Libraries take a hit while Bikeshare expands

Libraries take a hit while Bikeshare expands

To the editor:

Imagine my consternation when once again Alexandria’s libraries are on the hit list, while at the same time, the Capital Bikeshare program expands to the tune of $600,000 — on top of $360,000 already spent.

But wait just a minute: This is not an anti-bike proclamation. I love bikes, and probably everyone reading this loves bikes. I get it. Bikes are green, and biking is good exercise. Just think, though, with $600,000 you could buy everyone in Alexandria a bike.

So let’s talk about what this issue is — it’s fairness in spending. One of the major responsibilities of local government, after health and safety, is public education.

Alexandria’s education record is not a proud one. And what does the city do? It proposes cutting the budget for the critical public service that introduces children to books and the fun of reading and learning. The very libraries that provide research materials for avid students and that give a reading home to seniors who need to be out and about to stay healthy and mentally alert. Libraries are an essential resource for the low- and middle-income families who lack the money for high-speed Internet or books on Kindle or Amazon.

And yet every year Alexandria looks to the libraries for budget cuts. It’s just not right to give scarce money to programs that benefit a few. While our public libraries work, as they are intended, for everyone from 3 to 90, the Bikeshare program, according to a Virginia Tech study, serves a very small, special group. Its demographics are eye opening: white, young (with a mean age of 34.64) and 43 percent holding advanced degrees. These people can afford bikes and are welcome to use our trolleys, the Metro, DASH and the water taxi to move around our very walkable city.

Additionally, while Alexandria’s libraries are city-owned and operated, Bikeshare is a private, for-profit organization selling its program worldwide. Two large bicycle-friendly cities welcomed Bikeshare but without taxpayers’ dollars: Portland, Ore., and New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg dictated that no federal or city taxes would fund its program there.

Due diligence shows there are other bike-sharing programs that do not require expensive kiosks; viaCycle is one and operates on George Mason’s campus. So if Bikeshare wants to expand in Alexandria, let the parent company, Alta Bicycle Share Inc., use some of its profits and reinvest, which is what corporations are expected to do. That way, the city gets an expanded bike program but lets taxpayers off the hook.

Alexandria’s goal should be to extend rather than reduce the hours or books at its libraries. An analysis shows that two neighborhood libraries, Duncan and Burke, together service almost 60,000 more patrons per year than the main library. And this is despite Beatley boasting three times the number of employees as well as longer hours. These libraries should have their library hours increased, not cut.

In contrast, Arlington appreciates the needs of working families by keeping libraries open to accommodate working hours. In fact, two are open Sundays until 9 p.m. Since Beatley is not pedestrian friendly — and near only a few homes — perhaps it could be closed Sundays so that Burke, Duncan and Barrett can stay open instead.

Go visit a number of area libraries as I do frequently; it’s so heartwarming to see mothers, fathers and their children there. With arms full of books, those children will discover the wonders of storytelling. This is the beginning of a lifetime of reading for them. Walk around and see all the folks doing research or reading with their laptops. See the number of people at computers searching for jobs on the Internet.

I was told that Barrett serves large numbers of new residents and other adults searching for employment, yet librarians and patrons struggle constantly with IT problems that have been budgeted to be fixed — but have yet to happen.

Alexandria’s libraries are special places, and they should not have to struggle and beg for money every year. They should be fully funded along with fire, police and the school district.

Alexandria’s libraries serve many; Bikeshare is for a few. Seems like an easy solution to me: Cut Bikeshare and give the city some budget relief. Just ask Bikeshare to pay its way or find another vendor that will. The city already is giving it valuable public sidewalk space for free as well as on-street parking spaces. That’s enough.

Finally, the city should make sure taxpayers know that education and libraries do matter by restoring funding to prerecession hours and opening at least two neighborhood libraries on Sundays. After all, education is a great leveler. All Alexandrians — rich, poor or middle class — deserve the very best you can give them in this regard.

– Linda Couture