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BW Bike Issue: Rent-a-Bike

Proposed program could make quick trips downtown easier

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When Steve Burns stepped in front of the crowd at Ignite Boise 7 in October 2011, he presented an idea for a citywide initiative like the Foothills Preservation Levy to pave the gaps in the local bike path system into a more cohesive network.

"The nice thing about Ignite Boise is you can present ideas and get a reaction, and if everybody is booing you off the stage, find out it's a bad idea," Burns said. "But it seemed to get a pretty positive reaction."

The crowd that evening applauded loudly as Burns finished his presentation. It was clear from the whistles and hollers throughout that the audience--nearly 700 strong--was anxious for something that would strengthen Boise's bike infrastructure.

"If we want to have a nice, safe way to travel around town, this is a way to make that happen," said Burns.

But he won't be spearheading the effort. He works at Zoo Boise and his job doesn't afford him the time necessary to run a grassroots campaign. But studies show that his proposed initiative could mean big changes. A Rutgers University study found that beefing up bike infrastructure precipitates increased bike usage, something lacking in some areas of the Treasure Valley.

"Compared to some places, we have quite a bit of bike infrastructure," said Dr. Susan Mason with Boise State. "We do have a critical mass of bike users in all varieties, from recreational to transportation. I think the enthusiasm as well as the infrastructure feed each other."

Now a group of downtown-minded groups are working on another key component of a more cohesive alternative transportation structure: availability of bikes. For that, they may turn to a company like B-Cycle, which sells a system that allows people to rent a bike for a quick ride across town.

"The way we envision this system the first 30 minutes would be free," said Central District Health Department spokesman Dave Fotsch. "Valley Ride has been very interested in working with us because they see it as a transit extension."

Business owners see it as more than just a means of transit. It could mean increased foot traffic to their businesses during the busy lunch hour.  

"If my preferred target customer group is people who are employed downtown, you could actually check out a bike, run down to Ann Morrison Park, have your lunch there and run back," said Thomas Wuerzer.

Wuerzer is a researcher with the newly minted Department of Community and Regional Planning at Boise State, of which Mason is the director. That department compiled a study of downtown Boise to gauge the best spots for potential bike-share stations. They believe bikes could become part of the larger transit system.

"I see bike share as, A: a great contribution to health, and also B: as a great opportunity to connect these modes of transportation in a very convenient way," Wuerzer said.

According to the study--the latest project of the department, which now features a master's program--full utilization should budget 10 stations with 140 bikes.

"We want to start in downtown Boise," said Fotsch. "Primarily, that's because it has the occupational and residential density to support that. They identified potential areas of expansion for the system. A high contender would be to put a station up at Hyde Park."

From that starting point, the system could expand based on need and future funding. For now, the project's stakeholders are waiting on a grant that could potentially fund the entire $600,000-plus project. They hope to find out if they receive the grant sometime in May.

"We recently held a meeting with our core group of stakeholders. We told them we want to line up two years' worth of funding to run the system before we actually launch it," said Fotsch.

They have already netted some committed funding from the Capital City Development Corporation and the Boise State Parking and Transportation Department to match a required percentage of the possible grant.

"Our next step is to launch a nonprofit and to try to go out to get some dollars for that," said Fotsch.

With more people on bikes, a quick trip across downtown could become feasible for a lunch break or a deadline. It could also be a boon to tourism, a fact not lost on the Downtown Boise Association.

"I think any time you can provide options for folks to get around, especially somebody who's visiting--we're a bike-friendly city, it makes sense to offer some bicycles," said Karen Sander, DBA executive director.

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