The nation’s first large-scale bike share program will be launched in Minneapolis next spring and could become a model for programs in other cities. If all goes well in raising $1.6 million in private matching funds for a $1.75 million federal grant, one thousand bikes will be available at 75 kiosks located primarily in the downtown, uptown and university areas.
Some cyclists have questioned spending money on a bike share program instead of improving and expanding bike paths. But Bill Dossett, the principal organizer behind the initiative, and a long-time bike commuter himself, says that: “If you look at every city that has implemented a bike share program they end up with better biking infrastructure system.” And he points out that the bike share investment is just a small portion of the $21 million in federal funds designated for biking infrastructure in the Twin Cities.
Congress chose three other cities for bike share demonstration projects representing different sizes and types of communities. The others are: Columbia, Missouri, Marin, California and Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
Congress wants to know if biking and walking can carry more of the transit trips and what infrastructure and public awareness is required to be successful in reducing reliance on motorized transit, according to Katie Eukel, communications manager for the St. Paul non-profit, Transit for Livable Communities which was selected by Congress administer the funding.
Dossett and other volunteers have assembled a board of directors for a new non-profit entity,
Nice Ride Minnesota, that will raise the matching funds and own and operate the system. While the European cities where bike sharing has succeeded have quite different public transportation cultures than most U.S. cities, he is confident that the Minneapolis system will be self-sufficient within two years.
The idea originated in a conversation between Dossett and Mayor R.T. Rybak. But the mayor said the city “didn’t want to own it and didn’t want to do billboards,” Dossett said. In other cities, such as Paris, the sale of advertising at bike stations helps underwrite operating costs. Instead of advertising, the Nice Ride business plan calls for sponsorships to cover up to $200,000 in annual operating costs. Revenue from annual paid subscribers and daily users are projected at $1.2 million.
The big unknown, however, is how many riders will use the system. Three ridership surveys conducted for the project showed that most people liked the idea of a bike share program, but either had their own bike or thought the projected $50 dollar a year subscription fee or the five dollar per day usage fee made it too expensive.
Survey results were obtained from 557 students and staff at the U of M, 245 downtown Minneapolis city employees and 99 employees of the Dorsey law firm, where Dossett was a lawyer for 15 years.
But Dossett said that there has “never been one of these systems that has failed due to lack of demand.” In fact demand in European cities has often outstripped the original system’s capacity and this is one reason the Minneapolis system is starting with such a large number of bikes and kiosks.
Steven Sanders, Nice Ride board member and bicycle coordinator at the U of M, said that most users of the system will not be bike commuters, but those who work or go to school in the system’s concentration areas and find an occasional or regular need for a bicycle. They may want to enjoy a bike ride over lunch, find it more convenient to ride to an appointment than drive, or use it to access another form of transportation. In these ways, bike share can “extend the reach of the transit system” which is one goal of the legislation.
The bike share program also has the potential to affect attitudes toward alternative transit. The mass of bikes, kiosks and users will “act as a large searchlight in the city conveying that bike transportation is a mainstream, ” said Joan Pasiuk, program director for Bike Walk Twin Cities at TLC.
“People still have questions about it. It is not a slam dunk by any means, but they [Nice Ride MN] deserve a chance” she said.
Wayne Nealis is a freelance writer in the Twin Cities.