Friday, March 10, 2017

Southwest MS rail-trail adds miles


             Like the little engine that could, after about twenty years of trying, the Longleaf Trace, is complete.   The asphalt recreation path is about ten feet wide and runs through the Piney Woods country of south Mississippi from the historic district in Hattiesburg, MS, 42.5 miles northwest to Prentiss, MS.
             The Trace became one of the longest railroad-right-of-ways to be converted to a recreational trail in the southwestern U.S. when in 2000 about 40 miles of the Trace opened to walkers, runners, hikers, skaters and cyclists.  A partially complete side path for horseback riding parallels the Trace. The  Gateway Center, at the University of Southern Mississippi, serves as the eastern trailhead for the Trace.  There is free parking near the Gateway Center (there is no fee to use the Trace).  Bicycles can be rented at the Gateway Center.
                But the Gateway Center is not the beginning of the Trace.  Milepost 0.0 for the Trace is the railroad station in Hattiesburg's historic downtown district, about two miles to the east of the Gateway Center.  (Unless you are shipping freight by train or a passenger boarding Amtrak's "Crescent" connecting New Orleans with New York, there is nothing to see or do at the station.  But the historic downtown is fun to explore.)

              Those driving to the Gateway Center to park for their ride of the Trace are no longer permitted to park in the large parking lot next to the high rise dorms in front of the Gateway Center.  A new lot, exclusively for the Trace parking, has been built just north of the dorm lot.  Access it via 4th St.
            That last, short stretch of the Trace bringing the trail into downtown Hattiesburg was opened in June 2016, completing the vision of a trail leading from the train station to Prentiss.  (In the 1990s it was thought a rights-of-way for a recreation trail could be secured all the way from Hattiesburg to Natchez, MS.)  The Trace is blacktop and separate from busy 4th street as it leaves east of the Gateway Center but becomes a painted lane as it moves closer to downtown.  The lane is well marked and well signed. 
             The train station is in an historic district of brick and timber warehouses mostly abandoned when business gravitated west to be closer to Interstate-59.  Not everybody left.  A first class supplier of outdoor equipment and apparel, Sacks, stayed.  Try to schedule your ride on the trail at a time you can visit this icon of Hattiesburg. 
            The Crescent, an Amtrak passenger train connecting New Orleans with New York City, stops at the station twice a day; once heading northbound and once heading southbound.  There was a time when the station offered baggage service.  This permitted bicycles to be loaded on and off-loaded the baggage car. There is no baggage service offered now at Hattiesburg.   Only carry on luggage is permitted.  Baggage service is offered at some other stations; the closest to Hattiesburg is Meridian, MS.  How cool would that be to load a bicycle on the train early in the morning in New Orleans, have breakfast on the train, then off-load the bike in Hattiesburg and begin riding the Longleaf Trace right from the station! 
            The main draw of the Longleaf Trace is the 40-mile stretch from USM to Prentiss.  This is piney woods country and the right-of-way slices through a number of woodsy vistas and verdant farms.  Several small towns; Sumrall, Bassfield, Carson and of course, Pentiss, offer opportunities to stop, rest and snack on a nearly 80 mile out and back trip from Hattiesburg. Sumrall has a casual dining restaurant next to the Trace.  Away from the widely spaced commercial areas flanking the trail are numerous rest areas and picnic tables and benches.
   For more information on the Longleaf Trace visit the blog post "Longleaf Trace: Mississippi's Premier Rails to Trails", 4/25/2013, in new orleans outdoor companion. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Bike share preview in New Orleans extended through March

A rack of Social Bicycles Inc. at the Basin and Bienville Streets rack
 by Jack Curry Jr.

           Bike share is coming to New Orleans this fall.  Social Bicycle (SoBi), a New York company chosen by the New Orleans City Council to manage the service, will launch with 700 eight-speed cruiser bicycles posted to 70 racks scattered throughout the Downtown, Central City and Mid-City areas of the city.   SoBi has promised to expand the service to 90 stations and 900 bicycles during the course of the five-year contract with the city.

