May 3, 2023

Annual Program Randomly Rewards Those Who Choose to Ride Bikes Rather than Drive

THANK YOU FOR YOUR CYCLING: During last year’s Random Acts of Community initiative, a future cyclist and her dad were rewarded with a packet of gift cards from local businesses for using a bike instead of a car to get around town.

By Anne Levin

When the Whole Earth Center first began handing out $25 gift cards to randomly reward cyclists for riding their bikes instead of driving their cars, it was the sole Princeton business involved.

Fast forward 18 years, and 26 local stores, restaurants, and organizations have joined the effort. The 2023 Random Acts of Community program, an annual event that takes place in May to coincide with National Bike Month, is handing out a total of $2,250 in gift cards, in packets that now range from $55 to $65, to 30 cyclists.

“It has gotten so much bigger,” said Fran McManus, who handles marketing for the Whole Earth Center and has been part of the program since it began. “In 2007, Small World Coffee, the bent spoon, and Terra Momo joined us, and over the years, we just kept adding. At a PMA [Princeton Merchants Association] meeting, [former municipal administrator] Bob Bruschi said to me, ‘I know this is weird, but how about if I give you two $20 parking cards?’ I knew he was excited about it, and I knew the town was in.”

When the program began, McManus stood on a corner and stopped cyclists as they rode by. “That was not necessarily a good thing to do,” she said. “It got a little crazy. Now, I wander up and down, say, Witherspoon Street, hitting the bike racks. Or I’ll do the Farmers Market, opening day of the [Community] pool, and other iconic May events.”

Sometimes people she approaches are suspicious at first. “Generally, they’re amazed and they’re not sure what I’m doing. I’ve had people say, ‘What’s the catch?’ But there isn’t one. I explain that we are both thanking them and rewarding them.”

The origin of Random Acts of Community was a program that the Green Line Diner, which no longer exists, had in place. Instead of a loyalty card, the diner had a $20 coupon they would randomly hand out to people who happened to be in the right seat at the right time.

“I loved this idea of randomness,” McManus said. “Whole Earth picked up the ball in 2006, saying let’s reward people for cycling but maybe also encourage them to cycle when they wouldn’t normally do so. That’s still the thinking today. We’re encouraging people to come out, but also saying we appreciate that it takes more effort on a bike.”

After a few years, McManus started to put notes out on Twitter, revealing that she’d be out looking for cyclists to reward, and in which areas of town. “I’m amazed at how far people ride to come into town,” she said, “like 15 miles. And people like to tell you their stories once they’ve gotten over the surprise of being handed a packet of gift cards. I try to relay that back to the businesses.”

In addition to Whole Earth Center, Small World Coffee, the bent spoon, and Terra Momo Restaurant Group, this year’s list of participants includes Princeton Corkscrew Wine Shop (which also contributed printing costs), Hinkson’s, Homestead Princeton, Jammin’ Crepes, JaZams, JM Group, Kopp’s Cycle, Labyrinth Books, LiLLiPiES, Miya Table & Home, the Nassau Inn, Olives, Olsson’s Fine Foods, Orvana, Princeton Record Exchange, Princeton Tour Company, Princeton Soup & Sandwich Company, the Princeton Recreation Department, The Meeting House, Tico’s Eatery & Juice Bar, Tipple & Rose, and Triumph Brewing Company.

Each packet of gift cards also includes tips from the League of American Bicyclists. McManus tries to get to Princeton University students early in the month so they can use the cards before they leave for the summer break.

“It’s a little bit of trying to figure out how they are best used,” she said. “I always tell people that if there is a card they won’t be using, like passes to the pool, please reward it to someone else — preferably someone riding a bike.”