NO.bluebikes.030718.003

Bikes from the bike sharing program, Blue Bikes, sit on St. Philip and N Villere streets in the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans, Tuesday, March 6, 2018.

Bike-sharing programs are rolling out across the United States with the aims of expanding transportation choices, promoting healthy exercise and luring millennials who don't want cars to be their only option for getting around.

But Louisiana has been slow to get in the bike-share lane. The state has only one program operating now, the Blue Bikes program in New Orleans that began in late 2017, with a second, Gotcha Bike in Baton Rouge, set to launch next month.

Now, some St. Tammany Parish leaders hope to join those more urban areas and offer a bike-sharing program on the north shore. They cite a recently completed feasibility study that says the parish can be home to a successful multi-city program that uses the popular Tammany Trace "rails to trails" path as its spine.

Bike-share programs are typically aimed at riders making short trips, with participants buying monthly or weekly memberships that entitle them to so much time per day on one of the program's bikes. Pay-as-you-go options might be more attractive to tourists or other casual users.

The goals of the proposed St. Tammany program include reducing dependence on cars; promoting the parish to potential employers, residents and tourists; and boosting economic opportunities.

Lindsey Gray of the Bantam Strategy Group, which did the feasibility study along with the Toole Design Group, said that more than 200 U.S. cities have bike-sharing programs. While it began as a largely urban phenomenon, Gray said a growing number of smaller communities have been joining the trend in the last two years.

She said smaller communities have created successful programs by taking a more regional approach, which is what the St. Tammany study calls for. An example in eastern Alabama tied together three smaller cities: Oxford, Anniston and Jacksonville. It also included a "rails to trails" bike path, similar to the Tammany Trace.

The St. Tammany study proposes a fleet of 187 "smart electric pedal assist bicycles" with 53 hubs — places where bikes are located — to start. A second phase would add 88 bikes and 25 more hubs.

"Smart" bicycles can be locked to traditional bike racks as well as specifically designed racks, allowing greater flexibility and a smaller footprint for the hubs, Gray said.

Electric pedal assist bikes provide electric power but only when the rider is pedaling. The study recommends them in part because of south Louisiana's heat and humidity, although the Tammany Trace currently doesn't allow for any electric vehicles. Gray said parish officials have indicated a willingness to reconsider those rules, in part because of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

While most bike-share programs are public/private partnership, the study recommends a privately owned and operated system like that in New Orleans, citing St. Tammany residents' "aversion" to the idea of using public money for such an initiative.

The estimated start-up cost would be nearly $475,000, with operations and maintenance expected to run nearly $2.3 million over the first five years. The study anticipates a nearly $1 million shortfall between those costs and what user fees would bring in, a gap that it says would be filled by corporate sponsorships. Gray said several employers have expressed interest.

The next step, according to Gray, is to seek requests for proposals from would-be operators. The study recommends that the Northshore Community Foundation seek the proposals, with other stakeholders involved in laying out the requirements and making the selection.

The feasibility study included efforts to gauge community support, and two-thirds of the nearly 400 people polled said they thought bike-sharing would be a good idea for the parish.

But local bike shop owners say the program could hurt their businesses.

Patrick Brooks, who owns a bicycle rental and repair business just blocks from the Covington trailhead on the Tammany Trace, said that half of his business is from people renting bicycles for recreational use on the trail. Most are not local residents, he said.

St. Tammany bicycle shops wary of study for bike-sharing program along Tammany Trace

If he lost even half of that business to a bike-share program allowed to have hubs on the Tammany Trace itself, it would be devastating, he said.

Brooks and several allies turned out at a recent Covington City Council meeting where Gray was presenting the study's findings. Jodie Burke, who spoke on behalf of the local businesses, said that mom-and-pop bike rental shops in New Orleans have been hurt there.

Brooks said the New Orleans businesses were hit especially hard when Blue Bikes offered free bike use for the entire month of September.

Gray told the Covington council that bike-shares are aimed at short trips, and the study notes that most trips are 15- to 20-minute rides of 1-3 miles, not daylong excursions.

The study also recommends that the operator partner with a local bicycle shop for maintenance, which could bring that business another $100,000 to $150,000 a year, she told the council.

While that involvement isn't likely to silence all the objections, Steve Sperier, who owns The Spokesman Cycles, a business that sells and repairs bicycles, said he thinks a bike-share program will ultimately be good for cycling and the community as a whole.

Sperier, who served on the steering committee for the study, said he was skeptical at first but now thinks that local bicycle shops will ultimately benefit, as will other businesses.

The program will mean more people will get the experience of riding on a quality bicycle, he said, and he expects that to prompt more people to buy their own bicycles. That, in turn, will mean a bigger cycling community.

"There will be a demand for more bike lanes as people have the opportunity to ride a bike," he said.

The study acknowledges the need for bike infrastructure in St. Tammany beyond the Tammany Trace. 

Slidell, Mandeville, Covington, Abita Springs and Lacombe are identified as the places where the potential demand for bike-sharing is highest. But the parish will need to establish bicycle-friendly connections to those towns if the hope is to increase bicycle ridership, the study says.

At present, car travel is king in St. Tammany. Less than 2% of residents walk, bicycle or use Star Transit, the parish's transit system that provides van transportation on a first-come, first-served basis. But according to the survey, 42 percent of those who responded said they would use a bike-share once a month for exercise or recreation.

20-year-old Tammany Trace fulfilling its creators’ dreams

Sperier expects skepticism to melt away once a program is established. He recalls that there was public opposition when the idea of creating the Tammany Trace from an abandoned railroad line first surfaced in the early 1990s.

"Now, it's a jewel for the parish and brings people in," he said, and he expects a bike-sharing program to be similar. "If you build it, people are going to use it," he said.


Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.