Walkability

Students and vehicles filter through campus on Tuesday, March 21 at Montana State University.

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Even as one of Bozeman’s more vocal bike commuters, Taylor Lonsdale can't quite make life work without a car in the picture.

He comes close, though, estimating he’s able to bike for 90 percent of his transportation, despite having two kids to drop off at school.

He brings a change of clothes with him to work so he can towel off after the ride. In the winter, he copes with ice by fitting his bike with studded tires. Using his custom-designed bike, he can buy groceries on the way home from work, haul a passenger or two, or even pick up a load of lumber at Kenyon Noble.

Regardless, he usually has a Ford Excursion parked in front of his North Bozeman home. As it turns out, his spouse is into horseback riding — which means he has a trailer to haul.

What to do about cars?

As Bozeman urbanizes, leaving its cow-town roots behind to become a bustling hub of higher education, tourism and tech companies, it’s cars that make for some of the city’s trickiest planning conundrums.

For one thing, building new streets and expanding old ones to handle additional traffic is hideously expensive — on the order of $1 million per lane per mile. For another, as the city looks to slow sprawl by permitting more high-density housing in its core, it’s unclear what to do about residents’ cars given the often-prohibitive cost of setting aside prime real estate for parking.

As developers and city planners see it, not every adult who makes a home in downtown’s current crop of mid-rise buildings should need a dedicated stall for a personal vehicle. Part of downtown’s draw, they say, is that having offices and restaurants close at hand makes walking most places a breeze — maybe it’s time to introduce Bozeman to the sorts of low-car lifestyle options already common in larger cities?

Zipcar-style car-sharing, for example, would give Bozemanites the ability to rent vehicles on demand as an alternative to personal ownership. Uber, the ride-sharing app, is already here. And driverless cars are on the horizon, too, looking likely to transform our transportation systems well within the lifespan of buildings designed and built today.

But this is Montana, naysayers respond — where pickup trucks, drift boats and horse trailers might as well come standard with Gallatin County license plates. If we give developers leeway for the sake of these newfangled ideas, are we consigning ourselves to undersized surface lots and overwhelmed on-street parking if they prove half-baked?

With Andy Holloran's contentious Black-Olive project heading before city commissioners Monday for a ruling, those questions need immediate answers.

His proposal, for 56 apartments with only 37 on-site parking spaces, represents the first time a developer has tried to use a city code provision conferring parking credits for a built-in car-share program. As its critics have pointed out, that means Black-Olive would have less than a single space per apartment, few enough that neighbors worry they’ll see residents swamp on-street parking in front of their homes.

After all, in the Bozeman of today even committed bike commuters like Lonsdale say they can’t escape car ownership entirely.

As we head toward the city of tomorrow, though, it's quite possible that car-sharing programs, geared toward providing vehicles for occasional use, might well change that calculus.

The city of today

Bozeman already has a few things going for it when it comes to non-motor transit — among them the Streamline bus system, a fairly extensive trail network and Uber’s arrival last summer. While those services have their gaps, getting around town without a personal vehicle is largely possible with time and endurance.

One local, Deanna Invergo, sold her old car shortly after moving to Bozeman five years ago, relying since on her bike, the bus and rides from friends.

Studying at MSU and working at Town & Country, she’s generally able to bike over to campus from her home off Church Avenue near Peets Hill, she said. She’ll also bike out to Spire Climbing Center — despite 19th being a bit nerve-wracking — and, at times, has walked as far as the Gallatin Valley Mall.

“Pretty much everything in Bozeman is walkable if you put in the effort,” she said. “Really, it’s not that bad.”

There are some downsides to going car-less, though, Invergo said. She starts work at 6 a.m., before Streamline service starts, which can be a pain when it’s cold and icy. She’s tried using Uber as a backup, but has found it doesn’t always have early morning drivers available and sometimes bunches up its active cars at the airport 20 minutes away.

While she hasn’t yet been able to save up enough to buy another car, Invergo also said, she is looking — mostly because it would let her get out of town more, hitting up concerts in Helena or Missoula.

“You certainly can’t bike up to Bridger Bowl,” she said.

The Boulder experience

Down in Boulder, Colorado, car-sharing is already part and parcel of the urban fabric. Its eGo car-sharing program has operated as a nonprofit since the late 1990s, today running 35 vehicles in the city of 100,000.

It’s a fairly simple model: Members subscribe and reserve cars through a Web-based booking system. Vehicles are parked in designated spots around the town, then checked out at rates based on rental time and distance.

While Boulder is twice Bozeman’s population and adjacent to the Denver metro area, eGo co-founder and operations manager Karen Worminghaus said she does think a car-sharing service could be successful even in Montana, pointing to successful programs in resort communities and college towns like Apsen, Colorado; Burlington, Vermont, and Ithaca, New York.

What she’s seen in Boulder, Worminghaus said, is that Uber and other ride-sharing services tend to work well for in-town trips but that car-sharing comes into its own for customers looking to run a series of errands or wanting to head out beyond city limits.

eGo’s offerings, for example, include ski-rack-equipped Subarus and pickup trucks, which Worminghaus said lets some of their members get away with owning something like a Prius as a primary vehicle while using a car-share for weekend excursions.

