Alone, near the downtown bus plaza, stood a symbol of alternative transportation gone awry - a purple bicycle locked up in the bike rack.
A man behind the rack stared for a moment at the bike in chains, shook his head and walked away.
He thought he’d found one of Spokane’s new free rides from the Lilac Bicycle Program.
Fat chance he’d find another on Thursday. The 50 purple bikes dispersed for free public use two weeks ago have all but disappeared.
“A lot of them have been ‘acquired’ by people,” said Lilac Bicycle Program coordinator Gerald Schuldt.
At least four have been acquired by the banks of the Spokane River, their wrecked frames visible from the Monroe Street Bridge.
A handful in need of repair have been re-acquired by Schuldt and remain on his front porch. The rest, the bike enthusiast admits, may be locked in garages and living rooms.
But, he said, the success or failure of the transportation experiment depends on your perspective.
“You won’t find one,” Schuldt said. “That’s because they’re being used. If they weren’t being used you’d be able to find one.”
Using donated bikes, the program was intended to give people who don’t have cars or can’t afford the bus an alternative means of transportation.
The bicycles sport a friendly warning sticker reminding riders to be responsible, law-abiding and leave the bike for the next user.
More than 60 American cities including Missoula, Madison, Wis., and Boulder, Colo., offer folks free use of hundreds of bikes. Portland pioneered the concept two years ago, and that city’s “Yellow Bike” program now has more than 800 two-wheelers available.
Organizers of several of those programs said some of the bikes have disappeared, but people can still regularly find others.
Not so in Spokane, where people who look for the free two-wheelers usually come up empty-handed.
Jan Serr’s boyfriend mentioned the bikes to her last week. While down in Riverfront Park for Fourth of July activities, the pair thought they’d try a few out.
“We haven’t seen one,” she said. “We tried. But we didn’t find any.”
Maury Nollette, who works downtown, saw one Thursday morning. That was the first time since June 25.
“The first day I saw about 10 different people riding the bikes,” he said. “The idea is cool. But people are just going to take them and keep them.”
Although still hopeful, Schuldt agrees with Nollette. He’s working on changes so that keeping the bikes is not so appealing.
The next batch of bikes will probably require a deposit to ride. He also is looking to businesses to invest in some bicycle advertising and to adopt bikes.
“We need to find some way to make it self-supportive,” Schuldt said. “It’s still an experiment.”
He recently heard from a Valley woman who found one of the purple bikes in a janitorial locker room and wondered what to do with it. He offers the same advice to everyone:
“Just put it back on the sidewalk. Somebody will know what to do with it.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo