Can bike share change the shape of Louisville?

Buffered bike lanes like this one are common in central Louisville. | Photo by Michelle Eigenheer

After a number of delays, Louisville’s bike share program is in the home stretch, with hopes to begin this summer. The program will give Louisville residents and visitors the opportunity to rent bikes at a number of stations across downtown Louisville, into Old Louisville and the University of Louisville campus.

A $1.6 million federal grant was obtained in Nov. 2016 to fund the purchase and installation of the bike share infrastructure, while sponsorships and user fees will pay for the operating cost of the program, which will be handled by Cyclehop, a company that operates bike shares in several other cities, including Atlanta, Beverly Hills, Cleveland, Tampa and Vancouver, British Columbia.

The bike share program is aimed toward a wide variety of riders, from tourists to commuters, said Rolf Eisinger, Louisville Metro’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.

“That’s for the tourists, for sure, it’s a great way to experience the city… But what about folks who take TARC in, and TARC may not get them exactly to their destination? The bike share bike would allow them to kind of complete their last mile to their destination,” Eisinger said.

What’s more, for those who drive downtown and park, he added, the program lets workers expand their reach of places to eat lunch or to bike to the waterfront to brown bag it, all without having to worry about losing a parking spot.

While the details haven’t all been ironed out – including rental costs or a rollout model – the program plans to introduce 300 bikes across approximately 40 stations between downtown and UofL. Louisville residents can easily view possible rollout options in Louisville’s Bikeshare Business Plan.

(The Cyclehop program in Atlanta, called Relay, charges $8 an hour for pay as you go, plus a range of membership plans.) 

The plan also outlines proposals to add 64 miles of bike facilities to Louisville’s nearly 200 miles, as well as to complete a 100-mile bike loop around the city. These additions are in line with several years of growth in Louisville’s bike infrastructure.

“It’s all part of our program or plan with the Bike Louisville city initiative to help grow bicycling in our community,” Eisinger said.  “We started out with building a bike network and that means roads that have dedicated bicycle facilities on them. Somebody who wants to ride a bike could hop on and be able to ride around parts of our city on roads that are dedicated for bicyclists. The intent was to start in the urban core and build out. We have a number of roads that have buffer bike lanes or separated bike lanes. Even capitalizing on our low-stress network, that we branded as neighbor ways, that provide great connections on neighborhood type streets for people riding bikes.”

Louisville’s existing bike facilities, as illustrated in Louisville Metro’s Bicycle Sharing Business Plan.

The mayor as advocate

A lot of this growth is credited to Mayor Greg Fischer, who has had a significant role in promoting cycling in Louisville. Chris Glasser, executive director of Bicycling for Louisville, a local bike education and advocacy organization that has been operating for over a decade, said Fischer was “the first mayor in Louisville’s history to specifically allocate money for bike lanes.”

“And that came about three or four years ago,” he added. “That was great, even bike-friendly mayors like Jerry Abramson hadn’t ever allocated money for it. Just having funds to use is an obvious first step. You can’t build something if you don’t have any money budgeted for it.”

According to Louisville’s Bikeshare Business Plan, released in December, the city has invested $1.35 million since 2013 in general funds to expand Louisville’s urban bike network.

Last year, Mayor Fischer allocated $500,000 to bicycle infrastructure, but after pushback, the number came down to $350,000. The entire Public Works budget totaled almost $15 million — higher than Fischer’s originally proposed $12.3 million.

“It’s almost a bipartisan issue in terms of – Democrats and Republicans can get behind hating on bikes… The amount of funding that Louisville gives to it is nice, but it’s also modest. It’s less than like .1 percent of the overall budget, so it’s not like we’re throwing tons of funds at this project,” Glasser said.

“Three hundred thousand dollars a year is, I’m not trying to discredit, but it’s a modest amount in terms of an overall city budget. That’s the rub. That’s why the progress is at its incremental level. I don’t want to fault the mayor or anybody because I feel like that’s him pushing on that issue kind of as far as he can because there’s so much indifference or pushback from the rest of the local governance,” Glasser added.

Despite contention, the streets of Louisville have already been reshaped by biking infrastructure. Buffer lanes, shared lanes, traffic circles and road diets have all been introduced to make streets safer and allow both motorists and cyclists to share the road.

A road diet, such as the one implemented on Brownsboro Road, effectively brings a four-lane road down to three, turning one of the middle lanes into a dedicated turn lane. This decreases congestion and, in many cases, reduces instances of sudden stops and lane changes. This is being carried out on part of Third Street and there are plans to introduce a road diet to Barret Ave. this spring.

A large-scale bike share program is made possible by existing changes to Louisville’s infrastructure, but it also has the opportunity to push it even further.

