Nice and neon

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June 7, 2010 // UPDATED 8:27 am - June 7, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// A Downtown debut for the nation’s largest bike-sharing program //

The bikes have arrived. The kiosks are in place. All that’s left now is a little fanfare.

And we do mean just a little. Just because Minneapolis’ bike-sharing program will be the largest in the nation when it launches June 10, with 700 bikes available at 65 kiosks, about 24 of which will be stationed Downtown, that’s no reason to show off. The program launches demurely on Thursday afternoon, with a slow lunch-hour cruise down Nicollet Mall, from the Hennepin County Central Library to Peavey Plaza.

About 100 riders will get to test drive the new neon green bikes free of charge, thanks to a group ride organized by Nice Ride Minnesota, the nonprofit created to oversee bike-sharing in Minneapolis. The ride begins at 11:45 a.m., leaving from the kiosk located outside the library at 4th Street South and Nicollet Mall, and finishes at Peavey Plaza around noon. Mayor R. T. Rybak will preside over a ribbon cutting ceremony there planned to coincide with the Downtown Council’s “Tunes at Noon” outdoor concert series.

Nice Ride Executive Director Bill Dossett feels confident the free test rides will result in subscriptions.

“I’m expecting a lot of people to sign up that day,” he said.  

A one-year subscription costs only $60 — $50 for students — and allows for unlimited access to all bikes and kiosks. Swiping an access card lets you unlock a bike, which you can then return to any kiosk around the city. As an added enticement, each annual subscription comes with a coupon book containing $500 worth of discounts to local restaurants and theaters.

Over the past few weeks, crews from Sieco Construction have been assembling and placing the solar-powered kiosks, which arrived May 24 from Montreal. Once Nice Ride launches, Sieco will also oversee the “balancing” of the public bike fleet, shifting fresh bikes to high-traffic kiosks with the help of a pair of electric mini-trucks.

Both the kiosks and the bikes are part of Montreal’s BIXI system of public bike-sharing, widely regarded to be the world’s best and already confirmed as the system of choice in Boston, London and Melbourne, Australia. By the end of the summer, Nice Ride plans to have 75 kiosks in place, accommodating 1,000 bikes.

These numbers will make Minneapolis’ system the largest in the nation, doubling the fleet-size of runner-up Denver, which launched its 500-bike system this past Earth Day. The Washington, D.C./Arlington area plans to unveil a 1,100-bike system next fall. And if Boston has its way, its fleet of 1,000 public bikes proposed for this summer will swell to 3,000 by 2013, expanding to include neighboring communities.

In each of these cities, the goal is to convince those who wouldn’t normally consider biking for their daily commute, especially those intimidated by the thought of urban riding.

“A big piece of this will be people realizing how safe it is to bike Downtown,” said Jake Quarstad, Nice Ride’s outreach and development manager.

In fact, friendliness seems to be the key design principle for Minneapolis’ public bikes. Painted in neon green and designed to look like old-school beach cruisers, they seem like beefed-up versions of your childhood Huffy. There’s even a bell and a kickstand, plus a basket on the front for storing your briefcase.

“They’re pretty much bombproof,” said Quarstad, joking about the bikes’ oversized look. He pointed out the heavy-duty frame, which completely encloses both the bike’s chain and its brake cables — designed not only to reduce tampering, but to keep your office slacks free of grease. “The whole thing is meant to accommodate dress attire,” Quarstad added, noting that the ease of pedaling provides for a minimally sweaty ride.

A three-speed grip shift lets riders change gears easily, without having to deal with levers. The top speed, however, allows for only a leisurely cruise, and a set of drum brakes, the same system used in automobiles, brings the bike to an immediate halt — another strategy for assuaging the jitters of new riders. When we took one of the BIXIs out for a spin on the Midtown Greenway, cyclists were regularly passing us. Quarstad cited Minneapolis’ flat landscape as a reason for the limited gears, pointing out that cars statistically average only 8 mph in a city corridor. “It isn’t intended for long road trips,” he said.

In fact, if a trip lasts more than 30 minutes, the rider incurs an extra fee. “The idea is not to make money off of that,” said Quarstad. “It’s just so that people don’t start keeping them in their offices.” As long as riders check in every half hour at a kiosk, he said, they can ride the bikes for as long as they like.  

In fact, the more use the system gets, the better.

“People will be cheating the system,” he said. “But that’s exactly what we want.”