Point A to Point B

How Boise State is driving the City of Boise away from cars and toward bikes

| May 08, 2013
Brian Ohlen, Coordinator of the Boise State Cycle Learning Center rolls out of one of the university's so-called "bike barns."
- Patrick Sweeney
Brian Ohlen, Coordinator of the Boise State Cycle Learning Center rolls out of one of the university's so-called "bike barns."
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Some talk the talk, others walk the walk, J.C. Porter rides the ride.

"I'm a transportation access provider," said Porter, who, as Boise State's assistant director of Transportation and Parking Services, helps oversee one of Idaho's largest parking systems--more than 7,000 spaces for motorized vehicles. "But our supply is low and demand is high."

And while a steady stream of commuters walked into Porter's transportation center to obtain a new parking permit or dispute a citation, just a few feet away stood Porter's chief source of transportation: his bicycle.

"My wife and I have three kids, ages 2, 5 and 11, and I'm happy to say we're a one-car family," he said with a big smile. "We have quite a few people in this department bike."

Porter and his colleagues know the financial constraints of parking on campus as well as anyone: A Boise State parking permit would set them back $174 per academic year. A parking permit for the campus' Lincoln Garage (attached to their offices) costs $377.

"No, I don't buy a permit," said Porter. "I did the math: By owning a second car, it would cost my family $9,000-$10,000 a year. The people who come into our office routinely say, 'parking costs so much.' They're right. I work in parking and I oversee permits but I don't buy one."

Each morning, Porter straps on his backpack and negotiates his six-mile bicycle commute from southeast Boise.

"Right now, there are about 23,000 students; add to that about 2,500 faculty and staff. What we're learning is that about 20 percent of our people are currently commuting by bike. I must admit, I was pretty surprised by that number," said Porter. To have nearly 5,000 cyclists is pretty impressive. And that number is only going to go up."

Five years ago, Boise State polled its population to ask how many owned a bike.

"It was about 70 percent. But then we asked if their bike was in working order and nearly half said 'no.' Most said it would take about $20 to get their bike in working condition; you know, something like a flat tire or a brake that needed to be fixed," said Porter.

Which is when the Boise State Cycle Learning Center came into the picture. The cycle center is a short walk to the Boise State Recreation Center and directly across the street from the student union.

"The model we're using for the CLC isn't really found anywhere else in the United States," said Porter, whose job includes overseeing the center. "A lot of similar facilities are student-run at most universities around the country. But we thought that it needed to have the consistency of full-time staff to keep it moving forward."

And while the cycle center's roster includes as many as 10 student employees, it's supervised full-time by a Boise State Transportation and Parking Services employee. More importantly, Porter said, is that the center is on a path to be a self-sustaining financial success.

"To get it off the ground, the center was funded through a partnership of the University Health and Recreation Services and the Transportation and Parking Services," he said. "Our plan was for it to be self-sustaining within five years, and it looks like that will happen sooner--probably three years. So, hopefully, that will happen sometime next year."

Inside the CLC, supervisor Brian Ohlen oversaw a busy afternoon shift of mechanics--each in front of a suspended bicycle--similar to a densely packed auto repair garage.

"In September and October, we were doing up to 500 tube changes in a month," he said.

A tube change costs $9 at the CLC: $4 for the labor, $5 for a new tube. A basic bike tune-up has a price tag of $40. A more "complete" tune-up--which includes a thorough cleaning of the drivetrain and a fresh pack of grease--costs $65.

"We even offer maintenance classes where we cover just about everything for one hour a week for five weeks," said Ohlen. "And those are free."

One of the mechanics, Clayton Wangbichler, has been working at the CLC since its doors first opened.

"How many tune-ups have I done?" Wangbichler had to think about that for a moment. "Definitely hundreds; 200, 300 or more."

Over in the corner, perched on still another rack, was Wangbichler's own bike.

"I'm graduating in two weeks and then I'm putting my bike on a plane and flying back to Boston," he said. "That's where I'll be meeting up with a friend of mine, from Peru, and we're going to spend about four to five months riding across the United States."

But it's the more casual cyclist--someone who needs two wheels for a day or two, possibly a week--that is the target demographic for CLC's bike rental program.

"We currently have 22 cruisers in circulation and we're definitely going to increase that total next year. Plus, we rent out these really nice Fuji mountain bikes," said Ohlen, pointing to two full racks of rentals.

The nicer mountain bikes can be rented by the day ($25 for students or staff, $35 for general public), a three-day weekend ($40-$50) or for a week ($80-$100). The more utilitarian cruisers can be rented (by students and staff only) for $30 per week, $50 for the summer, $75 for a semester and $125 for a year. The rental includes helmet, light and lock and access to one of Boise State's so-called "bike barns."

Bike barns are no-frills, key-card secured walk-in lockers, tucked into each of Boise State's parking garages.

"Only $25 for the year," said Porter. "And here's the bonus: We'll give you six days of free parking in the garage for those days that you absolutely need your car for that special appointment. It's that extra incentive to get people to ride their bike more often."

