news conference today.

Humana, a Fortune 500 health insurer, is providing 1,000 bicycles to the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis for community use during the Republican National Convention, and then leaving 70 "legacy bikes" behind for the hoped-for long-term plan.

The Freewheelin program offers a high-tech twist on the Yellow Bike program that operated on the honor system in St. Paul in the 1990s. That initiative disappeared as the bikes -- none too hardy to begin with -- were lost to theft and disrepair.

To use a Freewheelin cycle, participants would register with credit cards to ensure that they don't make off with the bikes, which otherwise would be free to use. They then can go online, too, to track how many miles they've logged and calories they've burned.

Humana also is making 1,000 bicycles available to Denver during the Democratic National Convention, in turn giving Denver and the Twin Cities the opportunity to join Washington at the forefront of communal two-wheel initiatives.

At today's news conference in St. Paul's Rice Park, Rybak said that he was planning to meet with Humana representatives and others this afternoon to begin mapping out a plan to keep the project rolling. Said Rybak, "I'm happy to be obsessed with bikes."

St. Paul, too, would expect to be part of any permanent bike-sharing program, Anne Hunt, environmental policy director for Mayor Chris Coleman, said today.

Coleman recalled having enjoyed -- along with his wife -- the use of a community bike program in Europe, which has pioneered such initiatives.

Welcome opportunity

In Washington, SmartBike DC -- due to launch in about two weeks -- has been touted as the first program of its kind in the United States.

Jim Sebastian, the city's pedestrian and bicycle coordinator, said Wednesday that he had never in his years with the city seen the kind of interest being generated by the project -- "locally, nationally, internationally," he said.

The program is being run by Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings Inc., which handles the city's bus-shelter advertising and operates bike-sharing programs in Europe, too. For a $40 annual membership, users in the District of Columbia will have access to bikes stored at computerized racks across the city.

Since late August, Humana has been running a Freewheelin program for its employees at its headquarters in Louisville, Ky.

In the Twin Cities, plans call for 10 solar-powered kiosks to be installed this summer. Humana also is planning to donate the checkout kiosks to the cities, too.

Peggy Lynch, executive director of the Friends of the Parks and Trails of St. Paul and Ramsey County, and an organizer of St. Paul's Yellow Bike program, said that the Twin Cities, with its miles of trails, is an ideal locale for a Freewheelin initiative.

"It's a beautiful time of the year," as well, she said, referring to the convention Sept. 1-4, "a wonderful time to ride around the Twin Cities."

But Lynch wondered: "Are they giving out helmets, too?"

Yes, they are, said Mark Mathis, manager of corporate communications for Humana. Locks will also be incorporated into the bikes themselves, he added.
Lynch is hopeful, she added, that the audience is there to make the program permanent. Even with some of the "junk" that the Yellow Bike program had to make do with, Lynch said, "we heard a lot of positive feedback."

Anthony Lonetree • 651-298-1545