Monday, February 16, 2009

It was the best of ideas; it was the worst of ideas

On Thursday, the day of the Louisville Bicycle Summit II, the Courier-Journal reported on Metro government's application for federal funding to build a bicycle commuter service station in downtown Louisville. I don't use the term "bike station" because the nonprofit organization Bikestation in California owns the trademark to that term (whether written as one word or two). They have no involvement in Louisville's plans and have made clear that the city does not have their permission to use that term to describe its project.

Predictably, the C-J article gives glowing words from the mayor's spokesperson about the value of a bicycle commuter facility downtown. Almost as predictably, some folks who take issue with Mayor Abramson's budgetary priorities were immediately on the warpath, calling this an "idiotic, limited-appeal project" that will divert funding from projects of more benefit to the community. Predictably, the truth lies somewhere in between.

The Mayor's team sets forth the project as a way to encourage bicycle commuting by people who work downtown. Indeed, many avid cyclists work in downtown Louisville but do not commute by bicycle. On the fiscal front, they defend it as a federally-funded project that will cost the city nothing aside from the dedication of some land already owned by the city. Federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) money, for which Metro has applied to fund this project, cannot fund fire stations or Otter Creek Park or libraries, but can fund projects to reduce motor vehicle use by increasing the attractiveness of bicycling.

Many will criticize any government expenditure to increase bicycling for transportation, believing that bicycling inherently appeals to many less people than driving does. They do not believe that bicycling will ever play the central transportation role in US cities that it plays in many European cities. They do not understand how an increase in transportation bicycling can reduce congestion faced by the remaining motor vehicle drivers, or grasp that bicycling can significantly reduce our fuel consumption and pollution emissions. For them, no bicycle-serving facility will ever have an acceptable cost-benefit ratio, because they believe the benefits will be nearly zero.

As a life-long transportation cyclist, I do not accept this anti-bicycling viewpoint. Unfortunately, though, the Mayor may be barking up the wrong tree with the proposal for a bicycle commuter facility downtown. In my view, we lack some necessary conditions to proceed with this project, as attractive as it appears.

Nearly all of the several successful facilities run by Bikestation, as well as the McDonald's Cycle Center in Millenium Park, Chicago (which inspired Mayor Abramson's enthusiasm for a cycle center here), are located close to a fixed-rail transit station used by thousands of people daily. The rail station makes a natural site for a major bicycle parking facility, which makes a bike + rail commute attractive and draws a large enough group of users to support the bicycle-related businesses located at the cycle center. The train serves people who may live quite a distance from downtown, and brings them within easy bicycling distance of nearly any downtown destination. The bicycle makes the train more attractive by replacing a long walk or a transfer to one or more local buses in order to reach one's destination. With no transit hub through which thousands of commuters travel each day, Louisville does not seem well situated to make heavy use of a bicycle commuting center.

People might also ride their bicycles downtown and then use the bicycle commuting center to lock their bicycles and shower before work. This leads to three questions: 1) Will the bicycle center be located close enough to their offices for them to want to walk between the two points? 2) Would the money and political capital to build a bicycle center be better invested providing good parking and shower facilities at workplaces? 3) Do the people who might use the bicycle center feel comfortable riding downtown in rush hour traffic? If most of the cyclists willing to ride downtown are already doing so, then the bicycle center won't do much to increase our bicycle commuting mode share.

When the Louisville cycle center idea first came up a couple of years ago, I had a conversation with the executive director of Bikestation. She agreed that the lack of a transit hub might make it difficult for a bicycle commuting center to succeed here. She stressed two elements of planning for a successful cycle center: a market study to assess demand, and a business plan to determine how user fees or other income could meet the operating expenses of the station. I urged Metro government in 2006 to take these steps; to the best of my knowledge, they have not. Even if money falls from heaven to build a state-of-the-art bicycle center downtown, it will cost money to run it. A bicycle retailer or repair shop, a cafe, a bike rental business, a tourist information kiosk, and any other supportive businesses will need enough customers to keep their doors open. No sane business owner would start a business, or lease space in a cycle center, without a business plan.

