The Twin Cities’ docked system has a proposal to go dockless—without the chaos and sidewalk clutter.
Over the last year, dockless bikesharing has galloped into cities across the United States, swiftly doubling the number of shared bikes available on city streets. The GPS- and app-based technology these services use allows bikes to float around cities, into neighborhoods where bikeshare had never gone before, or where docked systems have failed to catch on. But the venture capital-backed bike invasions have also stoked anxiety over vandalism, bike clutter, and city regulations.
Since the first dockless pilots in the U.S. began, some companies have been acquired by ride-hailing companies or pivoted to e-scooters; others have beat a messy retreat. Meanwhile, their predecessors and quasi-rivals—docked bikeshare systems like New York City’s CitiBike and D.C. Capital Bikeshare—have been slow to expand their networks as they face the next challenge of reaching new riders.
Now a new pilot proposal in Minneapolis is attempting a hybrid between docked and dockless systems. The nonprofit Nice Ride MN wants to add 1,500 dockless bikes to its existing docked network. The key feature is a low-tech but intuitive fix for keeping free-range bikes under control: put down some damn parking spots.
“It’s going to be the first site-planned, permitted dockless program that uses designated parking spots,” says Bill Dossett, Nice Ride’s executive director. “We chose given the shift toward the dockless approach that the better thing to do was to act proactively and change.”
Nice Ride first brought bikeshare to the region in 2010; in July, it signed over system operations to Motivate, the largest private operator of public bikeshare systems. The contract allows Nice Ride to hold onto the brand loyalty it built while giving the program a chance to expand—but carefully. “We have a process where quarterly we sit down with the operators, Motivate, and our right-of-way owners, the city that will relate to quality, reliability, equity, all of these goals,” Dossett says.
Using just tape and signage along with the in-app GPS to designate parking or adding decals to existing bike racks, Nice Ride’s new master plan calls for about 140 new “virtual hubs” for the system’s future bikes, while also adding parking spaces next to 60 of the most popular 200 existing physical docks.
“Upholding expectations about right of way was what attracted us to this virtual station approach,” says Joshua Johnson, the mobility manager at the city’s Department of Public Works. “It will allow for the benefits of rapidly expanding access without having the disorderliness or chaos that’s associated with the free-floating systems. We’re trying to get people out of cars and on bikes by making a transportation system. That means making sure it happens with us and for us, not to us.”
This is not a completely new idea: Seattle experimented with designated bike parking for privately operated dockless bikes this year, not much more than a year after scrapping the city’s Motivate-operated docked system. And Portland’s Biketown had dockless before dockless was cool—way back in 2016—with a Motivate-operated system deploying Social Bicycles (now Jump) that could be left at “smart docks” that had a smaller footprint than the standard kiosks. But Minneapolis is the first example of introducing dockless technology to a previously all-docked system, showing where cities with legacy systems can go next.
Using GPS on the bikes to sense when riders are in designated hubs will be new, but the on-street or behind-curb parking itself will be completely familiar. “We already know how a parking spot works. In terms of the design, it’s the easiest to understand. That will bring the most level of compliance for Minneapolis,” says Antonio Rosell, a consultant at Community Design Group who’s been working with Nice Ride on the master plan.
The real innovation of dockless may be the fact that the equipment is much cheaper, so expanding the system has fewer barriers. Adding that technology to an established legacy system could be what a system like Nice Ride needs to make a dramatic expansion, quickly and cheaply. “Before a station was about $30,000. Now it’s about $80,” says Rosell. “That will make a more dense and useful system.”
Nice Ride’s first round of expansion in 2018 will nearly double the system’s bike count, adding of 1,500 dockless bikes alongside the system’s 1,700 docked cousins. The plan then calls for adding another 1,500 in 2019. If usage targets are met, they’ll do the same in 2020 and in 2021. Ideally, it will come to a grand total of 7,700 bikes and hundreds of virtual stations across the Twin Cities. “It’s going to be the best of both worlds: We get the organization and the maintenance but we also get the ubiquity of bikes everywhere,” Rosell says.
The hope is that design can be a tool for ramping up bike density over the next three-year contract, filling in the existing network gaps for the relatively sprawly bikeshare map. The new station design will make it easier to find new places to leave bikes by key stops like commercial spaces, transit stations, parks, sports fields, libraries, and apartments.
“It’s going to make for a more responsive community engagement process,” says Rosell. “We might have had 20 different neighborhoods saying, ‘We want a bikeshare station here.’ But before we only had funds to purchase six. With this model, if an apartment building or a supermarket says we want one here, all they need is some tape.”
The Minneapolis model stands in stark comparison to the one that other cities employed, in which a colorful gaggle of competing private operators vie for market share and sidewalk space, which has been a source of friction in places like Dallas. Twin Cities bike boosters think Nice Ride’s proposal for a more managed approach is a better fit. “Sustainability isn’t just putting a solar panel on a roof and saying it’s done,” says Rosell. “It’s building institutions that can last, that will be available to us in the future. It’s not about Company A and Company B competing by wasting venture capital. That’s not about bicycling; that’s not about equity. Sustain it, build it, and work to achieve the common good.”
Rosell says that cities should have a sense of ownership of what they’re offering up when they allow private bikeshare companies into town: A city’s trails, lakes, and rivers are also shared public resources, just like streets and sidewalks. “When you think about protected bicycle lanes, it’s a sustained investment going back 100 years into the foundation for bicycling,” he says. “We have this chain of lakes, the rivers, the paths—the city has been the steward of that.”
The city’s existing cycling community is another valuable product of a city’s investment in bike infrastructure: Despite its climate challenges, Minneapolis frequently tops rankings of U.S. cycling-friendly cities. About 5 percent of its residents say they use a bike to get around, compared to the national average of about 1 percent, as Vox reported in 2015. “In places where there are well-established bikeshare systems, it’s a fruit ready for picking,” Rosell says. “In the same way that Uber operated with the taxis, it’s a market that’s ready for a disruptive model to pirate it.”
That public purpose is also why Rosell says the expansion would be so important: The limited reach of most docked bikeshare systems have kept membership for most systems stubbornly white and wealthy. “This change in technology is going to be able to bring access to more communities.” he says. “I cross the Mississippi every day going into work on my bike at the Stone Arch Bridge and I’ll see families on the green [Nice Ride] bikes and I am just imagining all of the different families having access to well-maintained bikes right next to where they live that they can drop off anywhere. Multiply that throughout our whole city and it just fills me with happiness.”