          New Orleans Bike Share is a program approved by the New Orleans City Council in November of 2016 and run by SoBi allowing people without a bicycle take one for a short trip of one to three miles,  ride it to or near their destination and lock it up for the next rider to use, "sharing it."

          Bike share advocates are quick to assert that bike share is not the same as bicycle rental.  Bike share bicycles are usually used for short trips then locked ready for the next rider.  Fees make it expensive to use the bike share bicycle for more than an hour each day.   An example of how city planners hope bike share will work would be; a commuter takes a bus from a yonder suburb to the CBD then completes the last one or two miles of the trip using a bike share bicycle from a convenient rack. Rack/stations are also be called "hubs". 

          "For long trips and meandering, bike rental or personal bikes are the best," says Dwight Norton, Urban Mobility Coordinator for New Orleans.  "There is no reason you can't enjoy a longer ride, just be mindful of the clock and returning (the bike share bicycle) to a station."
          A preview of the plan, downsized to about 35 bicycles and 11 bike racks/stations, began in mid-February and will continue until the end of March, city officials recently announced.  Search for to bring up a map of where the bicycle racks are located and how many bicycles each has available. Follow the prompts at the SoBi site to register for an account number and password allowing you to unlock a bicycle..  The fee is $15 for the month of March.  This permits one hour of riding each day.  The clock does not stop when you stop.  The only thing that stops the clock is to lock the bike to a bike rack at the end of the ride.  Additional time is billed at $0.13 a minute ($8 an hour).  Riders who do not want the month-long registration can sign up for the hourly rate of $8 per hour.  A year-long membership for $20 will be available to low-income users in the fall, SoBi says.

            SoBi  is offering the bikes and racks to the city at no charge in exchange for the free use of public infrastructure (sidewalks and streets) to install the racks.  The plan is privately funded through sponsorships, advertisements and rental fees.

          To keep up with the progress of bike share in the city, visit  Here you will find the latest developments in the establishment of bike share in the city and links to You Tube videos showing how the SoBi bike share program will operate in New Orleans.

          In the coming months SoBi, with city planners, will hold public meetings and discussions about where to put the 700 racks.  Comments and suggestions from the city's citizens are welcome at these meetings or can be made via the Internet to: Dwight Norton; bikeshare@nola,gov.   Business owners who would like a rack near their property or who would like to advertise with SoBi should contact SoBi.

Waning "Gibby" Gibbous previews the Preview.

            Hi.  I am Waning "Gibby" Gibbous, Bicycle Editor here at new orleans outdoor companion.  While I am only a "more than half but less than fully illuminated" literary device to explain what actually using the bike share scheme in New Orleans is like, I do know bicycling.  So grab your helmet and lets go for a ride.

           I gave the SoBi bike share scheme a try one warm February morning.  SoBi requires all bike share users to create an account before bikes can be unlocked from the rack.  I registered from home using a laptop by visiting the SoBi site.   But if you have either an Android or Apple smartphone and a WiFi connection you can access the SoBi site and register from anywhere.  SoBi recommends users have a good grasp of how passwords work on their devices before trying to establish an account.
           A high-tech solar powered module at the rear of the bike connects to SoBi via the Internet.  Unlock the bike by punching in your account number and pin using the keypad on the module.  The clock starts as soon as you unlock the bike and does not stop until you lock it at the end of your trip.  Renting the bike is called a "reservation".
          This is the basic info to get started.  While fairly simple and straightforward be sure to view the SoBi videos on You Tube to get important details about using the SoBi bike share works in practice.
          It took me three tries to get a working bike from the rack of six at the SoBi hub at Bienville and Basin Streets.  When I attempted to enter my freshly minted six-digit account number and four-digit pin into the keypad interface of the first bike, some numbers registered very slowly, some not at all.  Moving to the next bike I was able to enter my account# and pin to unlock the bike but after riding it a few yards I discovered the seat post clamp was broken allowing the seat to sink down into the frame every time I sat on it.  (A SoBi You Tube video recommends doing a safety check on the bike you choose before leaving the station.  Check tires, brakes, lights and bell (twist the left handlebar grip) and set the seat post at the right height for your leg length.)
          The third bike I picked worked like a charm and I headed off to the nearby Lafitte Corridor recreation path for the ride.

