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Making bike sharing work in the Twin Cities

Can a single transportation innovation improve public health, the environment, traffic safety and the business climate? Minneapolis organizers of what promises to be the nation's first large-scale, state-of-the-art public bicycle sharing program say it can do all that and more.

Nonprofit Nice Ride Minnesota plans to inaugurate a $3.7 million system of 1,000 heavy-duty bikes and 80 locking kiosks in and around downtown Minneapolis next May. For an annual fee of $60 or a daily charge of $5, you'll be able to take unlimited free rides of up to half an hour between the computerized locking stations. 

This is NOT your father's Yellow Bikes, the ill-fated Twin Cities experiment in two-wheel socialism that collapsed years ago amid rampant theft and vandalism of the canary-colored rolling stock. That effort was decidedly low in technology, investment and economic discipline, although newer-format Yellow Bikes have done well elsewhere. (More on that later.)

Nice Ride has learned from that fiasco, and even more from the near-instantaneous success of latest-generation bike-sharing programs in 100 cities worldwide, starting barely two years ago in Paris. Since then, the City of Lights has racked up 54 million trips on its Velib' system of 16,000 bicycles serving an area of 2.1 million residents — with a 94 percent approval rating from users.

"You can't get those numbers unless you incentivize short trips," said Bill Dossett, Nice Ride executive director.

Modeled after Paris' system
Systems like Paris', upon which Nice Ride is modeled, rely on membership or credit-card access technology to unlock bikes, plus rider identification and price incentives to ensure their prompt return. You'll pay $1 for a second half-hour on a Nice Ride bike and steeply rising rates for subsequent periods. And because of the electronic card record, Nice Ride will know who you are and where you live.

The Paris model has spread quickly throughout western Europe and eastern Asia. Montreal launched North America's first such program just four months ago with 3,000 bikes. In the United States, cities such as Boston, Denver, New York, Seattle and Washington are actively planning to follow suit.

Minneapolis may have a leg up on all of them with a $1 million grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota announced this month, a $1.75 million commitment of federal bike-walk funds and $350,000 from the city of Minneapolis. Still needed to secure the federal money are pledges of another $600,000 in private donations and kiosk sponsorships over three years, Dossett said.

Credit to Blue Cross
Dossett gave credit for the progress so far to Blue Cross. The big health insurer says Nice Ride will "make it easier for Minnesotans to be active in their daily lives, as our well-known 'do' campaign advocates. With two-thirds of Minnesotans overweight or obese, we need creative solutions such as Nice Ride to put the brakes on this trend. Public bicycle sharing can help more Minnesotans lead active and healthy lifestyles."

So there's the public health angle. For the environment, Nice Ride will replace dirty horsepower with the clean pedal power of a projected 14,500 initial annual subscribers and 50,000 one-day users. For traffic safety, there's reduced automobile congestion and a likely decline in bicyclist injuries and deaths as two-wheelers attain a critical mass (not the Critical Mass street-hogging demonstrations) on city thoroughfares. Studies have shown a decreasing risk for riders with increased bike modal share, probably because of greater awareness of their presence among motorists.

Business climate, too? Dossett said bicycle sharing promotes exploration of the city and increased patronage of shops, museums and eateries. "It's a different experience to see a city on a bicycle than behind a windshield," he said.

The first phase
Nice Ride's first phase will station bike kiosks two or three blocks apart April through November from Uptown to downtown to the University of Minnesota Minneapolis campus and nearby commercial districts — an area that bustles with 350,000 residents, workers and college students. Future expansions could include parts of St. Paul and other high-density areas along major transit corridors. Bike sharing provides a strong complement to bus and light-rail service.

The rides will be on sturdy, if not stylish, sharing-specific $1,000 bicycles fitted with full fenders, lights, multiple gears and cargo capacity — the kind that have drawn millions of riders worldwide.

In Austin, Texas, a down-market Yellow Bikes program that uses junked bicycles rebuilt by volunteers has thrived for years. The beater bikes aren't secured, but their shoddiness discourages theft and makes that which occurs acceptable. Thieves have pried bikes out of kiosks in some of the European programs, too, but recovery rates are high, Dossett said. The latest equipment is more tamper-proof, he added.

