Leaders in Howard County, Maryland, and the unincorporated town of Columbia are trying to figure out whether something that seems to be working quite well in more urban areas can be part of the plan going forward in their neck of the woods -- they’re exploring the potential of bike sharing.
The two municipalities have teamed up to apply for for grant money to fund a feasibility study on such a program.
The arrival of a bike sharing program could coincide with major redevelopment in Columbia's downtown, which is currently dominated by a sprawling shopping mall.
"It isn't a traditional downtown with a main street," Columbia Association director of community planning Jane Dembner says. "
But the sprawling retail complex and the expanse of parking lots surrounding it haven’t stopped Columbia, which is about a 30 minute drive from Baltimore and a 45 minute drive from the nation's capital, from regularly being listed as one of the very best places to live in the country.
The town's 100,000 residents have access to some of the best public schools in the nation, and foreclosure and jobless rates are impressively low.
But local leaders believe a bike sharing programs could make things even better. And there are already reasons to believe that if bike sharing is feasible in a suburban environment at all, Columbia would be the place.
Turn in to any of the residential streets in Columbia and it’s not long before you see some of the paved trails that snake through the neighborhoods. The trails were created as a selling point when this planned community was conceived by local developer Jim Rouse more than 40 years ago.
"We have 94 miles of pathways that are separated from our roadways. Major cities don’t have that many," Dembner says. "Washington [D.C.] doesn't have that many pathways."
The paved pathways are perfect for bicycling in most spots, but that doesn't mean they're perfect for bicycle commuting.
Some routes contain steep and winding sections that are difficult to navigate on a bicycle, and signage is almost non-existent. Even some locals say it's easy to lose your way.
"For people who know the area, it's in your head -- a mental map, I guess you could say," says Anthony Rizzi, a 17-year-old student at Wilde Lake High School. "But I know as a freshman doing cross-country I got lost all the time."
Howard County Council Chair Mary Kay Sigaty says the county, which is in charge of road improvements in Columbia, will have to invest in better on-road bike lanes to make bike sharing work.
"If you go on our bike trails, you can go all sorts of wonderful places, but you can't necessarily get from here to there," she says.
You can hear the entire WAMU story here.