Ian Klepetar leads a life much like Johnny Appleseed. He bikes from city to city, starting up programs that encourage people to ride their bicycles. He has no permanent address, no profit motive, and he rarely checks in on what he starts.
His main goal: To make bicycle riding more respectable.
"It's sad, biking has really been looked down upon for the past 100 years," says Klepetar, 32. "People who use bikes for transportation are seen as [unable to] afford automobiles, and we want to present bicycles as a preferred mode of transportation rather than an inferior form of transportation."
The concept, called Bicycle Benefits, is pretty simple. Klepetar arrives in a new city, as he did in Madison two years ago, and asks businesses to become members.
These businesses buy Bicycle Benefits stickers from Klepetar at $2.50 each and sell them to customers for $5. Customers then place the stickers on their helmets and, upon showing the sticker, receive discounts at every participating business in the community. (This placement has the added benefit of encouraging people to wear bike helmets.)
Since first rolling into town in 2008, Klepetar has registered 97 diverse local businesses in Bicycle Benefits, all offering their own set of discounts. In all, more than 3,500 stickers have been distributed in Madison.
Need to do some shopping? Ride your bike to Whole Foods on University Avenue and get $5 off an order of $30 or more. Looking for a cheap beer after work? Show your sticker and get a $2 Miller High Life at Brocach Irish Pub on the Capitol Square. Haven't had your teeth cleaned in a while? Monroe Street Family Dental offers 10% off for preventive services to members.
Nick Stratman, the general manager of Ian's Pizza on State Street, says he was setting up outdoor seating one day in 2008 when Klepetar first rolled up on his bike to explain the program. Stratman was sold on it immediately and has bought at least 75 stickers to sell to customers at both this location and the Ian's on Frances Street.
"It just kind of fit in with everything else we're doing right now," says Stratman, who offers customers with stickers a dollar off their first slice of pizza. "We're trying to have more Earth awareness, getting plastic out of our restaurant, like a lot of people."
Community Pharmacy, a workers' cooperative on Gorham Street, has bought 108 stickers from Klepetar.
"We love to support people using bicycles to get around and shop with," says Doreen Kunert, an employee at the pharmacy. "It avoids congestion, especially downtown, and helps the environment. And we really just love bikes here."
Klepetar, originally from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., got involved in his hometown with bike-pedestrian issues several years ago after he saw a cyclist get hit by a car.
He and others wanted to do something to ditch their cars and ride bikes, so they modeled Bicycle Benefits on a similar program in Salt Lake City and brought it to upstate New York.
Since then, Klepetar has been riding his bike from city to city, starting the program in each place as best he can. He's well established in Madison, as well as in Seattle, Boston, Bozeman, Mont., and Burlington, Vt. Some cities and towns, like Milwaukee and Marshall, Wis., have just a couple of member businesses. The program has even gone international, with 16 registered businesses in British Columbia.
Avid bikers can take their helmet from city to city, show the sticker, and get the same kind of discounts in places like Salt Lake City and Albany, N.Y., as they do here in Madison.
"One of the cool things about the program is that it's relatively sustainable," Klepetar says. "All we have to do is make sure that businesses are stocked with stickers. Really, it's just a program that has been spreading by word of mouth."
It's a small operation. Klepetar's brother and sister helped start Bicycle Benefits programs in Burlington and Canada, respectively. He has a poster designer in Boston and a friend in Argentina who maintains the website, bicyclebenefits.com. Other than that, it's all Ian.
Klepetar thinks Bicycle Benefits could bring in a lot of money if it were truly run like a business. But that's never been his goal.
"Some people consider it a business, but I just consider it bicycle advocacy," Klepetar says. "My work is just to make cities more livable and more enjoyable. My success isn't about money, it's about when I hear somebody saying they biked for the first time in a few years and enjoyed it."
Art Ross, Madison's pedestrian-bicycle safety coordinator, praises the program, which seems congruent with Madison's goal of promoting bicycle use. Last week Mayor Dave Cieslewicz expressed his support for increasing the number of local trips done on bike to 20% by the year 2020.
After checking in on some programs in Madison in May, Klepetar headed back east hoping to spread his love of bikes to Buffalo, N.Y. But as he tried to cross into Canada on his way to Buffalo, he ran into some difficulty at the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit.
"They wouldn't let me bike over the bridge," he recounts. "There was no way of me getting across the border unless I hired a cab to personally drive me over, which I wasn't going to do."
That's where Klepetar is now, in Buffalo, where he plans to spend the next several months in a tent, while trying to spark interest in his program there.
He's pleased and amused that some people have compared him to Johnny Appleseed.
"I think Johnny Appleseed is a wonderful character, so I take that as a huge compliment," says Klepetar with a laugh. "I'm just so lucky to have found a tool that makes biking fun and encourages more people to do it."
For a list of Madison businesses that sell Bicycle Benefits stickers and offer discounts to those who have them, see bicyclebenefits.org.