Over the past few years, bike share programs have sprung up in cities across the country.
Now, Howard County’s Department of Planning and Zoning and the Columbia Association want to know whether a bike share could flourish in a suburban community like Columbia.
Thursday night, representatives from both organizations, as well as consultants hired to study the idea, met with about a dozen interested residents to get community feedback on the idea.
The feasibility study is one of several happening across the state, in cities such as Greenbelt and Frederick, according to DPZ planning specialist David Cookson. The Maryland Department of Transportation has provided a $40,000 grant for the study, and CA and the county are providing additional funds of $5,000 each.
The study is slated to be finished by July, and if a bike share program is found to be feasible, a second phase studying operating models and financial projections would be complete in September, according to DPZ officials. Residents can learn more about the program and provide their thoughts on a possible program at howardcountybikeshare.com.
Most bike shares, Cookson said, are “operating now in much larger cities,” such as Washington, D.C., New York and San Francisco. “This is a great possibility to look at this type of system in our community, and take the results and disperse them to other communities.”
Bike share programs can work in a variety of ways, but at their core, they provide automated, self-service bike rentals to the public for a small daily, weekly, monthly or annual fee.
Bikes are stored at outdoor docks, and can be released to a rider after they enter credit or debit card information, or swipe a membership card at a computer kiosk.
Bike share advocates cite a number of benefits to the program, including increased accessibility, improved physical fitness for bike riders and the environmental bonus of encouraging a mode of transportation that does not release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
“The more people on bikes, the less people on cars,” explained Mauricio Hernandez, a consultant with Toole Design Group, which is conducting a bike share feasibility study for Howard County.
In Columbia, Hernandez said, a bike share program could complement downtown development. Office workers might want to take a bike to grab lunch at the mall, he said, or Howard Community College students might use a bike share to travel to and from school, particularly once a trail connecting the HCC campus to the rest of Columbia is complete.
A suburban bike share program, however, might look different from the urban programs that currently exist.
While an urban model focused on short bike trips between docks placed about every quarter of a mile might do well in downtown Columbia, other parts of the county would likely not have the demand to support such a system, he said.
“There are many types of uses on bike share that happen in denser jurisdictions that are not going to happen in Howard County, and if we have bike share it’s going to look very different than it would in Washington, D.C., or even in Arlington County,” Toole Design Group President Jennifer Toole said.
Instead, she suggested, Howard County could consider placing bike share docks at trail heads, to save families the hassle of lugging multiple bikes to the park for a weekend ride.
Where most bike share programs make short trips of 30 minutes or less free to users, the county could follow the lead of a program in Chattanooga, Tenn., which has an hour-long free period to promote their “goal of getting people outside,” Hernandez added.
At the meeting, some residents raised questions about the safety of biking in suburban areas, and wondered whether Howard County residents – many of whom, they guessed, likely own bikes – would actually use a bike share program.
“We actually get that question every single place we go to,” Hernandez said, adding that bike shares are good “for short, little trips.
“Once Columbia continues its redevelopment, I think a lot of people would like to bike around downtown Columbia,” he added.
Oakland Mills resident Heidi Knott, who attended the meeting, said she liked the convenience factor a bike share program would offer.
“The thought of being able to walk to the village center, pick up a bike, ride over the pedestrian bridge and go to the mall – that’s kind of neat, because I hate going to the mall because of parking,” she said. “And I [wouldn’t] have to worry about locking up my own bike.”
Chris Tsien, a board member of the Bicycling Advocates of Howard County, envisioned bike docks placed along two axes in Columbia – one running from Centennial Park through Wilde Lake, downtown and on to Blandair Park or Lake Elkhorn, and another connecting the community college, hospital and downtown.
But, he said, “it’s not going to be the D.C. system.
“I think what’s feasible is a recreationally oriented system,” Tsien said, “but it’s not going to take the place of other transport.
“It’s like any other transportation system,” he added. “What do we want to accomplish?”