Community notebook :: Gauging Nice Ride's success

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October 25, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
Gauging the success of Nice Ride

// Executive Director Bill Dossett reflects on Minneapolis’ first attempt at a bike-sharing //


When Minneapolis’ public bike-sharing program launched last June, it was the biggest in the nation, with 700 bikes available for rental at 65 kiosks scattered throughout the city. Skeptics wondered if a city of Midwesterners would embrace a European model of transit.

Five months later, the Nice Ride team is pulling its bright neon two-wheelers off the streets for the season. The kiosks will be fully removed by Nov. 15. But they’ll be back next April, with the addition of at least six new kiosks in North Minneapolis.

In its inaugural run, the program recorded almost 100,000 trips and managed to stay in the black despite selling fewer annual subscriptions than anticipated. We sat down with Nice Ride Executive Director Bill Dossett to get his impressions of the Nice Ride experiment.


Journal: When Nice Ride launched, some worried about vandalism, theft and whether or not the organization could sell enough annual subscriptions to stay profitable. Going into this, what was your greatest concern? And has Phase I assuaged that concern?

Dossett: Well, the starting point is, are there people in Minnesota that want to ride these bikes? That’s the core fundamental. It won’t work without that. It was working in Barcelona. It was working in Paris. But those are different cities. So will it work here?

There was this feeling that Minnesotans would reject this as being un-American, or just not a good idea for our city. And we’ve gotten none of that negativity. Even if you listen to AM radio hosts, they’re saying, I can see how this would work. I think that’s a real success for us. And that’s important because people around the country are watching us. Washington D.C. and these other cities that are launching their systems are wanting to see how Minnesotans respond to this.

The evidence is very clear that it’s working really well. We’ve had 86,163 trips taken. We’re on track to get very close to 100,000 trips this year before we take the system out. So there’s a lot of demand.


What about theft? That proved to be a huge problem in Paris.

We budgeted [initially] for 10 percent of our bikes to get stolen. So 70 bikes would be missing at the end of the year. Right now, only two bikes are missing. So that’s an area of our business plan where we’re looking much better. We have not had theft, we have not had significant vandalism. The cost of keeping the bikes maintained has been lower than projected.


Were there elements of the original business plan that didn’t work out so well?

The question that’s not answered yet is, are we going to be successful in selling our primary product, which is the annual subscription. Because it’s the best way to use the system, but most people don’t know about the annual subscription. […]

Right now [as of Oct. 11], we’ve sold 1,250 annual subscriptions. That’s lower than we’d like to see.

But we expect next spring to see that number go way up. And we’ll be doing some marketing for that.


With annual subscriptions lower than anticipated, is Nice Ride in the black?

Are we in the black? The answer is yes. And there are a couple of reasons for that. In our business plan, it was really weighted to these annual subscriptions. But where we’ve done better is in the 24-hour subscriptions. So we’ve had over 20,000 people go up and put their credit card in and pay $5 for a 24-hour subscription. And that alone counts for 50 percent of our operation revenue.

But the other key is we use sponsor revenue to keep it going. And with that, we’ve done very well. People like Target and Dorsey & Whitney and the Birchwood Café have stepped up to sponsor a station. That has generated about a third of our operating revenue for this year.

And then the last piece is, we don’t have debt. The bike share was purchased with funds that came from a combination of private — the Blue Cross Blue Shield funds [the health insurer donated $1 million to Nice Ride, the fruits of a legal settlement with tobacco companies] —and public funds [Nice Ride also received $1.75 million through a Federal Highway Administration program]. So that’s a critical component.


Have you had any complaints about the program?


The biggest complaint we’ve had has been the debit card and the security deposit that we place on the 24-hour subscriber. Systems before ours didn’t accept debit cards. Ours does. We can’t stop them. So we were putting a $250 hold on peoples’ cards. That’s the same as other cities. Turns out, that was a real burden for debit card users. So we reduced that down to $50. We have also put an express notice as part of the user interface on the kiosks.

Since then, we’ve had no increase of theft. So that’s great. And also, far fewer concerns about the security deposit.


North Minneapolis has been declared a priority for Nice Ride’s Phase II expansion. Are there any other expansion plans for the near future?

There are two pieces here. One is we are already committed to and have the funds to do a small expansion into North Minneapolis. So that’s definite. It will happen.

[Nice Ride has been given $228,500 via a Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant from the City of Minneapolis’s Department of Health and Family Services.]

Then there’s another much bigger project going on to raise the funds and identify a major expansion. From the beginning, our goal was to start with the central core of Minneapolis and expand from that. The area that we’re looking at — and none of this is committed — is all the neighborhoods around: Northeast, South, Southwest, then we go to downtown St. Paul. Then we go to the areas in between.

We’re right now working with Mayors R. T. Rybak and Chris Coleman and Blue Cross Blue Shield, and there’s great support from all of those three to expand the system.

One other thing I’d like to mention is the Low Income Outreach. Next year, we really want to reach out to low-income people and give them the same access to bikes that other people have. And there are some big challenges there: access to computers, access to credit cards. But there’s also cultural differences.

