Baton Rouge officials to meet with EPA experts over possible ‘bike share’ program _lowres

A man passes by a row of bicycles ready for rent at the new Healthy Ride bicycle rental kiosk in downtown Pittsburgh on Monday, June 1, 2015. This is one of the first 12 stations that opened during the OpenStreetsPGH event on May, 31, 2015. Pittsburgh Bike Share operates this one and the 50 total kiosks planned throughout the city. Their web page indicates a customer can pick up a bike at one station and drop it at another. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

The idea of a “bike-share” program is being explored in Baton Rouge by the city-parish and local organizations that could offer both recreational opportunities and an alternative to driving in the city’s notoriously bad traffic.

The city-parish in February received a technical assistance grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to study creating a bike-sharing program, which would allow people to rent a bicycle for a fee at one kiosk and drop it off at another. The concept has caught on around the U.S. in recent years in major metropolitan areas as well as Southern cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Charlotte, North Carolina.

EPA experts will be in Baton Rouge on Tuesday for meetings with city-parish officials and a public forum, which will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the Louisiana Art and Science Museum. The EPA will then make recommendations for starting the program with a plan due sometime in fall or winter, said Whitney Cooper, development project director with the Downtown Development District.

It is unclear how much it would cost to implement the program, who would pay for it or how much would be charged to rent the bikes, Cooper said. Local officials are waiting on EPA to determine a financial strategy and potential kiosk locations, which likely will include somewhere downtown.

“You obviously want more than one location,” Cooper said. “It’s successful in other cities because you can check it out in one place and return it in another.”

A program in Houston charges $5 to use a bike for 24 hours, $15 for a week and $65 for a year. A bike can be used for only an hour at a time, after which it must be checked in at a kiosk.

Bike-sharing programs generate revenue for cities, and many are underwritten by corporate sponsors, said Beaux Jones, chairman of Bike Baton Rouge’s board of directors.

Bikes in the programs typically have built-in lights, bells and locks — and because each bike is tied to the credit card of the person who checked it out, they can still be charged if they don’t return it, Jones said.

While big cities like Chicago have rental bikes available “every second or third block,” Baton Rouge has a comparatively poor infrastructure for bicyclists, Jones said. A program here easily could be tied to the Downtown Greenway, a 2.75-mile bike and pedestrian corridor under construction between City Park and Memorial Stadium, he said.

Rachel Diresto, executive vice president of the Center for Planning Excellence, said bike sharing would be one way to link projects like the Greenway and proposed bike paths around the LSU lakes.

“You can just pick up a bike and go ride around the loop of the lakes and go back downtown and drop the bike off,” she said.

Bike sharing is a step in the right direction as part of wider infrastructure plans, Jones said.

“It would be a huge amenity, not only for tourists and sightseeing but for folks like me who work downtown, who don’t want to get in my car … just to go get a smoothie downtown,” Jones said. “… All the cities that Baton Rouge is competing with are taking the initiative to give their citizens and to give the people that visit … opportunities outside of getting in a car.”

Recent studies show a growing number of people between the ages of 17 and 35 either delay getting their driver’s license or don’t get one at all, said J.T. Sukits, transportation alternatives coordinator with the Capital Region Planning Commission. However, transportation options beyond personal vehicles are limited in Baton Rouge.

“If Baton Rouge wants to attract a younger, more vibrant workforce … you’re definitely going to need to find more options,” he said.