Seeking a way to encourage his own two boys to bicycle to school, software entrepreneur Rob Nagler three years ago created a system that would record the students’ every ride, and award them a series of prizes based on the number of two-wheeled school trips.
Today that system – now powered by an ingenious sensor technology known as the “Freikometer” – is going nationwide, with a sponsorship from the leading U.S. bicycle maker Trek. Now in use at schools in three states, the Freiker system (the name is short for “frequent biker”), will have TREK SUPPORT TK.
“My kids were complaining about riding their bikes to school,” recalls Nagler, the founder and CEO of Bivio software, in Boulder. “And we lived a whole half mile from the elementary.”
Preferring a carrot to a stick, Nagler decided “maybe there was a way to encourage them.”
Quickly spreading to the other kids at Crest View Elementary, his initial solution was decidedly low-tech: a punch-card like that of a coffee shop. Record a certain number of rides per week and you get a prize.
“Every Friday I’d show up with a big metro courier bag filled with prizes from China Import Trading Co.,” says Nagler. “The kids would get to pick out their price, and they’d get excited.”
Displaying the ingenuity of a high-tech businessman, Nagler quickly realized that punch cards were too cumbersome, and not totally fraud-proof. So Freiker moved to barcode-scanners, which themselves proved labor-intensive, and finally radio frequency identification tags, a wireless sensor technology known as RFID.
Nagler and partner Tim Carlin designed and installed a solar-powered rider–monitor called the Freikometer. Posted at the entrance to the school lot, it records each trip by a kid wearing a an RFID tag fastened to her/his helmet. Using a WiFi connection, the Freikometer sends the rider numbers over the school network and back to Freiker’s computers. Only one trip can be recorded for each helmet tag daily. Ride data is available on the organization’s Web site, and students can work toward designated prize levels.
The most sought-after award, naturally, is an iPod – awarded to any student who rides to school 90% of the time over an entire school year.
“I sort of dangled the i-word in front of the kids,” Nagler laughs. “It’s a big motivator.”
There are now three elementaries in Boulder using the Freiker system, including Horizons charter school, which is kindergarten through 8th grade. (“Middle schools are tough,” notes Nagler, “the kids have too much attitude.”) The program has also expanded to schools in the bike-friendly towns of Eugene, Oregon and Madison, Wisconsin.
Nagler has put about $50,000 of his own money, not including his time, into Freiker. The support of a major cycle-maker will help schools raise the funds needed for the Freikometer and the prizes. At the end of 2007, having grown to the point where it needed more than a volunteer staff, the organization hired Boulder lawyer Zach Noffsinger as executive director.
A father and an avid cyclist himself, Noffsinger needed little convincing. “Once you have your own child it has an effect on you,” he says. “You start thinking about the world you want your kids to grow up in.”
Started as a way to get a few schoolkids on their bikes, Freiker, along with other less high-tech ride-to-school programs around the West, has become a social movement.
“We can help combat several big problems at once,” asserts Noffsinger. “If you think about childhood obesity, air pollution, climate change – Freiker can have a big effect on all of that.”