         The bike is nice.  White with matching fenders it has a step-through frame for easy on and off.  Pedal power is transferred to the rear wheel via an enclosed driveshaft so there is no greasy chain to stain the cuffs of long pants.  The brakes are disk (good stoppers when the weather is wet) and well modulated.  A panic stop did not cause the wheels to skid yet the bike stopped promptly just the same. The bike rides comfortably.  The seat post is adjustable up and down so you can get the proper leg length.  A sturdy and small front basket will hold up to 20 pounds of purses, lunch, cameras or a very small, very well behaved dog.

          SoBi claims the bike is tamper resistant and hard to steal.   Should you have a flat or other breakdown while riding, there is a button to push on the keypad to alert SoBi.  All bikes are equipped with GPS.  Just lock it up to the nearest bike rack in the SoBi service area.  SoBi will find it.   If you take it outside the SoBi service area and it breaks down, that's $20.  The real-time GPS on the bike provides a map of where you went, the distance of the ride, even how many calories you  burned riding.  The calorie burn seems high but the bike must weight nearly 50 pounds.  Old Gibby would hate to have to lift it.

          None of the bikes I saw had child seats so I doubt that is an option.  The rear rack is taken up with the control module.  The lowest setting for the seat looks to fit someone maybe 4' 11".  This is a family activity if your family is all adults.

          When you set off from a SoBi hub into city traffic remember that you have rented only a bicycle and not a bicycle utopia.  Despite the starry-eyed boosterism of local bicycling advocates, riding a bicycle in New Orleans is a risky endeavor requiring full-time concentration and a healthy skepticism that any driver will actually do what it looks like they are going to do.  Bicycling in the city is very popular with bicyclists.  With drivers, not so much.

          Wear a bicycle helmet when you ride.  Bring your own as they are not supplied with the bike rental.  Because the SoBi bikes do not have rear-view mirrors, consider mounting a bicycle rear-view mirror, available at bike shops, to your helmet.  I was riding for less then a minute on Basin St. when I was nearly squeezed off the bike lane and into a line of parked cars by a driver veering right to turn onto Toulouse St.  Riding without a rear-view mirror makes me nervous.

         Leave the ear buds at home.  You need all your senses to ride safely in the city, especially considering the numbers of distracted drivers there are tooling around the French Quarter and the CBD.  Wear brightly colored, even gaudy, clothing when you ride to catch the attention of drivers.  Consider sporting a safety vest like construction workers wear.  Don't ride dangling cameras and purses and hand bags.  Put them into the sturdy front basket supplied with the bike.  It will hold up to 20 pounds, SoBi videos say.   Always cross street car tracks, wet or dry, at a right 90 degree angle.

          When riding stay in your lane, be very careful at intersections, making eye contact with drivers there and use hand signals.  If you don't know any hand signals, make up your own.  Pedestrians have the right of way and can suddenly move laterally in surprising ways.  They don't hear you approaching from behind.  The bell on the bike is next to useless so use your voice to warn them of your presence.  Louisiana law permits cyclists to use the streets and roads but don't push your luck.

         I didn't have anywhere to go for my test ride, so I just rode from the rack at Basin and Bienville Streets, east on Rampart St. to the Lafitte Greenway and toward the American Co.  Because the meter is always running on the bike, riding it to the nearby New Orleans Museum of Art for a visit would have been expensive. Riding there, viewing the museum and riding back to the closest SoBi rack would take well over the daily hour I am allotted adding $0.13 a minute for the rest of the time I was using the bike.  Bikes do not have to be locked to a SoBi rack at the end of a trip but there is a $1 charge when they locked to another bicycle rack in the service area.

          If the plan works as intended this fall with 700 racks it could prove to be a fun, useful and healthy transportation addition.  This is the story of a basic out and back ride.  There are plenty more ways to make the system useful for you.  Be sure to view the SoBi You Tube videos for the details.

           So have fun, ride carefully, and share a friendly wave with every SoBi rider you see during the preview.