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Reinventing the Wheel

Why Missoula is becoming the bicycling capital of the country



Missoula is a great place to live. We move here for the beautiful rivers and mountains, the city amenities with a community feel. Our neighborhoods are home to visionaries and poets, athletes and thinkers, teachers and students. We know our neighbors and their dogs, and we appreciate the good weather and community events that pack our evenings and weekends.

Community is important. Whether you live in a nursing home downtown, a duplex in the South Hills or a cabin tucked away in the far reaches of Mill Creek, the people you see affect your mood, and you in turn affect theirs. Put on a smile and wave to someone and you’re contributing to a better community.

Bicycling is a key part of this picture. As a self-powered and self-empowering mode of transportation, biking allows us to travel without contributing to valley pollution or relying on oil reserves.

Instead of petroleum, a healthy meal at a local restaurant powers you from place to place. Instead of sitting solo in an air conditioned car, windows rolled up and looking for a place to park, a cool breeze blows through your hair and you park at the front door. Instead of arriving at work lethargic, you arrive refreshed and exercised.

“Forty percent of all motor vehicle trips are less than 2 miles in length,” says Kelley Segars with the Missoula County Office of Planning and Grants. “That really makes people think, ‘Yeah! I could bike that!’”

A healthier, friendlier Missoula relies on people getting out of their cars and into alternative modes of transportation. And it’s happening. From a bike path along Highway 93 near Stevensville and urban bike paths added every year, to grassroots festivals that give away free bikes to anyone, Missoula is leading a national charge away from complete automobile reliance and into a more diverse and sustainable transportation mindset.

“Cycling brings out the best in people,” says healthy-community visionary Bob Giordano. “You can’t help but smile when you’re riding or when you get a wave.”

Giordano’s vision is more than just pie in the sky. He has committed the last five years to increasing public awareness of transportation issues and creating non-profit organizations that seat more and more people on bicycles at no cost.

As Missoula attempts to balance its sprawl with a healthy, recreation-based lifestyle, these issues become increasingly important. Anyone pedaling through the user-unfriendly bike lanes along North Reserve can appreciate the need for bike paths separated from major arteries.

Still, the state has stepped up its role by using available resources and responding to resident’s concerns. Government agencies are providing both dollars and designs to make the Missoula Valley a functional and pleasant hub for cyclists, and a model of efficient, sustainable transportation systems for communities around the world.

While bicycling may be steering this revolution, other forms of transportation are just as critical to a functional system. Walking, carpooling and busing can all be used to augment a transportation system, and the positive effects on our community can be far-reaching.

“It’s not about telling people to get out of their cars entirely,” says Giordano. “It’s just like an ecosystem. The more diverse our transportation system, the healthier our community.”

Mountain Line has responded with bike racks on all buses and starting Sept. 5 will provide service until 10 p.m. The city is responding with compensation for people who choose to commute without their car. The University is responding with 50 new checkout bikes for students. And the people of Missoula are responding by using the bike paths and leaving their cars at home.

“That’s one of the beautiful things about Missoula,” says Giordano. “It’s coming from all sides with every little piece adding up. Missoula’s got great community.”

The Festival of Cycles

Maybe more than any other event, the Festival of Cycles epitomizes the grassroots revolution that is transforming our community’s perceptions of how bicycling and community interact. This annual event attracts hundreds of Missoulians who bring in bikes and parts, in an effort to create new bikes.

Dozens of mechanics come from every bike shop in town to dedicate their time, tools and expertise just to fix broken bikes. With free music, games and a non-motorized transportation brainstorm area, everyone is encouraged to inject their vision and energy into the Missoula bike scene.

The festival is one of the many programs developed by Free Cycles, a brainchild of a handful of UM students, and marks the annual springtime dispersion of more than 30 Green Bikes into the community. The original mission of the Green Bikes program was to flood the street with reconditioned bicycles painted John Deere green. The bikes would remain unlocked, and could be ridden around town on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“With Green Bikes, we’re trying to get creative with unused bikes to make a difference with pollution, traffic and cultural creativity,” says Giordano, who is also a resource conservation graduate student. Even though theft and vandalism cuts the fleet of bikes by 25-50 percent every year, Giordano’s not dismayed. Missoula has carried a reputation as a bicycling Mecca for the last few decades.

“Missoula consistently ranks in biking magazines as one of the top bicycling cities in the country,” says Paul Adkins, web developer at Adventure Cycling, volunteer mechanic and wearer of a particularly funky bike haircut. “I moved to Missoula because of bicycling—it’s a legitimate means of getting around here.”

Supporting people with bike repair needs, The Free Cycles Community Bicycle Shop provides bicycle teachers, tools and parts for anyone who walks in the door.

Still, as a non-profit with an agenda no greater than getting people on bicycles and thinking about community, the program is temporarily shut down, having outgrown its current shop space and anxiously seeking a new home.

“We still have 475 bicycles on hand, and we need a community shop to get them back in the bike world,” says Giordano. With free bikes, free parts, free tools and free support, Free Cycles should soon be back up and rolling.

