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Nice Ride’s next roll: a conversation with Anthony Ongaro

A Q&A with the bikeshare initiative’s marketing director tells where the system stands and where it’s headed.

Anthony Ongaro aboard a familiar green bicycle.
Courtesy of The Line
The Line

The light-green rentable bikes of Nice Ride have become a pretty common sight in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the system, which debuted in June of 2010, is well on its way to becoming a real local institution, somewhat on the order of the Jucy Lucyburger or the Mary Tyler Moore statue — only a lot healthier and a lot more kinetic. In Sunday’s Saint Paul Classic Bike Tour, for example, there was an all-Nice-Ride heat in the King of the Hill race.

The program, which began in downtown Minneapolis, has been growing by regular increments over the last three years, expanding into parts of the Northside later in 2010, then into St. Paul in 2011 and 2012. In May of 2013, Nice Ride added stations in South Minneapolis and along the Mississippi. The Line got ahold of the bikeshare initiative’s marketing director, Anthony Ongaro, last week with the idea of seeing where the system stands, where it’s headed, and if rumors of a green “ice-cream bike” were true.

The Line: Anthony Ongaro, what’s the latest on Nice Ride?

Anthony Ongaro: Well, one of the biggest projects that we’re undertaking right now is our new Greater Minnesota Initiative. We have a director of Greater Minnesota strategies; his name is Tony Desnick, and he is working full time on creating what the system will look like and working with the initial small cities to start really building the foundation for that program.

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The Line: Can you tell us the names of some of the cities involved?

Anthony Ongaro: We’ve been in talks, but we don’t have anything official at this point We’ve been to Austin, been to Bemidji, all over the place; there’s interest in a lot of different places but we don’t have any 100-percent-settled places yet. We’re looking for towns that are ready to make a commitment to biking and wanting to create a “bike place.” That’s the term we’re using.

The Line: A bike place — what does that mean for you?

Anthony Ongaro: It’s a place where, eventually, someone could hop on a bus, head into the city, and know that they could get a bike to ride. A place with good restaurants and other destinations to go to that are accessible by bike. A bike place can be pretty small —we’re not really limiting it in terms of size — but that there are characteristics that we’re looking for in terms of density and what’s already been established by way of bike paths and infrastructure.

The Line: So you can take advantage of what’s already in place.

Anthony Ongaro: And help continue that momentum.

Longer-distance bikes for outstate

The Line: Have you had requests from outstate cities and towns to come and develop a Nice Ride system?

Anthony Ongaro: Yes, we get calls all the time from cities all over the state saying, ‘Hey, we want Nice Ride here.  How do we get it?’  The reality is the Nice Ride system that we have here in the Twin Cities is not something that is cost-effective to operate on a smaller scale. Our system here is set up for short trips, half-an-hour trips, bouncing between stations, doing errands, riding around the lakes a bit, things like that. In a smaller city we would want to have a system that accommodates longer rides — where you would be able to very inexpensively rent a bike for a longer period of time and ride it around. So we’re looking at bikes that are more durable, with fenders, lights built in, and all that good stuff.

The Line: Do you have a time frame for when you’d like to have this operating in, let’s say, a few substantial cities outstate?

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Anthony Ongaro: As for the timeline, we’re really hoping for 2014.  We’re moving full steam ahead right now with the plan and proposals and we’re really pulling everything together — so we’re looking at as early as the spring 2014.  

The Line: Tony is out and about, talking to these towns?

Anthony Ongaro: Exactly.  And I should mention as well that we’re really only able to look at these options for expansion into Greater Minnesota because of our title sponsor, Blue Cross and Blue Shield. They’ve been providing the funding to bring someone on and really work on this expansion. 

As big as Paris 

The Line: What kind of expansion plans do you have for the Twin Cities  south Minneapolis or Eastside St. Paul perhaps?

Anthony Ongaro: In the Twin Cities I feel we’ve done a really great job of expanding the system. In fact at this point the geographic spread of our system is the same as that of the Paris system, the Velib’, if you can believe that. We have a very similar system size as Paris but the flip side of that is that Paris has about five times the stations that we do. So the big focus for next year will be doing what we call inspansion.

We’ll really be working on identifying strategic locations for stations within our system that will act as network stations and be very effective in improving the usability of the system. More stations should enhance people’s ability to get to work with Nice Ride and only walk a block or two instead of walking maybe three or four blocks or more from where they might be located.  That’s the big focus for next year.

The Line: Creating a closer, denser kind of structure then?

Anthony Ongaro: Adding density, exactly.

High heels and ice cream 

The Line: I’m interested in some of the more offbeat ways that people are using Nice Ride, the ways in which it’s becoming a real local institution. For example, I’ve heard there’s an ice cream bike in the system somewhere. What’s that all about?

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Anthony Ongaro: Well I can tell you that the bikes do get a lot of unique usage. Some of the interesting responses I’ve gotten come from Facebook posts, which have been quite amusing. Several women said that whenever they’re wearing high heels downtown they’ll take a Nice Ride bike because pedaling is much more comfortable than walking in heels. A wedding party recently used Nice Ride to get from the ceremony to the reception. And I heard about someone who recently joined Nice Ride because she was pregnant and found that ours was the most comfortable bike to ride during the pregnancy. She rode up until 42 weeks pregnant!

Courtesy of The Line
The Nice Cream bike.

The ice cream bike — we call it the Nice Cream bike — is a single Nice Ride bike that was converted to a tricycle. It has a big tub on the back; it’s a bicycle-powered ice cream maker. You put in the salt and the ice and all that stuff, and after riding for quite a while and churning you get ice cream. It’s something that we use as a promotion for various open-streets events, things like that. Unfortunately, you can’t rent it.

The Line: So I can’t have my own ice-cream-making evening on the bike.

Anthony Ongaro: No, although that would be lovely.  

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.