Instead of hopping into the car for those short trips to the mall, the park or classes, residents are being asked by county government and the Columbia Association to consider an alternative that could benefit not only the user but the environment: bicycle sharing.
Last week, the CA and the county announced a partnership for a Bike Share Feasibility Study and are seeking input not only on the idea but also where it might be the most effective.
"This is an opportunity to use existing infrastructure, improve our community's health and expand our transportation options," said Jane Dembner, director of community building and open space for the Columbia Association who frequently bikes to work. "It's what we should be doing."
Organizers have set up a survey to gather opinion at howardcountybikeshare.com and will host a public meeting on the topic May 1.
A bike share program would involve establishing stations around the county, with six to 20 bicycles at each station available for public use. Users could walk, ride or drive to the closest station, use a bike to get to their destination, then drop it off at another station or return it to the original spot.
"The idea behind bike share is that it operates in the same way as a transit system," said David Cookson, a planner with Howard County's Department of Planning and Zoning who is leading the study. "You get a bike, go where you want to go and return it to the station near the location."
Such systems have been a success in cities including Washington, Boston and Miami, he said.
Users of bike share programs typically become members, either for the day, month or year. Under some systems, the first 30 minutes of a ride are free, with a sliding scale for the minutes following, according to Cookson.
"The idea is not for people to use the bikes all day — the local bike shop can provide that," Cookson said. "More half-an-hour, from one place to another."
Dembner, who worked with an urban design firm before becoming the association's community planner in 2010, said Howard Community College has already expressed interest in a bike share program. With parking always an issue, students could park and then take a bike — rather than lose their parking spot — to grab some food or take a short trip into town.
"For many people, the first step is getting back on a bicycle. A certain percentage of smaller trips can be made by walking or biking," said Dembner, who has lived in Columbia for more than a dozen years. "I love the idea."
In announcing the study, County Executive Ken Ulman said in a news release he's anxious to get feedback from residents about bike sharing — and about where it might make the most sense.
"It is our aim to improve the transportation choices available in the county," he said, "and we believe that our residents are the true experts on which areas could benefit most from bike share."
At howardcountybikeshare.com, residents can learn about the project and make suggestions on an interactive map about where bike stations could be located. As of Thursday, the map included dozens of site locations, including county parks, the Columbia Association gym, Wilde Lake Village Center, Symphony Woods and Howard County General Hospital.
The site also includes a place for people to leave feedback on their bicycling practices and opinions about bike sharing.
Suggestions are also needed on how to finance the program for buying and maintaining the bicycles and setting up the stations. Officials said the website will be up through mid-September.
The May 1 public meeting will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Owen Brown Community Center, 6800 Cradlerock Way in Columbia, and will include a formal presentation on the study and time for residents to make comments. More information can be found at the website.
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Luke Lavoie contributed to this article.