Porter doesn't see Boise State's bike culture as an island unto itself. In fact, he's been spending even more of his time with officials from the city of Boise and the Ada County Highway District, which manages most of the county's roadways.

"Right now, we're working on the Boise Bike Share Program. We're really trying to get that off the ground," said Porter.

The BBSP, which requires federal funding and ultimate approval from the Idaho Department of Transportation, would introduce a fleet of 120 bicycles at 12-14 bike stations throughout Boise's downtown core and the campus, and would be managed with an approximate annual operating budget of $350,000. The bike-share stations would be strategically spread out by distances of no more than 1,630 feet (approximately one-quarter-mile). Each bike would be equipped with GPS technology so that users can find and return bikes to open stations. Special kiosks would also be set up at special events to encourage usage.

"Picture this: You commute in from Eagle and let's say you need to get to a meeting across town or you want to go somewhere for lunch. It's that extra mile that you want to travel," said Porter. "It would be so much easier to swipe a card and grab a bike."

Porter told Boise Weekly that a yearly BBSP membership, with unlimited access to a bike, would cost approximately $75-$100.

"We're thinking about concentrating on a three- to five-mile radius of the downtown core," he said. "Best case scenario, we'll see this next year, probably next summer."

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter says the city is working with the Central District Health Department, the lead agency in developing the bike-share program.

"It's just one of the many cycling projects that we have under way," Bieter told Boise Weekly.

Bieter isn't a David-come-lately when it comes to two-wheel commuting.

"I've been walking or biking to work in downtown Boise since I graduated from law school in 1986," he said. "Biking was most helpful during my years in the Idaho Legislature because I could save time by biking right up to the Statehouse steps and avoid parking further away. For many years, I rode a Schwinn Typhoon that my parents gave me when I was a child in the 1960s. I still ride a Schwinn, but a newer model."

Having a mayor who bikes to City Hall is music to Peter Kageyama's ears. The author of For the Love of Cities and keynote speaker at the Downtown Boise Association's April 30 State of Downtown event, told a packed ballroom at the Boise Centre that more bikes in a downtown core is a key economic indicator.

"And most cities don't see that," said Kageyama. "It's not just about the car. Clearly, you guys have already bought into this; Boise seems to be very bike-friendly. Keep it up."

Bieter told BW that he sees the rising number of cyclists as "an excellent barometer on the overall health of our community."

"From a public policy perspective, biking is a net positive in virtually every category," said Bieter. "And increasing the number of bicyclists ultimately saves money for our community."

Porter said downtown businesses, which usually look first at parking for motorized vehicles, might want to consider a newer model to include some more space for bikes.

"A lot of business owners say, 'Oh, please don't take my parking away.' Well, one parking spot is one customer. But if you put some bike parking there--and one space for a car is equal to a lot more spaces for bikes--there are a lot more customers who could park right outside your door," said Porter. "We have a few end-of-trip parking places--like our bike barns--in Boise. But more would be great."

Matt Edmond, senior transportation planner with the Ada County Highway District, told Boise Weekly that there are abundant opportunities to encourage more downtown two-wheelers. In particular, he said when and if ACHD begins transitioning downtown Boise's unpopular crazy quilt of one-way streets into two-way streets, there would be greater opportunity for better bike lanes.

"One of the examples we're looking very hard at is 11th Street. That street can take you all the way, by bike, down to the river. Possibly, we could make that two-way and create a nice north-south bikeway," said Edmond. "Jefferson Street is another example. If Jefferson were two-way, you could ride all the way east and west through downtown."

But he offered a word of caution.

"If we were to go in tomorrow and change all of those one-ways into two-ways all at once, nothing would move. It would be a mess," he said. "So the timing is important. Maybe you do one or two at a time. And we think 11th, 12th and 13th are doable. Maybe Third and Fourth streets are possible because they have lighter traffic."

And the more bicycles and the fewer cars heading toward Boise State, the better, according to Porter.

"We're getting more and more days where we simply don't have the parking," he said. "Last September, we had a BYU football game, a concert at the Morrison Center and it was a school day. So a lot of people tried their bike for the first time. A lot of people told me, 'That was the push I needed.'"

Porter said he'll push and pull, whatever it takes, to bring fewer wheels on campus.

"That day in September, we had 70,000 people and 7,000 parking spaces," he said.

As Boise Weekly went to press, clipboard-toting volunteers were conducting the 2013 Bike Count, which in previous years counted 1,154 cyclists (2007), 1,232 (2008), 2,574 (2010), 5,470 (2011) and 8,666 (2012).
As Boise Weekly went to press, clipboard-toting volunteers were conducting the 2013 Bike Count, which in previous years counted 1,154 cyclists (2007), 1,232 (2008), 2,574 (2010), 5,470 (2011) and 8,666 (2012).
- Leila Ramella-Rader

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Does the article mention how much BSU saves by not providing parking spaces for students? Or the impact on the surrounding neighborhood of effectively living in a parking lot for BSU?

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Posted by boisentv on 05/09/2013 at 5:06 PM
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