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Bike sharing heads toward a summer start

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It's been a few months since Rochester officials announced they'd picked Massachusetts-based Zagster to set up and run a bike-share program in the city. The announcement was a big deal, and it was met with enthusiasm from plenty of cycling enthusiasts, urbanist types, downtown boosters, and regular folks.

The public has been waiting for news of a launch date ever since. And company and city representatives say they plan to have the system up and running sometime in July, probably later in the month. They've lined up sponsors for the bike stations – where and are hashing out where, exactly, each will be located.

In bike-share systems, racks holding several bikes are placed around the city, and using a smartphone app, riders check out a bike for a fee. They're given a window of time – typically an hour to three hours, but that detail hasn't been decided for Rochester yet – before they have to pay additional charges.

The bike comes with a Bluetooth-connected lock mounted to the frame, which the app releases. That setup means users can lock the bike up just about anywhere while they're out and about. People who have mobile phones, but not smartphones, can also use the system. They have to register, but they'll get text messages with codes they can punch in to the on-frame lock.

"We're happy with the level of support we've received in the community thus far," says Erik Frisch, transportation specialist for the City of Rochester. "And I think once people see the bikes out there and hopefully get a chance to ride them and experience what the system will be, that's only going to increase the interest."

The city solicited proposals for the bike share system last year and specified its interest in a phased program, starting with 250 bikes split between 25 stations. The stations were to be spread across downtown and some of the neighborhoods at its edge.

Zagster spokesperson Jon Terbush says the company is on track to provide exactly what the city specified. Each station is backed by a company or organization's pledge of $9,000 a year for three years. And Zagster received "a considerable amount of commitment from the community" for sponsorships, Terbush says.

"We believe that a strong community builds strong bike share," Terbush says. The company likes to see disparate organizations coming together around bike sharing and around making communities more vibrant, he says.

Zagster and city officials aren't yet naming the sponsors, since some agreements and details are still being finalized. But Frisch says the system's sponsors include developers, health care organizations, financial organizations, and educational institutions.

The city is sponsoring a station at City Hall and recently received federal Highway Administration funding that will help fund other stations. Notably, the city and RTS are going to use the federal money – which requires a local match – to locate bike-share stations at high-priority bus stops. That approach would give riders a transportation option to ease the last leg of their trips.

For that matter, the bike-share system can mesh well with things such as car-sharing services or ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, which are also supposed to start up in July, says Mike Governale, president of transportation advocacy group Reconnect Rochester.

"It's just another tool in my toolbox to get around," Governale says.

Reconnect Rochester has so much faith in the potential of bike sharing that it started its own public crowdfunding campaign to sponsor stations. It focused on securing stations for the Upper Falls and Marketview Heights neighborhoods, since the organization worried that other likely sponsors may not want to back stations in less-affluent neighborhoods, for which bikes would provide essential transportation.

The group raised enough money to sponsor one station, which will be located on Hudson Avenue. Reconnect Rochester's plan is to get the station as close as possible to R Community Bikes, a nonprofit that fixes up bikes and gives them to people in need, Governale says. It's working with the Rochester Cycling Alliance to come up with a plan to raise money to cover the next two years of the sponsorship, he says.

A donor also gave Reconnect Rochester money to sponsor a station in the Corn Hill neighborhood. The group hopes that the station can be located near the Adams Street Recreation Center.

Governale says he's eager for the system to get up and running so people get exposed to it, use it, and sign up for memberships. The latter, when combined with sponsorships, will help ensure the system's long-term viability, he says.

The bike share system is the city's biggest cycling-oriented project this year, but it's not the only one.

Frisch says he's particularly excited to see the Inner Loop cycle track – the city's first – reach completion. Cycle tracks, in rough terms, are scaled-down, bike-only streets that parallel roads. The Inner Loop track runs parallel to Howell Street between Monroe Avenue and Union Street, and then parallel to Union until it intersects University Avenue.

The path is already laid out, but it hasn't been surfaced yet. It should be completed in August, Frisch says.

Another high-visibility project is happening along East Main Street between North Goodman Street and downtown. The city plans to reduce the number of driving lanes in that corridor and add bike lanes.

"That's a pretty long stretch and one that's been talked about for a long time," Frisch says.

The city will also add bike lanes to several other roads. Brown Street, a one-way road west of downtown, will get the city's first left-hand bike lane, Frisch says. West Avenue, Ames Street, Browncroft Boulevard, and a few downtown blocks of South Clinton Avenue are also on the list, he says.

Two new bike boulevards are also on the city's agenda. Bike Boulevards are routes that use less-traveled, bike-friendly side streets to parallel major routes that are often difficult for cyclists to use. They're typically marked off for easy identification and have some minor traffic calming features.

One will follow Pershing and Lyceum from the Thomas P. Ryan Center and School 33 to Waring Road; it'll bypass a tight section on North Goodman that passes by the Bausch + Lomb complex. The other will connect the area around Ford, South Plymouth, and Exchange to the area around Campbell Street in the northwest, via Bartlett, Frost, Ames, and Colvin.

The city plans to add an additional 10 to 15 miles of bike boulevards in 2018, thanks to some funding it received through a Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council process, Frisch says.

Biking is obviously something the city is trying to encourage, he says. But making the streets safer for bikes and making people feel comfortable biking has other benefits, especially if it helps slow down speeding traffic.

Bike-friendly streets and neighborhoods are "comfortable places to be, period," Frisch says.

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