Melanie Vanlandingham couldn't help but notice the neon green bikes around Minneapolis when she visited the Twin Cities last week.

The landscape architect hadn't brought her bike from her home in Dallas, so she hopped on one of about 500 rental bikes that have popped up in Minneapolis this summer. She and her friends were able to explore parts of the city that they wouldn't have on foot.

"I think Minnesotans are noticing them, as well," she said. "When I was riding them at lunchtime today, a lot of local folks would say 'Nice Ride!'"

Less than two months after the Nice Ride rental bike program was launched, more than 17,000 bike rentals have been tallied and nearly 600 yearlong subscriptions have been purchased. They've been popular with visitors and others with a little time to kill. Bikers who use them to commute like the price tag: $60 a year, plus they don't have to worry about locking up a bike.

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"In terms of the bikes being used, it certainly met our expectations or exceeded them," said Bill Dossett, Nice Ride Minnesota's executive director.

The bikes are available at 62 kiosks, mostly in downtown Minneapolis, Uptown or near the University of Minnesota. Three more will be installed soon north of downtown: at International Market Square, next to Summit Academy on Olson Memorial Highway and at Plymouth and Newton Avenues N.

Response to the program has been so strong that Nice Ride is already looking into expanding into nearby neighborhoods, although Dossett said that there won't be any major expansion until next spring.

"From Day One we have always wanted to expand," he said. "Our approach is to start with a core area with a high density of kiosks. The way we want to grow is by doing the exact same thing."

Nice Ride, a nonprofit entity, is a branch of Bixi, short for Bike Taxi, he said. It is based on the model that Bixi set up in Montreal, and orders all of its equipment from the company. Dossett said the manufacturer is swamped with orders from similar operations in Montreal, Washington, D.C., and Melbourne, Australia. Boston and London are also preparing to launch programs.

The effort is being financed with $1.75 million in federal funds to increase nonmotorized transportation and $1 million in tobacco settlement funds through Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.

In Minneapolis, the stations will be removed in mid-November to prevent bikes from being damaged by road salt.

Awesome and cheap

The cycles have been especially popular with out-of-towners, who are looking for a better way to get around downtown but don't have their bikes with them. Lars Olson of Nashville used to live in Minneapolis and was visiting a friend in town last weekend. His friend had his own bike, but Olson didn't bring his. Enter Nice Ride.

"I wanted to go see Target Field, so I rented a bike," Olson said. "I think it's awesome. It's really cheap. I think it'd be really cool in Nashville if they did something like that."

Andy and Patti Peterson of Duluth had seen similar bike rental programs while traveling in Europe. Although they brought their bikes with them to ride around Minneapolis last weekend, they decided to give Nice Ride a try. They ended up riding from the University of Minnesota to Target Field before ending up on Nicollet Mall.

"This is really cool," Andy Peterson said. "It makes the city really accessible."

Not always a Nice Ride

But the program hasn't been perfect. In the first days after it got underway on June 10, some customers using debit cards overdrew their accounts because a hold was placed to cover the $250 security deposit.

Safety concerns have arisen, as well. The rental does not include helmets, and many riders are forgoing streets and bike lanes in favor of sidewalks crowded with pedestrians. Helmets aren't offered anywhere, Dossett said, because of hygiene issues and the inability to monitor the safety of a helmet that is on the streets all day.

A few local bike rental shops have blamed slumping business on Nice Ride, though other factors, like poor weather and the beleaguered economy, have also hurt rental numbers.

"I didn't just want to blame [Nice Ride] for business being slow, but two Sundays ago, it was just a gorgeous day out and we rented like eight bikes, which is not a lot," said Cody Anderson, manager at Calhoun Rental in Minneapolis. "It was gut-wrenching. That was the first indication that they were affecting business."

Many first-time users are also confused by the pricing, mistakenly thinking it's completely free as long as they return the bike to a kiosk within 30 minutes of checking it out. Checking out any bike requires purchase of a subscription, though returning a bike within 30 minutes prevents trip fees, which are tacked onto the base price. Most figure it out quickly.

Vanlandingham rode around town with Erin Degutis and Emily O'Mahoney, also landscape architects visiting from out of town. She was so impressed that, in a couple of years, she might not need a bike of her own back home in Texas.

"I think I'm going to be passing the word in Dallas," she said.

Ben Jones • 612-673-4426