Wednesday, September 28, 2011

More places to rack the bikes

Virginia Tech adds 230 to its already 4,000 parking spaces for cyclists --- and more are on the way.

Tonia Moxley

tonia.moxley@roanoke.com 381-1675

Finding a parking space at Virginia Tech is not just tough for drivers of cars and trucks. As university officials have encouraged commuters to bicycle to work and class, finding a place to legally "park" foot-powered vehicles has also grown more difficult.

But two new initiatives has added about 230 new "parking spaces" to the existing 4,000 already scattered across campus, and more are in the planning stages, said Debby Freed, manager of Tech's alternative transportation office.

Officials will continue to monitor bike usage on campus and will work to put new racks in the most convenient places. That monitoring is done through registration of bikes on campus, which is free and helps police return stolen bikes to their owners, Freed said.

Registrations have steadily increased over the past few semesters. Although figures for this semester's registrations were not immediately available, the number is expected to rise significantly over last year, Freed said.

A shortage of bike racks, particularly in higher-traffic areas has caused some frustrations, but Freed describes it as "a happy problem."

To help solve that problem, alternative transportation intern Lyndsay McKeever applied for and won a $15,000 grant from the university's "Green RFP" program to fund at least 10 new bike racks, Freed said.

Tech orders the bike racks from Renaissance Manufacturing, a Roanoke company. The racks hold about 10 bikes each and cost about $500, although they can be customized to hold more or fewer bikes. Tech facilities workers install the racks around campus, Freed said.

The "Green RFP" (request for proposal) program encourages students to develop sustainability projects that are funded through the university's facilities department.

McKeever's grant application was supported by Tech's Environmental Coalition and the Student Government Association, and was one of three projects approved last October by the university's Energy and Sustainability Committee, according to the committee's meeting minutes.

McKeever, 22, is an intern in Freed's office and an avid bicycle commuter, who said she rides her 1970s Miyata from her apartment to campus nearly every day, despite lousy weather.

When rain or snow falls, "it's just time to dribble," she said.

A native of Northern Virginia, McKeever took up serious bike riding after enrolling at Tech, where she said she developed interests in triathlon and environmentalism. Upon graduation, McKeever said she hopes to go to work in alternative transportation advocacy.

Riding gives her a "sense of adventure," McKeever said. "Getting around really efficiently is nice. Saving money on gas is nice."

A second source of funding for new bike racks came from a fee instituted last year by the university's Bike, Bus & Walk program. Some of those funds went to construction of a covered bike rack behind Patton Hall that is normally full of bikes, Freed said.

For $15 a year, students, faculty and staff members can sign up for 15 free parking passes to use for inclement weather, so long as the rest of the time they car pool, bike, walk or ride Blacksburg Transit or SmartWay buses to campus.

Those fees "went directly to that bike shelter," Freed said.

It's hoped that future fee revenue will provide dedicated funding for more bike racks and other alternative commuting infrastructure.

But for commuters who don't need parking passes, registering and parking a bike on campus is free.

That's a huge savings over traditional transportation. Estimated real costs of a one-occupant vehicle, not including gasoline, are estimated at about $1 per mile.

Gasoline in the New River Valley currently hovers around $3.30 a gallon.

Meanwhile, an annual campus parking permit costs $225 for faculty, staff and resident students, while commuter students pay $198, Freed said.

Tech's alternative transportation program began about a decade ago, when Transportation Director Steve Mouras was looking for ways to cut the high cost of building traditional parking lots.

At as much as $3,400 per space for typical asphalt lots and $19,000 per space for garages, parking infrastructure can quickly drain a university's financial resources.

So, Mouras hired Freed away from a job in parking services to build a multi-track alternative commuting network.

Today that system includes van-pooling and car-pooling, ride sharing, on-campus car sharing, as well as a network of biking and walking trails.

The program began before worries over greenhouse gases and climate change mushroomed into everyday topics, but today is a major part of the university's sustainability initiative.

The Board of Visitors-approved Climate Action Commitment Resolution promises that the university will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below its 1990 emissions level by 2050.

To accomplish that, officials are working to reduce electricity use and encourage alternative transportation. Coal-fired electricity and vehicle emissions have been identified as the two largest sources of university greenhouse gas emissions.

For more information on Tech's alternative transportation initiatives, visit http://goo.gl/bAuE6.

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