MINNEAPOLIS—In March 2012, when winter was at long last loosening its hold on the plains of Minnesota, something a bit unexpected showed up in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. On each of three street corners, 5,000-pound blocks of ice appeared overnight. Trapped inside were the bright green bikes of the city's bike-share system, Nice Ride.
The ice started melting. Spring was on the way. And, these days, spring in Minneapolis means taking a Nice Ride.
The publicity stunt, dreamed up by the local creative consultancy Persuasion Arts and Sciences, is typical of the playful spirit that Nice Ride has embraced from its inception in 2010. There's a bit of self-deprecating humor in the name of the system, a wry acknowledgment of the state's "Minnesota nice" reputation.
Truth is, much like the cities where it operates, Nice Ride is nice. Checking out one of the system's 1,550 bikes is indeed a pleasant experience, as is riding along the city's well-developed bike infrastructure, which includes 92 miles of on-street bikeways and 85 miles of off-street paths—many of which are high-functioning commuter routes, not just recreational byways.
Maybe all this niceness comes from the ground up. Because unlike bike-share systems run by private management companies hoping to make a profit or those under the aegis of city government, Nice Ride is run by a nonprofit organization operating according to a distinctly public-spirited philosophy.
"That's one of the things that's a big reason for our success: We're a mission-focused organization," says Anthony Ongaro, Nice Ride's marketing director. "Our mission is to make a place better and healthier and more livable."
The nation's largest bike-share program, the year-old Citi Bike in New York, is struggling with questions about its business model, its ability to keep the system's bikes from being stolen or abandoned, and various other logistical challenges. Meanwhile, Nice Ride has quietly kept growing.
It launched in 2010 with 700 bikes and an operating budget of $420,000. Of the $3 million capital investment that got the system going, a third came from the private sector, with title sponsor Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota kicking in a million bucks. The rest came from the public sector, mostly in the form of a federal grant from the Federal Highway Administration's Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program, championed by then-Congressman James Oberstar.
This season, Nice Ride is fielding more than 1,500 bikes and has an operating budget of $1 million, 65 percent of which comes from user revenues and the remainder of which comes from sponsorships and grants. The organization has 11 year-round employees and a high-season staff of 30. It is slowly branching out from its geographic core, which centers on downtown Minneapolis (population about 400,000), and is trying to build ridership in St. Paul, the state capital just a few miles to the east (population about 300,000). Nice Ride is also starting a new program to expand bike-share to smaller towns in Minnesota and piloting an effort to get bikes into the less affluent neighborhoods of the Twin Cities.
In Minneapolis itself, the system has become part of the fabric of a once-fading city clearly on the rebound.
"The population peaked in 1950 and reached a low point in the 1990s," says Bill Dossett, executive director of Nice Ride. "When I moved here, all the riverfront was parking lots or old warehouses. In 1995, Nice Ride never would have worked. Nobody lived downtown. On a Saturday morning, there was very little going on. Now it's been developed. Many more companies are focused on recruiting Millennials. And they are focused on living downtown and having transportation choices."
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Biking around Minneapolis in the halcyon days of late spring and early summer reveals a city that feels like it's preparing for an increasingly prosperous future. Construction crews are everywhere, building new residential developments in a downtown that was long ago hollowed out by urban renewal. A brand-new light rail line has just started running between the Twin Cities, easing the commute of thousands and creating a new kind of physical connection. A grand hall originally built as the trading floor of the Minneapolis Grain Exchange is now finding new life as CoCo, a collaborative space filled with startups and entrepreneurs, some of whom have come here from bigger and more expensive cities to find a different pace and environment. The city is also markedly more diverse than it was 30 years ago, thanks in part to significant refugee resettlement programs that have made Minnesota home to thousands of people originally from nations such as Somalia and Cambodia.
Both sides of the Mississippi riverfront that divides the Twin Cities are alive with people running, biking, going out to eat and drink, or just enjoying the well-maintained parks, where relics of the city's heyday as an exporter of grain and grain products are artfully preserved and incorporated into the modern streetscape. And Nice Ride is one very visible part of the equation.
"Especially downtown, Nice Ride has made a huge impact," says Ethan Fawley, executive director of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition. "It's helping to evolve the image of the bicyclist. I was talking recently to a businessman who doesn't feel he can ride to an event on his own bike, but he can ride Nice Ride."
As if to prove that point, on a recent sunny day, one of the people steering a bright-green bike down Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis was R.T. Rybak—the mayor of Minneapolis when Nice Ride launched, and one of the organization's board members.
Minneapolis may seem like an almost stereotypical vision of a revitalizing American city, but it is also very much its own Midwestern self. It's a place with a long-standing connection to the surrounding natural world and a powerful sense of its own history and cultural traditions, which include strong Scandinavian and Native American elements.
Nice Ride has aimed from the beginning for an authentically Minnesotan identity rather than linking itself to a national or international bike-share brand, according to Joseph Duffy of Duffy and Partners, the design firm that helped create Nice Ride's brand identity—on a pro bono basis. "It's ownable," says Duffy, who is on Nice Ride's board. "We thought it would be better for us to have something proprietary."
