CALIFORNIA
California Commute

Bike-sharing as a bridge between commute gaps

Commuting by mass transit in Los Angeles can sometimes feel like a schlep, particularly for those who don't live and work within easy walking distance from bus and train lines.

Bridging those so-called "first mile, last mile" gaps in Los Angeles County's transportation network is key, officials say, to boosting ridership and connecting would-be transit commuters to the county's growing rail system.

Transportation planners hope bike-share can be the solution.

An $11-million plan backed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will distribute 1,100 bicycles at 65 kiosks throughout downtown Los Angeles and the surrounding area with more bikes clustered near major transit hubs, like Union Station and 7th / Metro, where four rail lines intersect. The system is designed for short, point-to-point trips, rather than all-day rental: Users would pull a bicycle out of the adjacent racks, hop on, and drop the bike off at a kiosk near their destination.

Bike-share, which is available in most major U.S. cities and 25 countries in Europe, could translate well to car-choked Los Angeles, where officials are pushing to reduce driving. About 9% of Metro passengers are either dropped off or driven to a stop at the start of their commute.

Commuters sometimes "can't figure out how to fix the gap between where they live and where they use transit, so they use their car," Metro spokesman Dave Sotero said. "A bicycle can solve that problem."

Bike-share is slated to debut downtown in the spring, and will probably expand to Pasadena the following year, with possible future sites in Hollywood, Venice and East Los Angeles. L.A. officials have sung the system's praises, saying it could eliminate some car trips, make transit use more fun and help the city look more in step with London, New York City and Paris, which have their own bike networks.

The systems do face some hurdles: The majority are not profitable, and some, like New York's CitiBike, have struggled with unexpectedly high operational costs, related to maintenance and redistributing bikes to empty docking stations.

As is frequently the case at an agency whose jurisdiction spans 88 cities, the roll-out has not been seamless. L.A. has been discussing bikeshare since 2012, when then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced plans for a system that were scuttled less than a year later.

Santa Monica and Long Beach have approved their own bike-share systems, and selected the same contractor, which other Westside cities are considering adopting as well. The two systems won't work seamlessly. The possibility of varying payment systems, fare structures and pick-up and drop-off points has concerned some officials, who said tourists and commuters may get confused, particularly in the areas where Santa Monica and Los Angeles intersect, like Venice and West Los Angeles.

"Sometimes, we forget that people cross those borders and forget they even exist," Mayor Eric Garcetti said during a recent Metro board meeting.

Laura Cornejo, Metro's deputy executive officer for active transportation, said she hopes the agencies can work out a unified fare structure and put docking stations next to each other, to minimize confusion.

"Ideally, we wouldn't find ourselves in this position," said Eric Bruins, the planning and policy director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, adding that the differences will become more pronounced when the two systems begin to operate closer to each other. "Are we going to have dual systems? Or are we going to come up with some kind of alternative so that people can use both?"

In a letter to Garcetti and the Metro board, Santa Monica Mayor Kevin McKeown wrote that modifying their already-approved fare system would require "substantial changes to the system." He added that putting bike-share stations next to each other would be "challenging, given the space demands." Santa Monica's 500-bike system is slated to launch later this year.

Sotero said two systems won't be an issue because the county "is gigantic." Commuters and tourists should plan to drop one bike off before boarding a bus or train, he said, then pick another up on the other end to finish the trip.

To choose which neighborhoods could see bikeshare, consultants working for Metro analyzed the density of housing, availability of jobs, the frequency of transit and the number of intersections. They also studied whether the neighborhoods had bike lanes.

The dense, central areas of Los Angeles would work best, the report said, especially downtown — with high marks for Westlake, Koreatown, Echo Park, Silver Lake and West Hollywood.

The system will cost about $40.3 million to operate until 2022, and an estimated 48% would be covered by bikeshare fees. Metro, Los Angeles and Pasadena would split the remainder of the costs. Metro is seeking a sponsor for the program, which could bring in up to $18.4 million through 2022. New York's program is underwritten by CitiBank, and London's Barclays.

Metro hasn't set a pricing structure yet, but is weighing two options. Under a membership model, users would buy a 24-hour pass, or pay a flat annual fee for unlimited number of trips that are shorter than a half-hour. The other option would integrate bikeshare into the existing Metro fare structure, meaning for $1.75 one-way fee, passengers would be able to transfer between buses, trains and bikes for up to two hours.

The transfers will be tracked by Metro's fare cards, but it's not clear how much else TAP cards will be able to do. At minimum, commuters will be able to unlock a bike using their card. A more sophisticated and complicated system would allow the fare card computers and the bikeshare computers to share data and billing. "That's the ideal, and I do hope it's realistic," Bruins said.

Some Metro skeptics point out that the agency has struggled to integrate TAP into the countywide transit system since its introduction in 2009. Some municipal bus lines, including Santa Monica, did not begin accepting the fare payment system until this year.

laura.nelson@latimes.com

Twitter: @laura_nelson

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