In about 2004, Jackie Green bought the building at 107 W. Market Street where he now operates the Bike Courier Bike Shop and CBD Courier service. He immediately called the location the Bike Depot. He searched for a restaurateur to open a cafe there, and repeatedly sought the interest of Metro officials to create a bicycle parking operation there. The location would have required much architectural creativity to serve all of those purposes well. Perhaps that dream was never achievable. But nobody in government or the private sector was willing to partner with Jackie to build the dream, even with Jackie having assumed the financial risk of owning the property.

Against all odds, Jackie and shop manager Russ Hisle have built a successful (or at least surviving) full-service bike shop at 107 W. Market Street. No matter whose money Metro plans to invest in its cycle center, I urge them to give careful thought to its current and potential market, its operating expenses, and the financial prospects of supportive businesses located in or near the center. Without such thought, Metro will likely find itself with a white elephant that anti-bike commentators and politicians will use to torpedo funding for bicycle-supporting projects for years to come.


bikeolounger said...

Some folks clearly cannot comprehend that "money from this donor for this purpose may NOT be used for other purposes." That said, I clearly remember Jackie's excitement when he bought the building--even looked into having a shop of my own there at one point, before deciding that my business acumen (or lack of) would get me into seriously deep trouble for trying such a thing.

Like you, I see no need for the vitriolic bent in the Valley View blog you cited. It's enough to give logical, thought-out reasons for not supporting (or opposing) an idea without calling the idea or its supporters names.

Of course, calling it idiotic serves their purpose--infuriate their readers against the proposal--rather nicely.

I will take one piece of advice from that adversarial blog posting, though: I will contact my council member, and in my note, cite my own reasons for my opinions on the matter. May I cite this blog as a reference?

Brian Tucker said...

The mayor is planning on building the station even if the feds do not deliver the money. THAT is the problem. It has nothing to do with understanding how special federal money may be spent.

As I stated in a follow-up comment to my blog post, please note that I am not hostile toward alternative modes of transportation. I just think this particular project is a terrible extension of the mayor's ego, and not fit for the community at this time.

When other, broader-based community needs are not being met, I can't support a new million dollar initiative aimed at a relative few.

jimmy said...

Is the lack of shower facilities really what's keeping people from riding their bikes to work or could it be the lack of actual road safety?

Even while commuting to downtown in the dead heat of summer I have never used a shower once and that even having to wear a tie everyday. It (the shower need) is just not as bad as everyone makes it out to be. However, I don't see anything wrong with the providing the facility and adding to Louisville's bicycle infrastructure especially considering it doesn't appear to be taking away from any other project.

I don't understand the arguments against a more sustainable Louisville.

Freedom Bikes said...


I have often wondered how comfortable people are showering in public places like that. I have a hard time imagining women being comfortable using something like that. I am a die hard bicycle commuter and I would not do it if I had to shower in a public facility like that every morning.

I also wonder, like Jimmy, if showering is actually what is keeping people from bicycling. I know that in peoples mind it is a deterrent both typically after they start riding they realize its not.

When I move somewhere I plan to live close enough that showering is not an issue for me. I have noticed that many people decide to bicycle commute AFTER picking a house that is 10-15 miles away where a shower in July might be a necessity for them.

Did you use the bike station type room at the bottom of the Ronald Reagan Trade Center in D.C. last year? Did that facility have showers? It certainly had plenty of bicycles in it and many of them were locals who used that facility everyday.

Anyway, I think that using that money to put smaller facilities in the larger office buildings downtown would be a much wiser use of the money.

Politicians like big and fancy jewels to put in the city's crown and several facilities that are invisible to the typical Louisville resident just does not fit that mold.

D Morse said...

Have I got an intermodal station with a strong transit component for you!

We've worked out how to do commuter rail from Elizabethtown to the old Central Station at 7th and River Road. This would be an excellent place to put a bike station. Best of all, the project uses existing tracks and so is incredibly cheap. Cheaper, per mile, than laying sidewalk!