Little free libraries present a chance to share awareness of transportation options
Educating people about transportation options – even in a place like Arlington, Va., where there is an abundance – is a never-ending quest.
Something I’ve learned through my time at Mobility Lab is that its local partners never stop trying to think of new, creative ideas to connect with people where they are. One example is a project with BikeArlington director Henry Dunbar: to experiment with distributing bicycling education books throughout the county at “little free libraries.”
The goal was to educate residents and support a community biking culture through these books. Along the way, I was to gauge Arlington’s interest in biking and commuting and see if interest in the books connected to the geography or the type of establishment (school, church, house, etc.) at which it was located.
I distributed Bikenomics, Surviving the Crash: Your Legal Rights in a Bicycle Accident, Bike There, and Everyday Bicycling to 18 little free libraries scattered across Arlington. Checking up on them over the past three months, I replenished them as needed.
Bike There and Everyday Bicycling focus on bike commuting. They elaborate on bicycle interactions with traffic and provide tips to move effectively and safely. Surviving the Crash looks at the legal side of bike crashes, covering the surrounding culture and related safety topics. Bikenomics focuses on transportation costs, monetary and otherwise, and how cycling fits in to the picture. All these books together provide a thorough overview of bicycle commuting and what it entails.
Little libraries that received bike books. Expand the menu on the left to see the legend.
In the end, this little experiment showed that Arlington’s interest in reading about bicycling is not necessarily correlated to geography (Figure 1) or type of establishment.
Either way, we do know that a total of 26 Everyday Bicycling, nine Bikenomics, 28 Bike There, and 16 Surviving the Crash books were taken. Assuming a different person took each one, 79 people now know more about bicycle commuting and safety than they did in 2016. Maybe they’ll even be inspired to start bicycle commuting or discuss it with a neighbor as a result.
Here are some other interesting things I noticed as I meandered through Arlington on a cargo bike, checking up on the libraries.
People were amazed by the cargo bike I borrowed from BikeArlington to distribute the books – they often threw glances or did a double-take. Some were amazed by the fact that I was going as fast as a car at times with the electric assist feature. Two people in a U-Haul chatted with me at a stop light, asking me how I kept up with them uphill on such a big bike. Interestingly, drivers frequently gave me much more passing space when I was on the cargo bike as opposed to my normal bike.
Some little free libraries seemed untouched, as though people visited them to deposit their old books and never took any, or just flat-out never came by. I wonder then whether this is an issue of awareness of free libraries in general, or those specific ones. How do you publicize a neighborhood free library?
Arlington is well-known for its excellent network of biking and walking trails, but as I noticed on my journeys, there weren’t any little free libraries readily accessible from them. There were some close by, but always just out of reach: across a parking lot, over a wall, down a couple of streets. All just out of the way enough to ensure that no trail riders would notice.
One personal recommendation would be to install additional free libraries along trails, at a bench or pavilion or such, and fill it with bike- and pedestrian-themed books. This could further educate the individuals who already bike and walk – including recreational bicyclists and walkers – so that they might one day do so for transportation, too.
Photo: A free library in Ashton Heights neighborhood of Arlington (hewy, Flickr, Creative Commons).