This Tuesday, bright blue dockless bikes will hit the streets of Minneapolis, ushering in a new era of bike-sharing in a city that prides itself on its cycling fervor.
In recent weeks, Nice Ride Minnesota's south Minneapolis headquarters has been a frenetic hive of activity as shipments of the distinctive cobalt bicycles arrived in big trucks, met by mechanics who combed over them to make sure they're ready for the big rollout.
"It's been a lot of work, we have a ton of bikes and we're rolling ahead," said Nice Ride General Manager Melissa Summers.
All told, up to 1,500 Nice Ride dockless bikes could be introduced to Minneapolis streets this fall, supplementing the popular and well-established fleet of more than 1,800 green Nice Ride bikes that are tethered to docking stations throughout the Twin Cities.
Dockless bikes will ultimately be available across Minneapolis at several hundred "virtual parking zones," sort of like parking spaces for bikes, which cyclists find using a smartphone app. The dockless bikes must be left (and locked) at one of these designated spots.
The bikes cost $1 for a single ride through the app and $2 for each additional 30 minutes.
Another 1,500 dockless bikes will be introduced in 2019, and more could be added beyond that, including electric and winter bikes, depending on the need, Summers said.
"We hope the dockless system expands access to bikes to neighborhoods and communities that don't have them now," said Maria Wardoku, board president of Our Streets Minneapolis, a volunteer organization that promotes cycling and walking.
Minneapolis' dockless system with virtual parking hubs is a bit unusual, as cities nationwide test different methods of bike sharing — with varying degrees of success. St. Paul, Golden Valley and Edina have opted for separate dockless bike-sharing programs operated by San Francisco-based Lime.
"There's no one-size-fits-all solution to bike sharing; every market, every city, every region, is going to be a little different," said Samantha Herr, executive director of the North American BikeShare Association. "What works in some places may not work in others."
Demand for the service is booming, with more than 35 million bike-sharing trips taken last year, an increase of 25 percent over 2016, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials. And it comes as a plethora of transportation options become increasingly available to the masses — including ride-hailing, car-sharing, scooters and electric bikes.
Motivate, a Brooklyn-based for-profit bike-share operator, now runs Nice Ride Minnesota, which pioneered bike sharing in the Twin Cities eight years ago. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota will remain a core sponsor of the program.
In a nod to the rapidly changing mobility marketplace, ride-sharing firm Lyft said this summer that it would acquire Motivate for an undisclosed sum.
"I feel great where we ended up," said Bill Dossett, executive director of Nice Ride Minnesota. "We are working with a phenomenal, well-capitalized company."
The strategy of virtual parking hubs comes after dockless bikes in other cities with fewer restrictions have been dumped in lakes, astride poles, and in hopeless tangles — much of which has been documented on social media.
Josh Johnson, mobility manager for the city of Minneapolis, said the hubs will ensure that the dockless system remains orderly.
According to a Nice Ride report, parking zones will be located near busy docked stations, neighborhood commercial hubs, parks, libraries, transit stations and multifamily housing complexes. Bike racks for dockless bikes will be available on the University of Minnesota campus.
If people park the dockless bikes in areas that are not designated hubs, users may be fined $5 and repeat offenders may be banned. The blue bikes are equipped with GPS technology, so if they go astray, Nice Ride will know where to find them.
"The whole purpose of the system is to keep things tidy," Summers said.
A different dockless system
Meanwhile, St. Paul embarked on a different strategy, introducing 700 dockless bikes from Lime throughout the city last month. The distinctive green bikes can be parked almost anywhere in the Capital City, with some restrictions.
"It's going well," said Reuben Collins, a transportation engineer with the city of St. Paul. "We know there are some challenges with the dockless model in terms of making sure bikes are being parked appropriately and in the right places, and we're working through those issues."
Some question how the broader bike-sharing system will work in the twin towns, with two different operators and systems. While bike riders on Nice Ride dockless bikes may cruise to St. Paul, they must return the bikes to Minneapolis. That's true of St. Paul's Lime bikes, too.
"It is a unique setup," Johnson said. "But anything that expands the consciousness of bike sharing and the ability of people to use it is a good thing."
Facebook queries by the Star Tribune found some St. Paul residents upset about dockless bikes being parked helter-skelter on sidewalks, and bikes "looking junky" like "abandoned shopping carts." Some rued the permanent loss of docked Nice Ride bikes in St. Paul on Nov. 4, the end of this season.
Others said they loved the Lime bikes.
Lowertown resident Kyra Michelle Mesich said she hadn't ridden a bike since college 20 years ago. "Seeing all these bikes right by my doorstep made me wonder, 'Can I still ride?' I downloaded the app and rode a Lime bike around my neighborhood for 30 minutes. I could still ride! It was fun."