A rite of late autumn in the Twin Cities involves hundreds of cheery green Nice Ride Minnesota bikes being gathered up and packed away for winter storage. But a big change is in the works for bike-sharing here, and it may make its debut as soon as next spring.
Instead of pedaling a Nice Ride bike from station to station, cyclists will use smartphone apps to locate and rent “dockless bikes” anywhere and leave them locked wherever they please. At least that’s the theory. The reality could be a bit different.
“It’s bike-sharing 2.0,” observed Bill Dossett, Nice Ride Minnesota’s executive director.
In the past year, the bike-sharing business model has been wildly upended, and nonprofit operators like Nice Ride are looking to adapt. Dossett says it could result in up to 10,000 dockless bikes coming to the Twin Cities, up from the current count of 1,850.
This sea-change in transportation began in China, as private companies flooded the country’s densely populated cities with thousands of dockless bikes. Now these companies, and domestic upstarts fueled by venture capital money, have landed stateside in such cities as Seattle, Dallas and Washington, D.C.
Competition is fierce — the nation’s capital is served by five bike-share providers. The situation has prompted comparisons to the furious growth of ride-sharing firms Uber and Lyft less than a decade ago.
This wave of dockless transportation has yet to hit the Twin Cities — but observers say it’s coming.
Nice Ride pioneered bike sharing in North America when the nonprofit began service here in 2010, beginning with just 700 bikes at 65 stations (there are 201 stations now). It is funded largely through federal dollars, with an influx from private entities, mainly Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.
“We love this nonprofit business model, we’re super proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Dossett said. But after seeing how the business has changed, Nice Ride issued a request-for-proposals in August “to collect a new set of big ideas.”
The core idea involves gradually phasing out existing Nice Ride bikes and stations and replacing them with dockless bikes. The board would change to include right-of-way landowners, including representatives from Minneapolis, St. Paul, the Minneapolis Park Board and the University of Minnesota.
An evaluation committee crafted by Nice Ride has selected two finalists — LimeBike and Motivate — that will discuss their plans at a public meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at Macalester College in St. Paul.
What’s happening elsewhere
While dockless bike sharing has an upside — mainly the broad availability of bikes for about $1 per half-hour — there are some nagging concerns. In China, an oversupply of relatively cheap bikes has led to large piles of abandoned rides. And in U.S. cities, bikes have been left in ill-advised spots that annoy business owners and impede pedestrians and traffic.
Issues like regulation and bike infrastructure play into the evolving discussion. And in a market flooded with competitors, it’s likely only a few will survive. It’s entirely possible, too, that other bike-sharing businesses beyond Nice Ride will come to the Twin Cities.
“Any time you have innovation like this, it raises questions about the right balance between community control and laissez-faire,” said Greg Lindsey, a professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. “This tension is definitely playing out.”
Either way, Nice Ride is intent on being a leader in the local bike-sharing market — a prospect that excites Dossett.
Different types of bikes could be made available, such as electric bikes, those outfitted for winter, or models designed for women, he notes. And the reach of the dockless system will likely mean more people of various financial means will have access to bikes. Cities and the U could designate pods for parking bikes, as well.
“More bikes on the street means more people are active,” said Janelle Waldock, vice president of community health and health equity for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. Through 2016, the Eagan-based health insurer has invested $7.2 million in Nice Ride, funding that was made available by the landmark $6.5 billion tobacco settlement nearly a decade ago.
Waldock says she hopes Blue Cross will continue to be part of the new bike-share marketplace, but she’s unclear how that will evolve.
Another perk for private companies offering this mode of transportation: “There are no costs to the city or to taxpayers,” said Mary Caroline Pruitt, spokeswoman for LimeBike.
The California-based firm, which raised an additional $50 million in venture capital funds in October alone, plans to enter at least 30 new cities in the near future.
“We just started in June,” Pruitt said. “This has been way crazy.”