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St. Paul’s Nice Ride failure shows need for downtown bike lanes
If the goal of Nice Ride was to get people to ride around downtown Saint Paul, last year has to be considered a failure. logo

I saw my first NiceRider this week, an Asian student crossing the Wasington Avenue bridge on the University of Minnesota campus. It seems that, barring massive snowstorms forcing the bright green bikes to scuttle back to their hibernation caves, the Nice Ride season is upon us. They’re even expanding again, adding 24 new stations along the river and in South Minneapolis.

This time last year, St Paul was celebrating a different expansion. The Nice Ride system installed 30 stations in downtown Saint Paul, and along Grand Avenue.

According to the NiceRide organizer, Bill Dossett, the focus of the Saint Paul expansion was on the downtown:

“The real focus this year is to do downtown St. Paul,” he said. “St. Paul is so tied to the river and is very much a river city.”

He said hotel patrons and downtown workers will be able to use the bikes to enhance what might otherwise be a walking lunch.

“The bikes make it easier for people to go a little bit farther on their lunch hour,” Dossett said. “Rather than being able to walk eight blocks, they’ll be able to go a mile or two and access the riverfront.”

Yet if the goal of NiceRide was to get people to ride around downtown Saint Paul, last year has to be considered a failure.

I did a rough survey of a representative sample of 10 stations from each of the downtowns, and the results are disheartening for Saint Paul bicycling. Of the ten stations in Saint Paul, only two locations came close to the 1,000 trip barrier. Most spots stayed well below 300 trips per season (or about two rentals per day per station). By contrast, even the worst performing Downtown Minneapolis station was almost at 2,000 trips, with the most popular (the IDS Center) exceeding 10,000 trips during the bicycling season. The total trips at the 10 Minneapolis locations was 46,379, while Saint Paul’s locations equaled just 5,594, a tiny fraction of the city to the West.


A comparison between 10 Nice Ride stations in each downtown.

Why were Saint Paul’s numbers so dismal?

There are lots of potential culprits for the gap between downtown Saint Paul and downtown Minneapolis’ bicycling numbers. Most obviously, Saint Paul is more hilly. Lowertown is literally lower than the rest of downtown, and to escape from the core, you’ll encounter a hill in almost any direction. That might explain some of the variance. (On the other hand, last week I watched a Pedal Pub very slowly go up the hill at 4th Street, and they were having a great time. Overall, downtown Saint Paul is fairly flat, so I don’t think this is explains the difference.)

Similarly, there are more jobs and people in downtown Minneapolis than in downtown Saint Paul. The downtown Minneapolis residential population is 36,000; Saint Paul’s is only about 8,000. Likewise for jobs: Minneapolis has about 160,000 jobs while Saint Paul has about 60,000.

Still, that doesn’t really explain the gap to me. At worst, you’d have to expect that Saint Paul might have one third or one fourth of the number of bicyclists. (They currently have 12%.) The dismal numbers must have another explanation. What might it be? Are people in Saint Paul so different from people in Minneapolis?

In my opinion, the huge gap can be explained by one simple thing: Nice Ride bikes are mostly useless without Bike Lanes!


The downtown Minneapolis bicycle master plan.

Downtown Minneapolis is filled with bike lanes. In fact, at least a dozen streets (except Washington Avenue) have designated space for bicycles. In Saint Paul, unless you’re a tiny section of Jackson Street, you’re not even going to find a single bike lane anywhere downtown.

That’s not to say that people don’t ride bicycles in downtown Saint Paul. I do, others do, lots of people ride bicycles through the city. We just do it in regular street lanes, because we’re used to riding bikes in the city, used to navigating in traffic.

However, Nice Ride is aimed at a different audience. Throughout the US, bike share systems target people who aren’t that comfortable riding bicylces: tourists, museum goers, office workers on their lunch break. These kinds of riders really need designated spaces to ride, places where they feel comfortable and safe on the street. And that means bike lanes or off-street trails, which are about as common in downtown Saint Paul as a snowplow in July.

Saint Paul has good intentions and fine goals. The city has a new bicycle coordinator (who writes for this very website), and has been working on a bicycle plan for some time. But without bike lanes in downtown Saint Paul, those eye-catching green bikes are are for urban bicycling what those Snoopy statues are for street life. They’re strictly symbolic. Maybe this year will prove me wrong, but I’m afraid that until Saint Paul has contiguous and comfortable bike lanes downtown, Nice Ride will remain a underused symbol of good intentions and lack of action.


This post was written by Bill Lindeke and originally published on Follow on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 04/10/2013 - 12:12 pm.


    It’s important to mention that St Paul’s Nice Ride season got a late start v. the Minneapolis season. They didn’t open them up until June…

  2. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 04/10/2013 - 03:33 pm.

    Just wondering . . . . .

    Just wondering what the ethnicity of the student seen biking across the Washington Avenue bridge had to do with the point of this story and why the author felt it necessary to make note of it?

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 04/11/2013 - 11:30 am.

      here’s your answer

      I find it interesting that one of the groups that seems to use the Nice Ride bikes quite frequently on campus are the international students. They seem more adventurous and open minded about bikes than many of the US students, for some reason.

  3. Submitted by Michael Skillrud on 04/10/2013 - 05:16 pm.

    We don’t need to spend more tax dollars on bikes and bike lanes

    No mention of revenue, income/loss. What is the total program cost? What is the true cost per rider?

    FYI – I bike a few thousand miles or so a year and much of it through DT Saint Paul and around the city. I have no problem riding through downtown and around Saint Paul on streets without bike lanes. It’s so simple. Just get on my bike and ride. In fact, I find it can be much worse riding on streets marked with bike lanes, as many drivers get aggravated that bike lanes exist. Jefferson Bikeway is a good example. I used to bike up and down Jefferson Avenue without any issues. Since the designation of “Bikeway” I get hear more negative shouting from drivers. The same goes with Fairview.

  4. Submitted by John Mark Lucas on 04/11/2013 - 08:50 am.

    Street level environment and advantages

    I agree with your observation and you can also say the same for pedestrians. There are just limited amenities at street level to attract people down from the skyways. Because of the small size of the downtown and the combination of freeways, hills and river that surround it, a more aggressive approach to addressing these barriers is also required. Having said that, with the completion of the majority of LRT related works last year, perhaps the streetscape could start recovering this year. We have to approach this too from the demand side and look at how we can encourage more users. Perhaps encouraging the major employers in downtown St Paul to include nice ride subscription as part of the benefit plan or some travel demand management initiative? Like serving trips between the various government offices. Bike systems elsewhere are successful because they offer an advantage and this has mostly been over automobile delays/ congestion, parking costs, even transit costs. Since we do not have congestion or parking shortages in downtown St Paul, we have to work harder at developing that advantage.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/13/2013 - 03:31 pm.

    Very Nice.

    I’d never noticed the lack of bike lanes Downtown St. Paul. I usually ride in MPLS and Western burbs. I wonder if it makes more sense to put the bike stations along University, Lexington, Summit, etc. first? And of course the St. Paul Campus of the U.

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