We've tried and failed with Yellow Bikes in Minnesota. It's time to move on to the most promising new way of promoting healthy, economical and enjoyable two-wheel urban mobility.

Conrad deFiebre is a transportation fellow at Minnesota 2020, a progressive, non-partisan think tank based in St. Paul. This article originally appeared on the organization's website.

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Comments (3)

I'm pretty skeptical about this little scheme, and I say that as a huge bike supporter and bike commuter myself.

The thing about serious bike commuting is it requires a real commitment and practice. Even in the relatively bike-friendly Twin Cities, it takes months to become comfortable in traffic, to learn routes that are best for bikes, and in general not get yourself killed or give drivers more excuses to hate bikes. The last thing those of us who know what we're doing need us a bunch of yahoos on rented bikes causing trouble all over the city. What we DO need are more bike lanes and paths, which could be funded with this money.

Americans are not Europeans. Whatever socialist-friendly leanings I may have, I also know that Americans like to own, customize, and have pride in their own stuff. A workable starter bike is a $500 purchase; with most people tooling around in $30,000 cars, I think we'd be better to encourage them to drop a little on their own bike and learn to adapt bike commuting as a serious part of their lives, not a one-time joyride through angry traffic.

WHile the Paris system is an excellent opportunity to see the city by bike, the system only works on cards that have the european microchip in them. Most of the current north american cards do not contain this chip. Was there in August and had hoped to ride the Champs Ellesyes(?) but could not do so with our credit cards. We were told that there is no current plan to allow access by US cards. Brussells does accept north american cards. If you have any update to this info - great! Good job Twin Cities!!!!!

Look, it is fun to criticize the old yellow bike program, but you should also get the story straight. The program was not ‘low in technology’- the technology simply did not exist in any economically approachable form. It was 1996. What prevalent technology from 1996 should we have used?

Also, the program solved the loss issue after the second season. We shifted to bikes that were simply put on the street to the model which Nice Ride is copying: We had bikes at ‘hubs’. People would join the system for a one time fee and then check the bikes in and out from the hubs. The check out process was human mediated rather than technologically based: you would walk into a store, give them your membership card, and then they would give you a key to a bike. I fail to see why you criticize what we did as “socialism” when the Nice Ride folks are doing the exact same thing. After this switch the losses dropped dramatically. And even when we had somebody “permanently borrow” a bike, it really just meant that we sold it for the cost of a membership fee. The idea that all the bikes were stolen is a myth propagated mostly by Joe Soucheray and the Garage Logic Folks.

The claim that it was also short on “economic discipline” is absurd. I guarantee that the cost per bike of the yellow bikes will be far less than the Nice Ride. We funded our program based on an initial LCMR grant which paid for an executive director. After her funding ran out the program was continued completely without public funds. We sought our own private donations and worked our butts off as volunteers to provide community bikes. Sure, if we had $350,000 from the city, $1.75 Million from the Feds, and $1 Million from Blue Cross we likely could have done a better job. But to take over $3 Million (of mostly public money) for Nice Ride and then criticize a group that worked with a maximum annual budget of ~30K for lack of “economic discipline” is silly.

So whatever did happen to those yellow bikes? Actually I just saw one still on the street about a month ago, locked up in front of the Triple Rock. The bikes are still out there getting people to where they want to go. For free; without 2 Million in tax payer dollars subsidizing them. But after a few years of running our Hub system we decided that it was much more financially prudent and effective to simply give or sell bikes to the people who need them. So we shifted from running a community bike program to running a community bicycle shop- the Sibley Bike Depot. And guess what? The Sibley Bike Depot is still going strong. And surprise, surprise- just last week the Depot got a grant from the same pool of money as Nice Ride to start a “Community Partners Bike Library”.

It is interesting how the bicycle activism landscape has changed in the years since Oberstar got the big chunk of money for non-motorized transportation. Lots of new organizations and lots of new people interested in promoted bicycling. I wish the Nice Ride program success and look forward to seeing them on the street. But how about not being such as ass when discussing the efforts of the hundreds of volunteers who worked to promote bicycling when there was no huge pot of money floating around to tap into?