Will the big green bikes you can pick off the streets of Minneapolis for a ride every summer be around for much longer?
Those bikes belong to Nice Ride, the nonprofit that manages the city’s bike-share system, which allows people to rent bikes on a short-term basis. The City of Minneapolis’ agreement with Nice Ride, which involves $3 million in federal transportation funds, ends on Aug. 1.
On Wednesday, the City Council’s Transportation and Public Works committee voted 5-0 to forward an item to the full Council to extend the city’s agreement with Nice Ride so it can continue providing bike share in the city until Nov. 1. In the meantime, the city is working with Metro Transit, the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, and the University of Minnesota to solicit proposals to run the next generation of Nice Ride.
Nice Ride first came to town in 2010 and has weathered financial problems, ridership issues and a host of other challenges in the years since.
When it first started, few bike share systems existed across the United States, and advocates were initially nervous about whether people would use it. Yet after the city secured a federal grant to start it, local universities, food co-ops, and an array of businesses — including the Birchwood Cafe, Bryant-Lake Bowl, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and Target — contributed money to the system, which afforded them access to advertising spots at its most visible stations.
The system soon became a hit, mostly with visitors and those wanting the option of bicycling but with the flexibility to connect with transit and without the stress of ownership. Over the last decade, the service has been used for 3.6 million trips in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The nonprofit that ran the system, also called Nice Ride, eventually ran into financial problems, however. Sponsors like Target withdrew, and Nice Ride officials ended up searching for a private operator to ensure that the system could operate sustainably long-term. Two companies sought to get the contract, with Motivate, a bike-share operator with systems across the United States, taking over Nice Ride’s operations in July 2, 2018 — the same day Motivate itself was bought by San Francisco-based ride-hailing app company Lyft.
Now a part of Lyft, Motivate’s deal with nonprofit Nice Ride brought an array of changes. While the nonprofit was able to keep the green bikes, Motivate claimed ownership of the Nice Ride brand, the fleet’s spare parts, and the customer service operations. Most of nonprofit Nice Ride’s staff, except for Executive Director Bill Dossett, became Motivate — now Lyft — employees.
Since the takeover, Lyft also introduced new vehicles into the Nice Ride fleet, including blue bikes meant to be parked in striped-out spaces (instead of the docks used for the traditional green bikes), scooters and electric bikes (which replaced the blue bikes last year). Nice Ride also introduced new shared scooter-bike racks, the first of their kind in the nation.
While the scooters and electric bikes, which can be parked on those shared racks, have become the flagship of Nice Ride’s fleet, Lyft is still contractually obligated to continue operating the green bikes to provide users a cheaper alternative, charging no more than a $2.50 local rush hour transit fare per 30-minute trip on the green bikes.
To also ensure low-income people can access the Nice Ride system, Lyft introduced and funds the Nice Ride For All discount membership program for low-income riders. While it had 975 enrollees at its peak, in 2020 that number was down to 175 enrollees, a decline attributed to a lack of community events to recruit members during COVID, and the fact that memberships do not auto-renew.
Ridership also continues to struggle, declining by 47% over the past four seasons. The pandemic hastened the ridership toll, despite partnering early on with one of its sponsors to offer free trips for health care workers.
Declining ridership may also affect whether Nice Ride will operate in the winter. While its agreement requires Lyft to introduce a winter pilot by 2021, Dossett doesn’t think that will happen anytime soon. Usage goes down in winter weather, Dossett said, and its existing fleet isn’t durable enough to withstand road salt. “It would require a winter-specific bike, and we’ve encouraged Lyft to experiment with that,” Dossett said.
Customer service also seems to have taken a hit. Lyft no longer lists the Nice Ride customer service phone number online, and asks those with inquiries to complete a form, tweet, or email them. Minneapolis resident Dianna Krueger has noticed the bikes in the classic fleet being in bad shape and said that staff has not being proactive in redistributing its bikes across the system; she waited for almost an hour on multiple occasions to speak about the situation with Nice Ride customer service. “I’m at the point of giving up on Nice Ride come next season,” she said.
When Emily Wade, a local bicycle advocate, conducted a survey about bike sharing in the Twin Cities earlier this year, she found that people want to see “more of what’s working,” including more stations, more bikes and more service in underserved communities.
Nice Ride left St. Paul in 2018, after the City of St. Paul declined to enter into an exclusive agreement with the company to operate the system. After soliciting such proposals from different companies, St. Paul entered into an agreement with Lime, the San Francisco-based bike share and scooter share company, which operated the city’s bike-share program for three months before leaving.
It’s now unclear if St. Paul will ever have a bike-share system again. Nice Ride ridership in St. Paul was comparatively low to that of Minneapolis, with no more than 12% of all Nice Ride trips starting or ending in St. Paul. St. Paul also struggled to woo a company to run a bike-share program, as no companies submitted proposals to run such a program when it asked in 2019, the year after Lime stopped making bike share available.
A Lyft representative said at an electric bike launch event in Minneapolis last year that it doesn’t believe St. Paul has the density to support bike share. However, it continues to have conversations with the City of St. Paul about returning.
For now, though, the focus of those who want to see the continuation of bike-sharing in the Twin Cities is on Minneapolis. And though Nice Ride is likely to around for the rest of the year, it may look very different — with new bikes, branding and ownership — when 2022 rolls around.