Wild Art / Shutterstock.com

A pilot program in Minnesota will combine bike-share with canoes and kayaks to encourage multimodal travel around the Mississippi River.

In the Twin Cities, shared transportation is headed off-road: The National Park Service is planning a combination canoe- and bike-share pilot, scheduled to launch next year. The project will open a short stretch of the Mississippi River to increased recreational use with canoe/bike stations at appropriate launch points (probably three of them).

In combination with existing trails, restrooms, and Nice Ride Minnesota bike-share stations, the shared boats will allow amateur paddlers to craft a multimodal water-based outing—perhaps involving a canoe trip downstream, a break for a picnic lunch, and a bike ride back to the point of origin—without investing in expensive equipment.

The idea for the canoe- and bike-share came to Susan Overson as an “a-ha” moment in the middle of a larger planning effort. Overson is a landscape architect and park planner for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (Mississippi NRRA), administered by the park service.

With funding from NPS and retailer REI, and additional support from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Overson had been working on developing a system of “alternative gateways” to the Mississippi—activity-centered points of access that are easy to reach without a car. Meanwhile, she had connected with Mark Riverblood, the parks superintendent for the city of Ramsey, about 30 miles northwest of Minneapolis.

Riverblood oversees a small but thriving canoe- and kayak-share program at Ramsey’s Sunfish Lake Park. “It seemed like the infrastructure was in place to develop a pilot project using the canoe-share Mark had already developed, with a biking component,” Overson says. “From there, it took off.”

The pilot will integrate canoe-share with existing Nice Ride bike-share stations. (Nice Ride Minnesota / Flickr)

The pilot, which carries a total price tag of approximately $150,000, involves three components: bike-share (using the existing Nice Ride system); canoe-share, with six or eight boats at each station; and ADA-accessible docks. Money for the boats themselves was not included in the National Park Service grant of $132,000, says Overson, but REI has promised $20,000 and is interested in donating equipment.

With the money in place, Overson is focused on the critical details of the plan. The first has to do with how users access the boats. One (more expensive) option would involve custom canoe/kayak stations integrated with a smartphone app. Users could view availability and reserve boats ahead of time, then unlock them using a digital pass. Another possibility is a more spontaneous system like that at Sunfish Lake Park, where boats are available during park hours on a first-come, first-served basis.

As for the cost to the user of the canoe- and bike-share, “we haven’t decided if there’s going to be a fee,” Overson says. Nice Ride requires customers to purchase a pass or membership before borrowing bikes, “but there might be a way to provide that, too, if we can come up with federal funds and can provide operations and maintenance, which we are still trying to figure out.”

Another big question is where the first canoe-share stations will be installed. Overson has made a series of scouting trips to different stretches of the river, examining the placement of Nice Ride stations, checking trail conditions, and identifying promising docks.

Volunteers tested shorter and longer boat/bike outings on this stretch of the Mississippi, northwest of Minneapolis and St. Paul. (National Park Service)

For two of the trips, Overson recruited groups of volunteers to try a combined canoe/bike journey. The first test group began at Mississippi West Regional Park, paddling nine miles to Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park. The return journey was a 12-mile bike ride. The second group traveled from Coon Rapids Dam to North Mississippi Regional Park—seven miles by boat—and then biked seven miles back.

Susan Overson of the National Park Service

“The feedback we got from the people we took out is that a shorter stretch with longer options” is preferable, says Overson. The second test “was a shorter stretch, and that one felt right. But I’m thinking even shorter—a three-mile canoe, biking the three miles back, with a stop for lunch. You don’t have to go all day. But you could, once multiple stations are in place.”

The necessary permits and permissions should come through in time for a Summer 2016 pilot. “I don’t see too many obstacles besides just figuring out where the pilot will be—the combination of distance, safety, where there’s adequate amenities that make for a smooth, seamless experience,” Overson says. “As we learn, we’ll expand out to other areas.”

Stakeholder and public feedback has been positive. “Normally one of my jobs is to advocate to develop the system,” she notes. “What we’re finding with this one is that people are coming to us.”

Top image: Wild Art / Shutterstock.com

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