Cycling already has a foothold at many colleges, where hefty parking fees, sprawling campuses and limited roads make it tough to travel. Still, most students are reluctant to leave their cars parked.
"They're using them to drive from residence halls to class, which is a two- or three-block commute," said Ric Damm, an administrator and cycling coach at Ripon College, which is giving away $300 bikes to freshmen who leave their cars at home. "We thought, 'How can we provide an incentive to get them out of that behavior?"'
Damm's school, outside Oshkosh, Wis., has spent $26,000 on its free bike program, which so far has signed up half of the 300-student freshman class, Damm said.
"I think a big draw is the just the environmental aspect," said freshman Regina Nelson, who readily signed up for a free bike. "And, honestly, I think that anything free when you're in college is good, especially something like a bike that is worth something."
Emory started a bike-share program a couple of months ago. It has just 20 bikes now, but that will double by this fall, said Jamie Smith, who oversees the initiative. The sign-out lists for the bikes had just 12 names on them after the program started in April, but that number climbed to 45 in June during the typically slow summer, Smith said.
At Duke University in Durham, N.C., the bike-share program started last year had to start a waiting list because all 100 bikes were checked out within just a few weeks. Now the school spends $24,000 each year on the program, and most of its bikes are checked out every day, said Watts Magnum, who runs the program.
Students say they like the convenience of having a bike whenever they need it.
"I've had two bikes stolen, so I stopped buying bikes because they kept stealing them," said Andre Loyd, a graduate student in Duke's biomedical engineering program, as he checked out a bike recently.
Northern Illinois University and Illinois State University have also both started free bike-share programs, painting the bikes bright colors and handing a lock and helmet to every customer. Illinois State revamps abandoned bikes instead of shelling out the money for new bikes.
Some colleges are looking for ways to appeal to reluctant cyclists.
The University of Washington has bought 40 electric bicycles for a bike-share program set to launch in January. Anyone with a university ID can borrow one of the bikes, which give an extra boost to cyclers who may be concerned about tackling Seattle's steep hills.
The university received a $200,000 grant from the state Department of Transportation for the pilot program, and the school said it hopes to add to the 5,000 cyclists who roam the campus each day.
Washington is among dozens of higher-ed institutions that have signed the Presidents Climate Commitment, which promises they will work to make their campuses carbon-neutral. The bike programs are a natural fit for that goal, administrators said.
Back at Emory, employee Casey Brinsfield checks out bikes each week to attend meetings across campus from her office. On a recent afternoon, she and her co-worker, David Knight, donned their helmets and headed down a hill toward the main part of Emory's campus.
"It's easier than getting a car out and finding parking," Brinsfield said before the duo rode away. "It's definitely less pollution and it's safer for pedestrians."