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MN2020 - Making Bike Sharing Work in the Twin Cities
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Making Bike Sharing Work in the Twin Cities

September 10, 2009 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
 
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, France. 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.

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, D.C., 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.

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.

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.


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