Our county government wants to promote more residential development. But more development results in more congestion on our roads and more demand for parking; both forms of infrastructure that are costly for the government to build and maintain. And our reputation for bad congestion deters people from moving into Montgomery County.
It is therefore reasonable that the government should be promoting alternative transportation modes: public transit and the ways of accessing transit like walking and biking that allow people to leave their cars at home. Think Amsterdam and hundreds of European cities where large numbers of citizens rely on bikes to both commute and carry out the chores of everyday life. The County’s Planning Department and Department of Transportation are moving to build infrastructure and other improvements to make bicycling by average residents both safe and attractive. Both Rockville and Bethesda have achieved Bronze status as “bicycling friendly communities” with bike lanes marked out on streets, wayfinding signs pointing the way to bike routes and destinations, and many bike racks in central business districts. This summer the Planning Department is rewriting the Bicycling Master Plan to reflect the best practices that will be adopted to improve bicycling whenever streets and roads are being redone.
But the great majority of residents in this county fall into the category of those who are reluctant to take up bicycling because they are fearful for their safety. Many have never learned to ride a bicycle. Others haven’t been on a bicycle since they were children, and have not experienced the pleasures and conveniences of adult cycling. Summer and autumn are great seasons to try out and master this great mode of transportation.
One of the best ways to give bicycling a try is the Bike Loaner Program at the C. & O. Canal National Historic Park. This is a free service provided on weekends and holidays at the Great Falls end of MacArthur Boulevard in Potomac. This program is little known, but it has an intriguing history. In 2004, the U.S. Park Service had $50,000 to use for an “active trails” program. Park Ranger Peggy Gaul stationed in Williamsport applied for and received a grant of $14,000 to create a Bike Loaner Program and bought 18 trek bikes. Park Ranger Lisa Dittman worked with lawyers to develop the necessary disclaimer and waiver forms and the Bike Loaner Program was launched in Williamsport in 2010.
In 2012, Ric Jackson joined the Bike Patrol program then volunteered to help maintain the bikes at Williamsport Bike Loaner Program. He was impressed with the popularity of the program and the volunteers running it, so he started working to bring the program to the Old Tavern at Great Falls.
The program in Potomac started small in May, 2012. Six of the trek bikes from Williamsport came down the river to join 9 donated bikes. Ric’s first responsibilities were to reword the forms for the Great Falls site and to develop a corp of volunteers. He tapped into the volunteers already working with the Bike Patrol, and was soon joined by Bill Knight and Vin Le-Si – his first two bike maintenance volunteers. The original 15 bikes were, over the last three years, supplemented by 175 donated bikes providing a much greater variety of styles and sizes – bikes for every body type, taste and ability.
Now in its 4th season, the Bike Loaner Program starts in early April or as soon as the tow path is dry enough to insure pleasant and safe cycling, and runs through October or November depending on weather. Despite its popularity, the program can be a bit tricky to find. It is now located in the old restroom building built by the CCC in 1928.
The process to borrow a bike is simple. As Ric described it, “you leave us your driver’s license, keys or your firstborn and we loan you a bike for free for two hours.” There is some flexibility in the two hour period, and those who want a bit more time to allow for a picnic, bird watching or a session at an artist’s easel have only to explain their plans and more time will be allowed.
Now in its third year, the motto of the Bike Loaner Program is “Bikes Go Out and Smiles Come Back”. A favorite story is told of Father’s Day, 2014. An Israeli family of twelve – 3 generations led by a grumpy, 84-year old patriarch – borrowed their bikes and returned 2 hours later with the grandfather all smiles and hearty happiness. A transformation! Another tale is that of the two Slavic-speaking sisters who left their kids in baby carriages with their husbands and returned later bubbling over with their stories of their wonderful adventure.
The program at Great Falls has grown to meet the demand. Last year the 52 volunteers at Great Falls put in some 5,000 hours. Volunteers handle the paperwork, help find the right bike for each rider, and because the safety of the bicycles is top priority, 24 work just on maintenance. But if you show up with your own bike and a maintenance volunteer is available, he or she will check over your bike and provide a tune-up, also for free.
For more information on the Bike Loaner Program contact Ric Jackson at (512) 422-3456 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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