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Heedless parking in a dockless world: How Minneapolis is looking to sidestep problems with next gen bike-sharing

Nice Ride docking stations
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Rather than renting and returning bikes to the now familiar Nice Ride docking stations in Minneapolis, dockless bikes in some cities can be left almost anywhere a personal bike can be locked up.

Sometime this August, Minneapolis riders will begin seeing the first evidence of something becoming common in other large American cities: dockless bike sharing.

Rather than renting and returning bikes to the now familiar Nice Ride docking stations in Minneapolis, a dockless bike can be left almost anywhere a personal bike can be locked up. Each satellite-connected bike can be located, locked and unlocked by riders with an app, a fob or even something like a Go To transit card.

But the city, Nice Ride, the nonprofit that oversees the city's bike-sharing program, and biking advocates have also been working to head off complaints common in those other cities where dockless bikes have been introduced: bikes run amok.

It seems that even though the bike vendors require dockless bikes to be parked in legal places — and in ways that don’t block sidewalks — some riders don’t actually comply. And some vendors don’t respond rapidly to complaints.

To remedy those problems, Minneapolis is considering implementing what is being called virtual stations, an elegant name for a rather pedestrian solution. Bikes would be directed to be left in designated spaces throughout the city, areas marked by nothing more complicated than paint or perhaps plastic bollards. Cheap and easy to relocate, the use of virtual stations would also allow many more locations where bikes can be rented and returned than the current dock-based system.

Minneapolis is also going to designate a single company to operate the system. Nice Ride will still oversee the relationship with the company selected to run the program, Motivate, which was chosen from six bidders. In return, the company is being asked to meet certain requests regarding pricing, data privacy and especially equity.

Ethan Fawley, the executive director of Our Streets Minneapolis, which was formerly the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, said he supports giving exclusivity to one company.

In exchange for that exclusivity, the city should demand broad access to the system across that city, Fawley told the council’s Transportation and Public Works Committee Tuesday. That means, for example, that areas with high percentages of people of color and lower income families should have equitable access to bikes.

“We want to make sure the city is holding strong to getting something really good in exchange for exclusivity,” he said. And while the organization has concerns about the concept of virtual stations, trying it for a three-year pilot period is a good idea, he said. But he’d prefer not to demand that virtual stations are the only way of vending bikes.

“I think it is limiting to say that that’s the only way that we can provide access to bike- share bikes while maintaining a safe and accessible sidewalk and public right of way,” Fawley said. He’d prefer the city and Nice Ride have flexibility over the three-year pilot period to use other methods.

While the transportation committee approved changes to the underlying ordinance that governs bikes to allow for bike sharing and dockless bike sharing on Tuesday, it held off on making changes to its contract with Nice Ride for two weeks.

The rise — and evolution — of bike sharing

Minneapolis partnered with Nice Ride starting in 2008 to create a bike sharing pilot. What began with 65 docking stations and 700 bikes has now grown to 200 stations and 1,850 bikes. (St. Paul also has a Nice Ride sharing system.)

Over the years, Minneapolis has contributed $360,000 to the program and passed along about $3 million in federal nonmotorized transportation funds to help finance the operation.

But the still fledgling industry has evolved quickly, and technology now allows dockless bikes to be locked and unlocked individually rather than at stations. Such bikes can be located via a smartphone app and unlocked with a code or a scan of the phone.

According to a report compiled by Minneapolis city staff, more than $3 billion in private investment has helped deploy 20 million dockless bikes worldwide, with rental prices that are usually below those of station-based systems.

The city also worried that unregulated, dockless bike share could draw multiple companies, which could flood the city with bikes in an attempt to win market share. In cities such as Dallas and San Diego, residents have complained about riders leaving bikes piled on sidewalks, and disability activists are concerned about blocked access on city sidewalks.

“I think we’ve all seen YouTube videos that range from disconcerting to downright scary,” said Council Member Kevin Reich, the chair of the transportation committee.

Three brands of dockless bikes in San Diego.
Three brands of dockless bikes in San Diego.

Nice Ride’s pending deal with Motivate would require it to maintain the 1,500 bikes for this season, first in current docking stations and then dockless. It would then add 1,500 bikes in 2019 and 1,500 more in each of 2020 and 2021 as usage targets are met. Current Nice Ride employees, except the executive director position, will be offered jobs with Motivate. And Motivate is already talking to Blue Cross Blue Shield about maintaining its title sponsorship for the bikes.

As Nice Ride does now, Motivate would share usage data with the city and others, though not data that identifies individual riders. It will also continue to operate the docking stations as it phases in the dockless system. Pricing for the dockless bikes will start below the current Nice Ride rate and not exceed the price of Metro Transit bus fare.

“That’s lower than I’m charging now and I’m losing money,” said Nice Ride executive director Bill Dossett after Tuesday’s hearing.

Under the pending arrangement, the city would have authority to approve each virtual station location and could also limit the number of bikes if bike parking behavior becomes a problem. The city can waive any fees if a virtual station takes up street parking spaces. Nice Ride will pay $5 per bike per year to cover city administrative costs.

Dossett said there is a necessary tradeoff between the city and a bike share company. The company needs use of city right of way for parking and wants exclusivity — to be the only company offering the service. In return, the city (via Nice Ride) can ask for concessions on pricing and equity. “We want to make sure we get more,” Dossett said after the hearing.

Yet both Nice Ride and the city have an interest in helping assure that Motivate can make money. “We don’t want to have a situation that would be a repeat of what happened with Car2Go, where you had a private company come in an invest a bunch and then pull out and leave us with less bike share,” he said.

“I don’t disagree (with the council) that this is a challenge to figure out,” Dossett said. “The city has to balance all kinds of competing things in the right of way and things change. Three years from now there will be different things operating in the right of way than there are now. They need to maintain a reasonable level of control. At the same time they need to give us enough rights so we can operate a bike share system for three years.”

Minneapolis will not be the first city in the state to go dockless. That honor will be claimed by Golden Valley sometime this spring.

Dossett said once the agreements are approved, Motivate can order the bikes needed for dockless sharing. He anticipates the bikes to be available “in a big way” in August. And while the system will be dismantled for the winter as the current docking stations are, Dossett said there is a potential for a more-limited winter biking system.

Nice Ride is sponsoring a public meeting next Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Day Block Brewing to begin planning the dockless system and the design and location of virtual stations.

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Comments (4)

I liked Nice Ride

Since Nice Ride started we have paid for seasons pass. Some years I haven't even ridden one but we wanted to support the whole idea of bike sharing. There have been many problems with dockless systems both in the US and outside the US. One of the big up sides to having a dock is Nice Ride has done a very good job keeping bikes in good operating condition and keeping them clean. I can't imagine how it will manage this with dockless bikes. I believe that any system that depends on people in general doing the responsible thing rather than the convenient thing will fail. From texting while driving, to properly recycling, to just our snow emergency parking it is impossible to get people to do what is necessary for a system to work well.

Bikes run amok?

That's nothing compared to all the dockless cars floating around the city.

A couple questions

1) How would the system accommodate someone whose trip spanned two cities - e.g. picking up the bike in Minneapolis for a destination in St. Paul?

2) Will there be ways for people to use these systems if they don't have a data-enabled smartphone?

just a hint

Here's a hint to the companies wanting to offer this service: you might get fewer complaints about the bikes being an eyesore if you didn't paint them in neon day-glo colors.