Nice Ride does use the same bikes and stations as New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and many other larger cities. They are made by PBSC/Bixi, from Montréal, a company that has fallen on hard times and whose legal and financial turmoil has occasionally bled into the Minnesota system. However, Dossett says the recent bankruptcy of Bixi has actually freed up his organization to upgrade outdated software and make other positive changes.
"Getting past the whole PBSC litigation has unleashed a whole new wave of development," says Dossett. "Our customer service can solve problems faster." He says he's not worried about future hardware needs, either. "I'm confident I'll be able to buy equipment. I'm not convinced that an all-inclusive contract is the way to go. While the last year was ugly, my belief is that the industry us going to get better, products are going to get better."
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Promoters of bike-share in the Twin Cities can point to the gold "Bicycle Friendly Community" status that Minneapolis was first awarded from the League of American Bicyclists in 2008. That honor is earned by places that demonstrate a combination of progressive bike infrastructure and education, enforcement of bike-friendly laws, and the presence of a strong bicycle community (only 22 other places in the country hold gold or the higher platinum status). The area is also very flat, allowing for easy pedaling.
But Minneapolis does have a couple of inherent qualities that make bike-share a tougher sell. First, and most obvious, is the weather. Winters are long, dark, and punishingly cold (there were 53 days in which the thermometer dipped below zero this past winter). The bike-share season runs only from early April to early November, if all goes well, and that break gives people plenty of time to slip out of the Nice Ride habit over the winter.
Nice Ride organizers have combated the six-months-of-winter problem a couple ways. They've used advertising stunts like those ice-encased bikes and taglines like "Grab Summer by the Handlebars" and "Solar Vortex." They're also experimenting with a new 30-day "pay as you go" membership category. For $15, these members get 30 days of bike-share access and can then let their membership go dormant (they can easily reactivate it for another 30 days by checking out a bike from the system). A regular one-year membership costs just $65, and both types of membership entitle riders up to 60 minutes of free bike use on each trip.
The more daunting challenge facing bike-share in Minneapolis-St. Paul may be that this metro area of 3.4 million is just a little too nice for its own good. It doesn't have the harrowing traffic and insanely competitive parking situation of larger, more congested cities. It's just really easy to drive here. So promoting bike-share as an alternative to being stuck in traffic doesn't work in Minnesota, says Duffy. "We knew we had to do something a little bit different."
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Bemidji, Minnesota, is a lakeside town of about 14,000 people that lies more than 200 miles north of downtown Minneapolis, a favorite getaway for city residents. It's also the focal point of Nice Ride's newest effort to increase the reach of bike share in Minnesota.
Anthony Desnick, Nice Ride's director of Greater Minnesota strategies, says the organization's research has shown that lots of Minnesotan communities are interested in bringing bike-share to their local streets. "There's incredible pent-up demand," he says.
While installing a full-fledged docking-station-style system might not make sense for the small city of Bemidji, Minnesota, Desnick says that doesn't mean this type of community isn't a good candidate for some form of bike-share. "We think about ourselves being more about the goal than the tool," says Desnick. And if the goal is to get people using healthy, active transportation in all parts of their lives, Bemidji and places like it are a natural fit.
"We tried to identify those places that were already, or could be transformed into, bike places," says Desnick. "Places where you could come for a long weekend and not touch a car." Places frequented by summer-hungry Minnesotans, with some key amenities: lodging in town, rather than on the highway; a walkable downtown with things like good coffee and good beer; and access to trails that would take people into the leafy green surroundings. Bemidji seemed like a great place to start.
Desnick says Nice Ride is starting off in Bemidji by deploying 200 bikes manufactured by the Dutch company Van Moof. They'll be available to rent by the hour ($6) or the day ($20), with weekday discounts for Bemidji-area residents. Blue Cross Blue Shield is underwriting the effort, which Desnick says demonstrates how corporate support has been key to Nice Ride's evolution. "Blue Cross has allowed us to be really creative," he says. "We keep innovating. We're just a scrappy organization. The leaders of the organization are cleaning the bathrooms and setting strategy."
As bike-share comes to more and more cities around the nation, it's becoming clear that there's no one-size-fits-all solution. What works in D.C. might not work in Chattanooga or Austin. And as New York's experience shows, high-profile problems can undermine confidence in even a very popular bike-share system.
"I think that the nonprofit owner-operator model has been a very good one for us," says Dossett, who notes that Denver is working with a similar structure. "We would do it again, and I would definitely recommend it to other cities."
He cautions that meeting the expectations of businesses while coping with the vagaries of government can be difficult. "When you think about a public-private partnership, pace matters," says Dossett. "If you're trying to get a $1 million sponsorship, you can't say, 'It's happening seven years from now.'"
Ongaro, the marketing director, also emphasizes the key role played by local partners like Duffy, as well as Roepke Public Relations, both of which have donated time and services to the Nice Ride effort. "We're just so lucky to have those people to help with our cause," says Ongaro. "They give us things that we wouldn't have in any other earthly scenario."
What is it about the Twin Cities that has enabled people to pull together and build Nice Ride into a genuinely nice thing for the city? Anthony Desnick admits it's hard to pin down the X factor that makes Minnesota so nice—and thus makes Nice Ride tick.
"By and large the Twin Cities are a liberal, progressive community," he says. "There's always been a communal understanding of how to make things happen as a group. I'm not a sociologist. We're just lucky to live in a place that's like that."