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bikes in Berlin

Free Flow bike service aims to create a better biking community on campus

free flow cofounders

John Gustafson and Robert Babich are the co-founders of Free Flow.

Inspired by their study abroad experiences, two Northwestern students co-founded a long-term bike rental program in Evanston.

While studying abroad in Berlin, Northwestern students Robert Babich and John Gustafson encountered one major issue, time and time again: how to get around in the most efficient and affordable way.

The two students spent the summer of 2017 participating in a customized study abroad program at Humboldt University through Northwestern’s Undergraduate Learning Abroad office. The program, called Berlin: Global City in the Center of Europe, allowed Babich and Gustafson to explore the city through language, history and culture classes, organized trips, and excursions at their own will. They wanted to spend every minute enjoying the adventure, not slogging through time-consuming public transportation. Though the city provides direct bus lines, Gustafson found that he could cut his 45-minute class commute to a mere 15 minutes with one simple solution—a bike.

“Berlin is a very bikeable city—pretty much all the bikes use the roads or designated bike lanes. When bikes are in the roads, every motorist or car driver knows to look out for them. It’s a very common thing; it’s a very easy way to get around the city,” said Babich, a School of Communication junior.

Bike culture is strong and thriving in Berlin, but its day-to-day and short-term bike rentals, targeted to tourists at 8 to 12 Euros (approximately $10 to 12) per day, were too costly for a student budget. Gustafson bought his own and never looked back.

When Gustafson and Babich returned to Evanston, they brought their study abroad insights with them—their newfound global perspectives and life skills, and their desire to improve the student biking experience. The two banded together and co-founded Free Flow, a long-term bike rental program that matches local bike shops’ bicycles with students and community members who want to rent. Their mission is to provide an effective and affordable service on campus for students so they can get the rentals they need without the commitment, liability, and cost of owning a bike.

Through the program, bikes may be more accessible to Pell-eligible and other low-income students and to international students or fellows who only spend a few months in Evanston at a time.

After studying abroad in Berlin, Babich and Gustafson understand what it’s like to not have a lot of money to spend overseas.

“The bike solutions [in Berlin] were that you either bought a bike or you rented day-to-day for a high upfront, so it was easy for us to come up with a business model to take back to Northwestern,” said Gustafson, a Weinberg sophomore.

“If you have a bike, you’re able to get around a lot quicker if you don’t have a car and you don’t want to Uber everywhere or take a bus,” Gustafson said. “You have freedom of travel. It kind of widens your range of where you can explore.”

Bringing Free Flow to Northwestern

It was about halfway through the Berlin program that Babich realized the potential of a long-term bike rental program for college students. After doing some research, Babich and Gustafson discovered the concept of bicycle libraries, usually run by nonprofit organizations that house bikes in warehouses and rent bikes to people for a period of time. The Free Flow co-founders first tried implementing a bicycle library on campus.

This past fall quarter, they rented 20 bikes to 20 students at Northwestern, Loyola University and DePaul University. However, after trying to run the program on their own, they realized a bicycle library didn’t seem like the most profitable or useful option. With the bike library format, the program was dependent on volunteers to maintain and rent out the bikes. A bike library also would not be more convenient than something like Divvy or another existing stationless bike share.

After this attempt, the Free Flow team decided to partner with local bike shops, who already have access to a large number of bikes and staff to maintain them, and established an online marketplace to connect bike shops to potential renters.

“With a lot of bike rental programs like Divvy, you can spot a Divvy bike from afar,” Gustafson said. “It’s blue and they all look the exact same. But with our bike rental program and using bike shops, each bike is different from one another. It’s not like a walking billboard—it just looks like you have your own bike.”

Working with local bike shops is a win-win for both the student renter and the bike shop. For bike shops, Free Flow brings in customers and gets their bikes around town. For students, renting provides convenient travel at a lower cost. Babich and Gustafson are also working on a deal with bike shops where the rental fee is applied to the cost of purchase of the bike.

Free Flow employs new technology initiatives, such as smart locks, to reduce bike burglaries and make the biking community a safer place. Smart locks are built onto the bike frame and are sturdy and hard to steal. Free Flow’s periodic collection of anonymized location data serves as a way to track bikes when they’re immobile and keep police informed on stolen bikes in the area, making campus safer for all bikes by decreasing easy targets for theft.

“If you have location data, you can update police whenever the bike is actually stolen so that it can then be recovered,” Babich said. “If the bike hasn’t moved in a week, we can send push notifications to whoever rented the bike [to move it periodically]. Statistically, if it’s in the same spot for more than this many days, the risk of theft goes up.”

With Free Flow, Babich and Gustafson hope to create a frictionless system that promotes sustainability and exploration.

“Free Flow is a better way to get introduced to biking,” Babich said. “But anything that gets people around easier is in line with our mission and we support that 100 percent.”

Keep up with Free Flow on Twitter and Instagram @freeflowbike or online at freeflow.bike.