Bike sharing at the University of Louisville

“I think that when you have those facilities it makes it more welcoming and inviting for new riders and people to consider using a bike for transportation,” said Justin Mog, assistant to the provost for sustainability initiatives at the University of Louisville. “There’s a lot of people who bike for recreation and would never take their bike to work or to the library or wherever because they’re just intimidated by the traffic. When they have a facility or it’s clear where they should be on the roadway, that makes it more welcoming, they’re more likely to try that.”

Mog and the university have done a lot of work to promote biking not only on campus but in the city. The university assisted in planning and funding early studies for the citywide bike share program. Internally, UofL has its own bike share for students and faculty, as well as an earn-a-bike program, which has provided almost 2,000 free bikes to students and faculty over the last five years in exchange for safety sessions and forfeiture of automobile parking passes.

Efforts at UofL have had demonstrable results. “We do surveys regularly of how people get to campus,” Mog said. “Our last one was in 2015 — it showed a definite trend. Our first survey was in 2010. For students alone, back in 2010, only 4 percent used their bike as their main means of getting to campus. When we surveyed them again in 2015, it was double that. It was 8 percent. We’ve at least doubled the percentage of people biking to campus as their main mode. We’ve also increased the percentage walking. In 2010 it was 17 percent, now it’s up to 21 percent.”

Increased bicycle activity around UofL in turn, led to the introduction of bike lanes in the veins that run to campus, increasing safety for the hundreds of students who travel to campus every day from their homes in Old Louisville.

“In general, what bikes lanes do is make the streets more welcoming for people, and they send a clear message that the streets are for bikes as well as cars,” Mog said. “When the cyclist has a dedicated space on the roadway, even if it’s not 100 percent safe — like I could zone out and not pay attention — I think it helps everybody, to know where to expect bikes. That makes it safer for everybody.

“I think because of those facilities, it creates a cultural expectation. Like, ‘Oh, they’re a real mode of transportation and we should expect to see them around.’ That helps make the streets more welcoming, and when that happens, you get more people on bikes and when there are more bikes on the road then it just, of course, people are going to expect bikes because there are bikes. It’s a little bit chicken and egg, seeing which will drive the needle more.”

If they build it…

The improved cycling infrastructure, itself, is a draw.

Louisville Metro’s Bicycle Sharing Business Plan outlines several benefits cycling has for the city and its residents.

“Mayor Fischer, for one thing, when he talks about biking or bringing in infrastructure, he talks about professionals and a desire to be urban,” Glasser said. “Our generation has a desire in living in vibrant cities. Neighborhoods like Germantown, like Old Louisville, especially the Highlands, Clifton are thriving, comparatively, because of that interest among millennials, or whatever that age group, that wants a vibrant urban life. Biking is often seen — I think, correctly — as proxy when describing an active, urban lifestyle.”

Events like Forecastle and Waterfront Wednesdays, which cater to a diverse crowd, also play into cultivating this growing culture of athleticism paired with urban living. Bicycling For Louisville provides bike parking at these events. Glasser said: “I think Forecastle’s brand is built on being a kind of environmentally conscious music festival. In part of that branding, which brings a lot of money to the local economy, they are making their event bike friendly in a lot of ways that Thunder Over Louisville is not, for instance. I think there’s a lot of businesses or events that see the advantage of kind of, in a number of ways, being sustainable. Biking is just one of those things.”

Cycling offers other economic advantages. “Often times we find that when you’re on the bicycle and you are moving a little slower than in a car, you notice the businesses along the corridor, you notice things you wouldn’t normally notice if you were in a car,” Eisinger said.

Bikeways can make neighborhoods more appealing. “I don’t know how familiar you are with the Shelby Park area,” Glasser said, “But Oak and St. Catherine are these one-way streets through the middle of the neighborhood. The speed limits are like 35 miles an hour, so people are kind of burning through the neighborhood. That makes it great if you’re someone who lives in Crescent Hill and works downtown, you can get home quicker. But it makes Shelby Park a less desirable place to live and decreases property value there. It makes the urban core a less vibrant, active streetscape.

“If those areas were more pedestrian friendly or traffic was slowed down, the urban neighborhoods in the city as a whole would benefit in thinking of streets in that way, in terms of serving pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers. And neighborhoods. Thinking of [how] you want to serve the neighborhood of Shelby Park well, not just the traffic driving past Shelby Park. It’s not a thoroughfare.”

“In this way, NuLu has seen a lot of success, previously a place to pass through as a way from downtown to the East End. That’s what NuLu is trying to do,” Glasser continued. “Forever, East Market was just a thoroughfare, four lanes in one direction. Then they’re like, let’s two-way it and have three lanes, kind of slowly trying to make it a streetscape that’s inviting not just for drivers that are trying to get to the East End. Let’s make it a space that itself is appealing. That’s the prime example.”