So we’re trying to reach out through community-based groups to give people an opportunity to try Nice Ride. And then give people a discount. So we’ll be doing a lot of that in April.


How can people make their neighborhood a priority for the expansion?

We just hosted a community meeting in September, and we got hundreds of comments.

People can send suggestions to ideas@niceridemn.org. There will be an additional series of public meetings that will be more focused on neighborhoods. A schedule for that will be out in a few weeks.

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EPA finishes asbestos testing in Northeast

LOGAN PARK — The Environmental Protection Agency completed a new round of asbestos testing this fall on nearly 50 homes, and the initial feedback is that Northeast doesn’t need any new cleanup work.

The findings are preliminary, and the EPA is still waiting for validated data from the laboratory.

Asbestos spread throughout Northeast via the former Western Mineral Products Plant at 1720 Madison St. NE. The plant spent 50 years processing raw vermiculite ore for use in insulation until 1989. The plant left its waste rock in piles outside, and offered it up for anyone to take. People used the rock in their yards and gardens, and children played on the piles. They later learned the rock was contaminated with asbestos, spurring the EPA to clean up nearly 300 homes since 2000.

The rock itself contains very low levels of asbestos, according to the EPA, but disturbing the rock can release measurable amounts of asbestos into the air.

The EPA decided to conduct further testing in Northeast this fall using new technology that can read lower levels of asbestos in the soil. Officials expect to notify residents of the full test results in mid-October.

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A new scent in the air in Northeast

CENTRAL & BROADWAY — The smell of linseed oil near Central & Broadway is being replaced this fall with the milder scent of artist studios and research firms.

“Longer than a year-and-a-half ago, there was a horrible smell in Northeast Minneapolis,” said Scott Tankenoff, managing partner of Northeast-based Hillcrest Development. “I could smell it in this office a mile-and-a-half away.”

The odor emanated from the Frost building at 1209 Tyler St. NE, he said. The building is an old paint factory dating back to the 1920s. It recently operated as a refinery of linseed oil, which is used for things like sealants on decks. Hillcrest purchased the neighboring Crown Center for redevelopment two years ago, and the odor at Frost led Hillcrest to target that building for its next redevelopment project.

“That building is going to get a creative pulse now,” Tankenoff said.

New tenants include the ceramic artist Maren Kloppmann and Patrick Fox Photography, which is moving in next month.

Modern Survey, a company that studies worker morale, is scheduled to arrive in mid-November. The company recently conducted research pro bono for the Holland neighborhood. It determined that two-thirds of survey respondents are opposed to a new hazardous waste facility at University and 27th Avenue Northeast. Details are available at the Holland Neighborhood Improvement Association’s website — hnia.org.

Both Modern Survey and Patrick Fox are relocating from the Warehouse District. Tankenoff said that’s no coincidence. Twins games can complicate traffic and parking logistics for clients, he said, and the cost of doing business there is changing.

“[The Warehouse District] is expensive now. Operating [expenses] and taxes have gone up so high,” he said. “They’re saving a large percentage on those costs.”

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Bob Dylan honored on Hennepin Ave. ‘Walk of Fame’

DOWNTOWN CORE — Bob Dylan will be the next famous Minnesotan to be honored on the Minnesota Walk of Fame, Downtown’s version of the renowned star-stamped sidewalk in Hollywood.

Hennepin Theater Trust announced Dylan’s selection in early October, then celebrated the songwriter with an Oct. 15 tribute at the Dakota Jazz Club. Local folk legends Spider John Koerner and Gene LaFond performed as part of a line-up featuring musicians boasting ties to Dylan. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, whose mastery of Woody Guthrie material reportedly had a significant early impact on Dylan, headlined.

The Minnesota Walk of Fame stretches along the southern side of Hennepin Ave. between 8th and 9th Streets. Honorees receive public tributes and receptions in their honor, followed by a terrazzo plaque — designed by artist John Simpson — imbedded into the sidewalk. Dylan’s star will be installed next spring, along with four other plaques honoring Judy Garland, Vince Vaughn, Jessica Lange and James Arness.

The Walk’s first stars were installed just last fall, beginning with Marion Ross (a McPhail Center for the Arts grad who went on to play the mom in  “Happy Days”), Tippi Hedren (born in New Ulm, she later starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”) and Loni Anderson (a Roseville native who landed the role of Jennifer on “WKRP Cincinnati”).

Theater Trust CEO Tom Hoch has said he hopes to ultimately have up to 60 stars along Hennepin Ave.

Spokesperson Karen Nelson said the guidelines for selecting stars is “still evolving,” but that the Trust operates from a list of famous Minnesotans, sending letters of invitation to a handful of them every year. Celebrities have to formally give their consent, Nelson said, adding that the notoriously reclusive Dylan is apparently very pleased by the honor.

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Walker introduces free admission for teens

LOWRY HILL — Teenagers no longer need to wait for Thursday nights for free admission to Walker Art Center. As of Oct. 14, they can go anytime the museum is open and not have to pay an entrance fee.

The free admission comes courtesy of a new grant from Wells Fargo and fits nicely with the museum’s expansive efforts to win a teenage audience.

— Michelle Bruch contributed to this report.