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Pedaling into the future: Boise Bicycle Share Program

Cars are quick and convenient. Cars are also expensive. The costs associated with driving a car go beyond the price of gas and insurance. There are also costs to the environment and personal health. In today’s fast-paced culture it can be hard to find time to get exercise. It’s easier to use a car instead of a bike or your feet. While quick errands are often made quicker through the convenience of a car, saving time can have negative effects.

According to Central District Health Department (CDHD), around 80 percent of all errands are performed within three miles of home or work, with 60 percent conducted within one mile. CDHD also claims that cars are less efficient and create more pollution per mile during shorter trips as opposed to longer ones. The speed and convenience of cars can be a problem in relation to increasing obesity rates as well. Adults are supposed to get at least 30 minutes of exercise each day, but they’re not. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Idaho’s obesity rates have roughly doubled in the last twenty years, rising from 10 to14 percent in 1990 to between 25 and 29 percent in 2010. These are problems that Central District Health seeks solutions to.  And they’ve found one in a thing called bicycle share.  “It’s the wave of the future,” CDHD spokesperson Dave Fotsch said.

Bicycle share programs have been popping up in metropolitan areas all over the country in the last few years. San Francisco, Boulder, Denver, Madison, Miami, Buffalo and Washington D.C. are among them. New York City and Seattle both have plans in the works. These programs operate similarly to Zip Car, in which cars are available at certain locations for short-term use and a pay scale is devised based on how much time the vehicle is utilized. Bicycle share programs provide similar fast access to transportation, but add the benefits of zero carbon emissions and exercise for the user. They are cheap, efficient, healthy and environmentally friendly. This is why Boise, due to its size and population, is prime for establishing a bike share program of its own. And members of the Boise State community have been active in getting it started.

In the beginning

Fotsch first pushed the idea a couple years ago. “It was an idea that I pitched to my director… because I started seeing a bunch of stories about these things in the news,” he said. It seemed like a good idea to him because “it achieves some of the things,” Fotsch explained, “that we are trying to accomplish in the community.” He described cycling as “a form of active transportation… instead of getting in a car, people are getting on a bike and they’re moving.” In addition to exercise, he included improving air quality and reducing traffic congestion downtown as parts of CDHD’s strategic plan to make “that part of the city more livable.” He explained how studies have shown that a variety of transportation options corresponds to a city’s livability.

After pitching the idea to his director, Fotsch was given the opportunity to work with CDHD’s grant writer, Hilary Flint Wagner. Together, they began meeting with potential stakeholders, “trying to gauge the interest of these different groups in getting involved in this,” Fotsch said. This is how their partnership with Boise State University’s Parking and Transportation Department began.

And then there was Boise State

“Central District Health came to us because they had zero bike shop experience,” JC Porter said. “They didn’t know how much it would cost to keep a bike up and going… so we were helping them walk through that… that’s how we got started on the process.”

JC Porter, as assistant director of Parking and Transportation services, oversees the campus Cycle Learning Center. He takes bicycle transportation seriously.  “I try to ride my bike every day,” he said. “Last year I did better, there was only like three days that I didn’t ride the whole year.  This year, with the snow and ice, there was like two weeks that I couldn’t ride, so I was pretty bummed.”

Beyond being an advocate for bicycle transportation, Porter says the bike share program is “a good thing for Boise State… It’s just about transportation options, giving people access to campus and off-campus.”

The Boise State campus was recognized early on as a priority area for the program, thus, CDHD asked Boise State’s Department of Regional and Community Planning to develop a service area map. According to CDHD’s business plan, graduate students and faculty in the department used data provided by Southwest Idaho’s Community Planning Association (COMPASS), Ada County Highway District (ACHD) and the City of Boise to create a “heat map.” The information utilized included, “residential and employment densities, transit routes, bike lanes and paths, and attractions, such as libraries, restaurants, sports arenas, shops and the Boise State campus itself.”

The heat map is “a guide to where the researchers believe it makes the most sense to locate bike stations. Those areas in red hold the most promise, with the areas of cooler colors holding the least.” The study found the bulk of the downtown area and Boise State campus to be “the best locations for bike share,” according to Fotsch.  As a result of this study, CDHD found it best to launch with 14 bike stations and 140 bikes. According to a BBSP business plan, the cost for these stations and bikes are estimated at $650,000.

