Minneapolis bike-sharing program launches with high enthusiasm. But is it preaching to the choir?

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June 10, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
It was a light drizzle and a chorus of trilling bike bells for this afternoon’s launch of Nice Ride Minnesota, the city’s brand new bike-sharing program, which allows users to rent public bikes for short jaunts through town. According to officials, by the end of the day, the program’s 65 kiosks will be activated, stocked with 700 bikes and ready for use. Nice Ride is currently the largest bike-sharing program in the nation. It will grow to 1,000 bikes in 75 kiosks by the end of summer.

Just before noon, over 100 cyclists gathered at the Central Library for a free test drive of the beefy, bright green bikes, which had arrived in late May from a manufacturer in Montreal. Nice Ride uses Montreal’s BIXI system of bikes and kiosks, widely regarded to be the best bike-sharing technology in the world. After signing a waiver and donning a helmet, riders each grabbed a bike and got into position on Nicollet Mall.

After a few brief remarks from Nice Ride executive director Bill Dossett — mostly urging participants to observe traffic laws, especially stopping at red lights — riders clicked their grip shifts into third gear and commenced a slow, rolling parade down Nicollet Mall.

Thumbs quickly found the bike bells on the left handlebars. The parade soon had a soundtrack of sporadic, cheerful rings, eliciting bemused smiles from the farmers’ market stalls lining the boulevard.

As riders coasted toward Peavey Plaza, many oohed and ahhed over the bikes’ features, commenting on the well-padded seats and the friction free hubs. One said it was the smoothest ride he’d had in months.

But such comments revealed a nagging demographic problem, one that may become an issue for Nice Ride down the road — these were people who knew bikes, who owned bikes and who, for the most part, already relied on their two-wheelers for their daily commutes. Why would they pay for a public bike when they’re already using their own?

Matt, a Downtown worker who commutes on his bike “three or four times a week” from his home in St. Paul, said he loved the idea of bike-sharing.

“The more bikes we have on the street, the better and safer it is for me as a cyclist,” he said.

But when asked if he would sign up for a subscription, he balked. “I’ll probably wait to sign-up,” he said. “I want to see how it goes. It might not be super practical for me.”

But he added, “I don’t think I’m in the target market for this.”

Enthusiasm amongst the cycling community for Nice Ride is high. But the need is not. For Nice Ride to be successfull, the program will have to convince the cycling-reluctant, as well.

Dossett noted this conundrum. “The challenge of bike share is the people that are the most evangelical about what you’re doing are not your target market,” he said. “My target market is not hardcore bike commuters.”

Of course, given that today’s parade was an insider biking event, based on personal invitations, the demographic was skewed. But the issue is still something that Nice Ride will be paying close attention to.

“Any time you launch something that’s never been done before, you do your market research, and you hope you’re right,” Dossett continued. “It’s still a wait-and-see. We expect there to be a period where you got the true believers and then an education period for everyone else to figure it out.”

Jennifer Munt, president of Transit for Livable Communities, pointed to herself as the model user. At a ribbon cutting ceremony at Peavey Plaza, she said, “Today, this lady who hasn’t got on a bike in 10 years just rode nine blocks.”

There was a lot of back-patting over Minneapolis’ recent besting of rival Portland in Bicycling Magazine’s ranking of best cities for cycling.

“In Minneapolis, Portland is just a street,” said Mayor R. T. Rybak, still donning his bike helmet. “They’ll never be number one again.”

Rybak said that, in recent years, questions about a possible bike-sharing system in Minneapolis had been “the emails sent to me the most.”

Now that it’s here, he said it’s up to residents to take advantage: “Let’s use this thing."