With about 40 members per shared vehicle, she said, perhaps two-thirds of eGo’s customers are occasional users, using a shared vehicle maybe once or twice a month to supplement a “car-lite” lifestyle. The remaining third are regulars, many using car-sharing as a way to avoid vehicle ownership entirely.

That translates into fewer vehicles on Boulders roads — or, more accurately, occupying its parking spaces.

And the numbers do in fact add up. According to one study looking at car sharing in the U.S. and in Canada, each car-share vehicle replaces somewhere between nine and 13 individually owned cars.

The price of (automotive) freedom

Given the non-trivial costs of owning, fueling and maintaining a vehicle — dropping down to a single car or becoming entirely car-free can make financial sense for households that aren’t driving extensively, even with a car-sharing membership thrown into the mix.

AAA, for example, estimates that the annual cost of owning a sedan is $8,558, assuming 15,000 miles driven — a figure that includes fixed ownership costs like insurance, taxes, and depreciation, as well as mileage-based expenses for gas, maintenance and tires.

eGo, in contrast, charges a $12 monthly membership fee plus $4.50 an hour and either 20 or 33 cents a mile depending on trip length, according to its website. Under its fee schedule, a user walking or biking during the week but making 100-mile, eight-hour day trips out of town most Saturdays would pay about $262 a month or $3,144 a year.

Extrapolating from AAA’s cost data, an equivalent light-duty driver putting 5,000 miles a year on a personally owned vehicle would pay roughly $5,795 in fixed ownership costs plus another $736 for gas and maintenance — for a total of $6,531, more than twice the eGo fee number.

Car-sharing does involve sacrificing some automotive freedom, though, in that you don’t always have a vehicle ready and waiting at a moment’s notice, depending on how many of your car-share’s offerings are checked out when you’re looking for a ride.

Worminghaus said that three-quarters of eGo’s reservations are made within four hours of departure, so members that have a set-time transportation need like a doctor’s appointment can reliably book a vehicle in advance. For more spur-of-the-moment things like a trip to the store, she said, it’s not necessarily that big a deal to wait an hour if a shared car isn’t immediately available.

A town like Bozeman would probably be served well by five to 10 shared vehicles, she said — with as few as two or three enough to attempt a pilot program in a dense area like downtown.

Even so, finding an operator for a development-specific project like Black Olive’s car-share could be a sticking point, given the operational logistics involved. (eGo’s website, for example, includes a detailed FAQ addressing everything from late car returns to handling accidents and whether it’s OK to transport a pet — only in a carrier, it turns out.)

“That will probably not be a trivial detail,” Worminghaus said.

The Black-Olive pitch

While the city has had a car-share provision in its development code since 2009 — longer, actually, than Holloran has been a Bozeman resident — his Black-Olive project could be the first time the idea gets a real test.

In a March 27 letter, he says both Zipcar and Enterprise have “expressed interest” in working with the Black-Olive project, but comes short of presenting city planners with a complete plan for managing the building's four car-sharing spaces.

While the city typical requires downtown housing projects to provide a single parking space per apartment, the car-share provision lets spaces dedicated to car-sharing count for five standard spaces, saving Holloran from having to add 16 spaces to the project.

He also says residents will be charged $75 to $100 a month to lease spaces in Black-Olive’s interior garage, saving residents who make do without cars — or who park solely on nearby public streets — as much as $1,200 a year.

Both the city and Montana State are looking at car-sharing, and HomeBase has been approached by other developers, he adds, which has him bullish on the idea.

“I think in a couple years you could see 15-plus cars in Bozeman,” he said.

‘A wonderful luxury'

Lonsdale, for his part, said he would be interested in a service that lets him rent an on-demand truck for his horse trailer.

He added that if the city charged a few hundred bucks a year for its currently free on-street parking, he’d probably end up storing his rarely used SUV someplace else, perhaps at the Gallatin Gateway horse barn where he currently stashes the trailer.

“I do think I should pay to park on the street,” he said.

The low-car lifestyle isn’t for everyone, he acknowledged, but as Bozeman grows into the brave new world of full-fledged cityhood it may well be right for quite a few of us.

Taking even 5 percent of Bozeman commuters off roads onto bus routes, sidewalks and bike lanes could make a noticeable difference when it comes to congestion, not to mention clearing out some of those precious downtown parking spaces.

And, besides, if the city gets to the point where it’s an easier choice for some residents to cut back on car ownership, the savings might even help local wage-earners afford the premium rents coming into vogue for downtown apartments.

Owning a vehicle, Lonsdale said, is “a wonderful luxury” — but one Americans are used for taking for granted, to the point where a car-sharing lifestyle seems like an undue hassle.

But, he said, that’s beginning to change as people start to see automotive-based freedom of movement something that can be rented piecemeal through a service, rather than something that needs to be owned outright.

“Mobility is an important thing,” he said, “but mobility doesn’t have to mean your own personal car.”

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Eric Dietrich can be reached at 406-582-2628 or edietrich@dailychronicle.com. He is on Twitter at @eidietrich.

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