– A row of orange bicycles, dewy in the morning sun, sat at Lake Bemidji State Park on a recent Friday, waiting for weekend riders. They are part of a grand experiment: Can a bike share program work in a city this small?

Nice Ride, better known for the racks of green bikes that dot Minneapolis and St. Paul, is trying to find out. This fall, the nonprofit will wrap up the second season of a three-year pilot program in Bemidji, population 13,000. Ridership is up this year, and some say the rentals have boosted the broader bike culture, making it easier for tourists and residents to explore. But Nice Ride has learned a few hard lessons about how such a program functions differently outstate.

Other small cities across Minnesota — and beyond — are keeping a close eye on the results.

“My impression is that we’re being watched all over the world by organizations to see if this can work,” said Melinda Neville, manager of Nice Ride in Bemidji.

Some Minnesota cities, citing Nice Ride as inspiration, are starting their own programs, with different twists. In Hastings hundreds have ridden with a free bike-sharing program that kicked off in June. Austin will soon collect bicycles for a Red Bike program to start next year. In May, Willmar put out dozens of bikes, painted yellow, at 21 racks.

The Willmar program has no formal check-out, simply urging borrowers to “Ride. Respect. Return.” But “return” has proved tricky. Many of those racks now stand empty, as bikes have ended up in backyards. “It’s not going the way we wholly anticipated it to work,” said Steve Brisendine, director of Willmar Community Education and Recreation.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, the title sponsor of Nice Ride since 2009, is spending $300,000 for three years in Bemidji, with the hope that it offers an easy way to be active.

“The whole purpose of the Bemidji pilot is to really test how a program like that works in a geographic setting that is really different than an urban core,” said Janelle Waldock, director of the health insurance agency’s Center for Prevention. The results will determine whether Nice Ride sets up shop in another small town.

Why Bemidji?

Every week, small cities call Nice Ride begging them to bring the bikes to their community, said Anthony Desnick, Nice Ride’s director of development and new projects. That reflects both the brand’s strength and “a desire to try to do this hands-free,” he said.

Nice Ride picked Bemidji because it had done the groundwork.

It boasted a bronze Bicycle Friendly Community award, a compact downtown and “marvelous recreational infrastructure,” including miles of new bike trails, Desnick said.

At the time, the question of where to locate was centered on tourists: Could a group come to Bemidji for a long weekend, ditch the car and have a good experience? But in its second year, the nonprofit has focused on the people who live here.

“We all thought, oh, this is going to be for tourists who want to take a ride around the lake,” Mayor Rita Albrecht said. Leaders now hope it serves residents, fighting the high rates of diabetes and obesity in the area, she said.

To attract more Bemidjians, Nice Ride brought a rental location to Harmony Natural Foods Co-op and offered residents $1 weekday, 2-hour rentals. Neville, the Nice Ride manager, also leads social rides.

“That’s my job, to get butts on bikes,” Neville said, sitting in the co-op on a Thursday evening before a group ride known as the Pedaling Ninjas. “If we can increase the bike infrastructure, if we can increase the perception of safety, of normalcy … then I will have done my job.”

Anecdotally, biking has picked up, some residents say. Waiting at the entrance of the state park, Dan Posner said that you see “bikes all over Bemidji” these days. When his family camps here, a mile from their home, the Nice Ride bikes are “usually gone.”

Soon, there will be harder numbers. Hired by Blue Cross, a research team at Bemidji State University is gathering data from Nice Ride participants, surveying residents and doing bike counts with help from the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Results could be available later this fall, said Prof. Carla Norris-Raynbird, head of the university’s sociology department.

Empty racks

The folks in Willmar knew there would be losses. They had decided against a check-out system that might require staff, credit cards or both. Working with a $5,000 grant from the Jennie-O Turkey Store, they made use of what they had, refurbishing bikes from the city impound lot, painting them yellow and placing them at yellow racks.

They put out 42 bikes, and then another 15. But “if you went to 20 racks, you might find bikes on five or six of them,” said Brisendine, the recreation director. “And you would find them on racks that are not a part of our program.”

Brisendine doesn’t consider the bikes that end up in backyards stolen, and he’s glad that people who needed transportation have a new form of it.

“The minute any of us get down in the dumps about it,” he said, “we’ll be driving around town and see them being used the way we intended.”

After the Yellow Bike program’s first season wraps up in late September, city staff will weigh changes for next year, including a possible library-like check-out system.

Bemidji relies on other businesses’ employees for check-out. Nice Ride knew the program wouldn’t have the ridership to support costly automated stations, so “you have to actually talk to a human being,” Neville said. That makes it more like a bike rental program than a true bike-sharing system.

In the Bemidji program’s first year, a clunky online reservation system made it “easier to book a vacation in Tahiti,” Neville said. But seeing that 80 percent of reservations were walk-ups, Nice Ride switched to the simpler Square payment system.

This year, there were 965 rentals through August, compared with 1,026 total rentals last year.

At Harmony’s customer service counter, Alex Lundin handles questions about Nice Ride. He believes it isn’t used as much as it should be and largely blames the bikes themselves. Lundin knows them well; before starting at the co-op, he worked at the bike shop in charge of repairing Nice Ride’s fleet.

The orange bikes are too big for kids and don’t allow someone to attach a kids’ trailer to them, he said. “So I have to turn down an entire family because the kids can’t ride.”

The bikes are heavy, Lundin added. “The ride here is around the lake,” about 17 miles, he said. “That gets hard to do on a 42-pound bike when you only have three speeds.”

A next step?

They’re pricey. Each bike, outfitted with a built-in light, fenders and a basket, costs about $1,200, contributing to start-up costs of about $140,000. Annual operating costs average $100,000, Desnick said.

“We’re running it like a real Cadillac program,” he said. If another entity takes over the program after the pilot, it might scale it back to a single bike rental location, he added. “But the way we’re running the program now, it would be very difficult to sustain it … without help.”

Most transportation systems, including roadways, are subsidized in one way or another, said Ralph Buehler, an associate professor in urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech. But many people judge bike share programs on their financial success, said Buehler, who has researched bike share programs in large cities, including Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C. “Does it work, financially? Can they break even?”

Bemidji’s program will probably never be profitable, Neville said. But the question is whether “the difference we’re making is worth the investment.”

On a muggy Thursday, she strapped on a helmet and met the other riders at the Nice Ride rack. They devised the night’s route: About 6 miles, mostly on trails. Then they took off, biking over bridges as the sun set and the temperature fell.

Breaking for water, Noemi Aylesworth admitted to the others that she almost didn’t make it out.

“It looked like rain,” she said. “And then I thought, so what? We’ve ridden in the rain before!”