As of last week, 1,830 bikes have been recovered by Free Cycles Missoula. Of them, 800 have been given away, 105 have been turned into Green Bikes, 30 were given to Big Sky High School, (teachers at Big Sky have used these bikes to transport science classes to the Bitterroot River, and student volunteers have ridden to Fort Missoula to pull weeds,) 120 have been recycled as steel, 80 have been given to special projects (raffles, auctions, fundraisers,) 100 have been turned into art and sculptures, and 120 human-powered vehicles have been created from leftover parts (it often takes numerous bikes to make, say, a four-wheel bike designed for carrying cargo). The remaining 475 remain stacked at numerous locations around town, waiting for new owners to dedicate the one or two hours needed to rehabilitate them.

The future of Free Cycles is dependent on the space it occupies, says Giordano. It could be a bike factory, a transportation hub, an education center or just a community bike shop. “But somewhere in town, there’ll be a perfect fit,” he says. “Hopefully, someone will call with a space.”

The Cruiser Co-op

Responding to decades of complaints about parking, the University of Montana has developed an innovative program that allows students to check out brand-new bicycles for up to two days, just by presenting their Griz Card.

“The bikes are free!” says Nancy McKiddy, UM’s transportation specialist and coordinator of the ASUM Cruiser Co-op. “You can check out up to four when your family or friends come to town.”

With nearly half of the bikes in use just one week after they were made available, McKiddy believes the program will be successful at getting people on bikes and out of their cars. In the past, bringing a vehicle to campus has meant purchasing a parking permit and struggling to find a parking space everyday—a frustrating and often fruitless task.

“Parking is the number one complaint,” says McKiddy. “But no more parking is going to be built. It just gets filled up and still you have the same problems. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Instead, the University has tacked a single dollar onto student service fees and purchased the fleet of shiny yellow cycles, packed with commuter-friendly features like baskets, fenders, locks, helmets and pedal-powered front and rear lights. The low step-over height makes for a comfy ride and keeps them recognizable, if a bit bizarre in appearance.

“They look odd, but that keeps them theft-proof,” McKiddy says.

Although other universities have started similar programs using reconditioned bikes, UM is setting the national standard by investing in brand-new, heavy-duty bikes.

Adding that they aren’t designed for trail riding, McKiddy stresses that they’re a blast to ride around town. “Everybody that gets on ‘em comes back convinced, saying ‘That’s really fun!’”

But fun aside, McKiddy understands that people moving to a new university may be reluctant to give up their car.

“People really equate freedom with their vehicle,” says McKiddy. “We’re interested in teaching people that you really can live without it.”

Missoula in Motion

City Attorney Jim Nugent rides his bike to his office in City Hall nearly every day. “My personal goal is 200 days a year,” he says. “I’ve already passed 100 days this year.”

Nugent is not alone. Missoula in Motion, a consortium of city, county and private agencies, oversees an array of new programs such as the Better Way Commuter Club and the Commute for Loot program. These innovative programs encourage downtown personnel to bike, walk, bus or car pool to work. For Nugent, this equates to a gift certificate worth $99.25, simply for biking to work the last six months.

“It’s a good program,” says Nugent. “It helps create an awareness and encourages people to think in terms of alternative transportation.”

In turn, the Missoula workforce is realizing the benefits of leaving their cars at home. For instance, a program at St. Patrick Hospital has been successful in getting nearly 300 people, or 25 percent of its workforce, to take advantage of covered parking and the gift certificate incentive program by commuting without a car.

“At more than $12,000 per parking space, it would cost $2 million for a parking garage for city employees,” says Kelley Segars with the Missoula County Office of Planning and Grants. “But the Better Way Commuter Club program only costs $3,500 a year.”

For anyone breathing our valley’s air, that’s great news. According to a recent study by the City/County Health Department, nearly two-thirds of Missoula’s air pollution is attributed to cars. So by reducing the number of people commuting in cars these programs aim to reduce the amount of burnt petroleum we inhale.

The Missoula Vortex

Like spokes on a wheel, mountain bike trails and winding roads radiate out of Missoula, providing recreational and competitive cyclists alike with a variety of options for both training and competitions. Less than a half-hour ride away, Pattee Canyon and the Rattlesnake and Blue Mountain Recreation Areas offer some of the finest mountain biking in the state.

Local fund-raising events such as the Ecology Center Classic attract riders from across the country. “This is a great town for riding,” says one racer. “It’s definitely an option for me to move here in the future.”

Pedal Powered

Local businesses are catching on, too. Aaron Nicolarsen, for example, an employee at Le Petite Outre, delivers bread using the city’s growing system of bike lanes and paths.

And a recent study of Missoula’s trail system reveals that about 1,000 people use the Kim Williams Trail over a 12-hour period. During the same time, 650 people used the Bitterroot Branch and Milwaukee trails near McCormick Park. These are great numbers, says Kelley Segars with the Office of Planning and Grants.

“For a community our size, we’re definitely in the top five of non-motorized commuters nationally,” she says. “And we’re expecting the numbers to go up, way up.”

Still, City Councilmember Tracy Turek proposed last week to abolish four key programs critical to the advancement of alternative transportation in Missoula. Feet First, the Bicycle/Pedestrian Office, the Open Space Advisory Committee and the Non-Motorized Transportation Steering Committee would all go the way of our dwindling petroleum resources, if her proposal is followed.

“Obviously not every City Council person understands how important non-motorized transportation is to Missoulians,” says Segars. “Maybe it’s a good opportunity for Missoulians to come out and say just how important these programs and trails are to them.”

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