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Yellow Bikes in Black Rock City

The first thing you need to know about Yellow Bikes at Burning Man is that they're green. Yes green.

The Yellow Bike tradition was started ages ago before Burning Man was even hanging out on the beaches of San Francisco. Generically, a Yellow Bike is a bicycle that has been given to the public. The bikes are ususally painted yellow as a way to distinguish them as part of the program. Yellow Bike programs are generally meant to facilitate sustainability efforts in cities by providing convenient free transportation to the masses.

Burning Man's Yellow Bike program has been around for years. Hundreds of beach cruiser style rides are painted green and spread out all over the Playa. Anyone can grab an unoccupied Yellow Bike and take it to their destination of choice where a rider should leave the bike in an obvious place for the next pedestrian that fancies a wheeled stroll. The only other rule for the Yellow Bikes of Black Rock City is that you wear pants. No naked riding a Yellow Bike. Overall it is a great system and getting better all the time.

Unfortunately, while Yellow Bike programs subscribe to high ideals, the rest of the public usually falls somewhere below this. A good Yellow Bike program takes tons of resources to start, maintain, and promote effectively. Yellow Bikes are often commandeered by citizens and removed from public access over time. Most Yellow Bikes are created from inexpensive bicycles and quickly fall into disrepair. With no tracking system, the bikes cannot be easily retrieved, repaired, and returned to the road.

At Burning Man the Yellow Bike program has been far more successful than any others that I've encountered. It is my understanding that the Yellow Bike program has a large anonymous donor (rumored to be several different famous people) that can add more bikes every year, fund a team of people to find and repair the bikes throughout the week, and promote it effectively. The bikes start out the week in great shape. There are hundreds of them (someone told me there were 700 in 2011) and they seem to be everywhere. People pick them up at the bathrooms and drop them off at the Temple. Find one at Center Camp and leave it at the Man. The bikes are easy to find and reliable. It's no solution to bringing your own bike, but a well placed Yellow Bike is the perfect relief when you're hoofing it and really want to get somewhere in a hurry.

But the Yellow Bikes at Burning Man (which are painted green, don't forget) start out life as department store cheapies and are not designed with the punishing Playa in mind. By the end of the week, it is almost impossible to find a working Yellow Bike at Burning Man.

As Black Rock City's population has increased, the Yellow Bikes have suffered. Furthermore, Burners are increasingly taking advantage of the system. More and more Yellow Bikes are pulled out of the public system in the first days of the week. They can be easily disguised with spray paint, tape, or a variety of standard Burning Man decorations. Add a bicycle lock and you just got yourself cheap transportation for the week that you didn't have to cart out to the desert and you don't have to worry about humping out again. (Not cool.)

At least one bicycle camp used last year's Yellow Bikes for spare parts and left a pile of useless frames behind when they headed out. This is super not cool since the Yellow Bikes get fixed up and returned to the Playa every year (sustainability!). There is a logic to using a broken bicycle to repair a fixable bicycle. One working bike is better than two dead ones, right? Not exactly. Public Works does a pretty good job of picking up the carcasses throughout the week and some of these get fixed up and put back on the dust. But take a stroll on Monday morning after the Temple burn and you'll see a dusty landscape littered with dead Yellow Bikes.

Hammer And Cyclery and Re-Cycle, Inc share no official affiliations with Burning Man, Black Rock City, LLC.

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Yellow Bikes at Burning Man

Yellow Bikes unpacked and ready for the
week. (2012)

Inappropriately painted and removed
from public use. Discovered by Hammer
And Cyclery. (2012)

Yellow Bikes all used up. (2012)