 In search of federal funding

The business plan for the Boise Bicycle Share Program (BBSP) was drafted last year as planners applied for Federal grant money. They were denied any funding last year, but have had much more luck this year. The COMPASS board, which is made up of various agencies throughout the treasure valley, recommends how to distribute Federal funds allocated to the State of Idaho for development projects. CDHD had the opportunity, according to Fotsch, to apply this year through two different programs, the Transportation Alternatives Program and the Surface Transportation Program. BBSP was chosen to receive $287,000 this fiscal year and $53,000 next fiscal year through the Transportation Alternatives Program. Furthermore, Fotsch said that BBSP was “also recommended under the Surface Transportation Program for the remainder of the money, $326,000, at some point in the future, no later than 2018.”

This might sound discouraging for those who want to see the program implemented much sooner, but Fotsch explained how, “there sometimes are programs and projects that don’t get completed or don’t ever get started, so at the end of each fiscal year, there are leftover funds.” BBSP is number one on the list of programs recommended for funding through the Surface Transportation Program, which means they have a good shot at applying for and acquiring year-end funding.  Another advantage is that they are only hoping for a little over $300,000, whereas other recommended programs are asking for funds ranging from $595,000 to $9,486,000.

“Because this is a relatively small project,” Fotsch explained, “asking for $326,000 as opposed to a nine-and-a-half million dollar road project for ACHD, our chances of getting year-end funding this year or the next… are extremely good.” CDHD, Boise State University Parking and Transportation Services and the City of Boise have also already committed to funding the project, pledging $44,000, $10,000 and $64,000, respectively.

 Beyond funding issues

BBSP still has a lot of other kinks to settle besides funding, but acquiring the funding was an important first step.

“We don’t want to sell a product we don’t have,” Porter said. As of now, BBSP’s steering committee–made up of representatives from Boise State Parking and Transportation, City of Boise, Boise Parks Department, Capital City Development, Boise Bicycle Project and Valley Regional Transit—has sent out a request for qualifications. Fotsch explained that, while they want BBSP to be a non-profit organization, they are hoping to contract the daily operations to an entrepreneurial entity, possibly an advertising agency.

Fotsch explains their organizational goals as such, “Once we get the money, the assets will actually belong to Valley Regional Transit… for insurance purposes… The reason we chose this dual identity is that a non-profit can apply for some grants that a transportation agency like [VRT] cannot and vice-versa. Plus, VRT has experience administering Federal grants… The third layer… is that we are looking for a private company to actually operate the system.”

An advertising company would be ideal because advertising revenues are likely to be the best source of revenue for the program. Advertising can be placed on the bicycles and at the stations. Both Porter and Fotsch stated that, based on statistics from other bike share programs around the country, revenue from usage of the program is likely to cover only about a third of operating costs.

The private company would handle the selling of advertising, sponsorships, and memberships, as well as the basic, daily, operational costs and tasks necessary to keep the system going. These tasks would include maintenance of kiosks, stations and the bicycles themselves, as well as rotating bikes from over-crowded stations to less crowded ones. The request for qualifications, according to Porter, will hopefully attract groups who will respond with business proposals and then BBSP’s steering committee can choose what fits the best with the program’s goals. The goal, according to Porter, is to have a self-supported system that can eventually grow into other areas of the treasure valley.

The future is bright

If everything goes well, BBSP could launch as early as next spring, according to Fotsch. But there’s no telling what will happen after that. Other cities with similar programs haven’t gathered much information on the best ways to organize and implement a system, according to Fotsch.

Besides, most cities that have implemented similar systems are much bigger than Boise, so, as Porter stated, “One model doesn’t necessarily work across all the different areas.” One of BBSP’s hopes is to compile aggregate statistics collected by GPS tracking systems on the bikes to make a kind of “manual” to help other cities develop their own programs. But those involved in planning still have a long way ahead of them. Porter said. “There’s lots of options and we’re trying to exhaust all the options to get a program up and running in Boise as soon as possible.”

Whatever occurs, it’s clear that in a city like Boise where, arguably, there are not enough transportation options, this is a step (or pedal) in the right direction.