Summer is here, but in St. Paul, bike sharing isn't.
Hailed as affordable transport for commuters, tourists and locals, the annual rollout of rental bicycles is traditionally a sign of summer. But bike share has been absent from St. Paul since 2019, even as service continued across the river in Minneapolis.
Avid cyclist and St. Paul Bicycle Coalition co-chair Andy Singer remembers the early years of bike share, when there were just a few bike racks, and the boom times, when bikers had more than one option in the city for a leisurely ride near the river, to work or to meet with friends.
"I wish we had bike share, and I wish it coordinated with Minneapolis," Singer said. "I think it's really too bad that we did not have it operating during the pandemic, especially."
The lack of bikes is at odds with the city's green transportation goals, evident from St. Paul's new bicycle lanes that were completed in 2020.
The city is still pursuing a bike-sharing vendor, through both requests for proposals (RFPs) and conversations with companies, said Reuben Collins, a transportation engineer for St. Paul. But the city may have to subsidize the service in the future.
Back in 2017, St. Paul was served by Nice Ride, the Minnesota-based bike share program now owned by Lyft. The company was making changes to its leadership, and multiple companies were knocking on the city's door during the bike share bubble, hoping to service the area, Collins said. In early 2018, Lyft and Lime were among the companies expressing interest when the city issued an RFP.
"The bottom line is Lime submitted the best proposal to the city, and so we selected Lime as the as the vendor," Collins said, noting the contract was not exclusive.
Nice Ride left, and Lime operated for a few months before winter arrived. In early 2019, Lime informed St. Paul and many other cities that it would not be returning.
The city tried again in 2019 to find a bike-share vendor, but didn't receive any responses, Collins said.
"I think the landscape of bike-sharing vendors across the nation has changed dramatically. There are just vastly fewer of them. I think the reality has set in that bike sharing is not a profitable venture," he said. "There just aren't very many companies out there still in the business."
Transportation will never be profitable, whether it's streetcars or Metro Transit or roadways, Collins said. One of the reasons Nice Ride is still around is because Blue Cross Blue Shield subsidizes the service — a common trend with bike-share companies still operating in cities, he said.
If cities want bike share, they'll have to pay for it, which neither St. Paul nor Minneapolis has done, Collins said.
"I think that model has reached the end of its era and that St. Paul will be able to attract a bike-share vendor when we are prepared to allocate funding to subsidize that service," he said.
Lyft would not comment on any ongoing negotiations or RFPs and remains focused on its current service area of Minneapolis, where its contract is set to expire in August, according to a spokesperson.
"Our doors are wide open to any bike-sharing service that wants to operate in St. Paul," Collins said. "Give me a phone call; we're ready."
Scooter-sharing services Lime and Bird are on St. Paul streets for the 2021 season.