Nice Ride Minnesota, the nonprofit behind the Twin Cities bike-sharing program known for its distinctive green bikes, is going blue, nearly tripling its fleet and lowering prices under new corporate management.
In Minneapolis, it’s also going dockless — a consideration still under negotiation in St. Paul, where bike-sharing has struggled to find its footing.
Brooklyn-based Motivate — the largest bike-share operator in North America — announced this month that it had acquired the operations of the 8-year-old bike-sharing program, which will roll out 500 new stations and several additional features as Nice Rice Motivate Minnesota.
Bike usage fees dropped Monday from $3 to $2. Single rides rented from kiosks also dropped from $3 to $2, and rides rented through a phone application are $1.
“The system will still be called Nice Ride,” said Melissa Summers, general manager of Nice Ride Motivate Minnesota. “All Nice Ride staff are now Motivate employees.”
And almost all Motivate employees are now Lyft employees. No sooner had the news about Motivate circulated than word got out that the car-sharing company had acquired the non-union portion of Motivate, which operates Citi Bike in New York City, Ford GoBike in the San Francisco Bay area and Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C, among other bike-sharing operations.
Unlike the partnership with Motivate — which was initiated by Nice Ride and went through a 10-month public process — Lyft’s involvement has taken some by surprise.
Nice Ride officials noted that they still have contractual obligations to the city of Minneapolis and their funders, which include the federal government, and Motivate’s operational management isn’t a full takeover. They’ll remain a nonprofit for at least the duration of the five-year contract with Motivate.
“Our contract with Motivate has aspects of a transfer of assets and a subcontract,” said the Nice Ride board of directors, in a statement posted to the nonprofit’s website. “Motivate is acquiring our tools and parts and will lease our shop. … The Nice Ride nonprofit will continue to own the older, station-based equipment until it is taken out of service at some point in the future.”
Nice Ride, which launched in 2010 and relies heavily on grant funding from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota and other partners, maintains 50 docking stations in St. Paul and about 150 in Minneapolis.
The nonprofit has permits to operate in St. Paul, but no contractual obligations, and the operational acquisition raises questions about Nice Ride’s future in the capital. So does the city’s meager usage statistics: Last year, 35,100 of the nonprofit’s 460,765 rides began in St. Paul, or about 7.6 percent.
The organization plans to triple its Twin Cities fleet of 1,850 bicycles, adding 1,500 this year and 1,500 next year. Additional increases will depend upon usage, Summers said. Future additions are expected to include electric-assist bikes, winter bikes and an upgraded phone app.
In Minneapolis, the most visible change after pricing will be dockless blue bikes.
The bikes will allow the nonprofit to install bike-sharing stations in low-density areas and other corners that did not lend themselves to large docking platforms.
“We’ll be able to put the dockless parking zones anywhere anybody wants one,” Summers said.
The bikes will stand up on their own using robust kickstands and will include tip sensors alerting Nice Ride Motivate if they fall or are pushed over.
“The docking stations are very expensive, very big and very heavy,” Summers said. “I’ve had to say no to so many people who want a station because we can’t justify putting $50,000 worth of equipment in a low-density spot. For instance, in Highland Park, we’ve got one station there. I’ve got locations where we could put several more. There’s just not enough demand to justify. But if we had the dockless stations, it’s just the cost of paint and a sign.”
Soren Jensen, executive director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, welcomed the news.
“Is there going to be a bike left where it shouldn’t be and someone takes a picture of it? I suppose,” said Jensen, acknowledging that the roll-out in some cities “has been somewhat chaotic.”
”(But) I think it’s good news all around,” Jensen said. “More people will have more access to more bikes.”
The traditional docking stations aren’t going away overnight. In Minneapolis, the existing docks are paid for in part through federal funding obtained with the assistance of the city, so they’ll stick around through 2021.
Bill Dooley, a Minneapolis cyclist who sat on the Nice Ride advisory committee, said competition and consolidation in the bike-sharing industry have introduced corporate players, including startups funded by foreign investors. That’s raised some concern about how passenger data will be used and whether a for-profit company will serve greater community interests, including low-income neighborhoods.
“When Motivate and LimeBike presented to the Nice Ride advisory committee, there were concerns that Motivate was too corporate and too wedded to docked systems,” said Dooley, “and that LimeBike, although 100 percent dockless, was too new and aggressive.”
“I am fine with the merger so long as Motivate-Lyft follows through on the discussion to place dockless bikes in low-income areas,” Dooley added, “and balance those bikes back into those neighborhoods so that they are available by 6 a.m. each day.”
St. Paul issued its own request for proposals to explore dockless bike-sharing, and it remains unclear whether St. Paul will continue to work with Nice Ride.
“We got four applications and are negotiating with a possible vendor,” said Russ Stark, the city’s chief resilience officer, in an email. “Nothing more is public until we have a contract with a vendor.”
That leaves Nice Ride Motivate’s future in the capital unclear.
In St. Paul, “we don’t know,” Summers said. “At this point, my goal would be to have bike-share everywhere. I’d like to see a regional shared use through the entire Twin Cities metro area so we can get seamless.”
Nice Ride, which operates exclusively in St. Paul and Minneapolis, has completed temporary demonstration projects with orange bikes in Rochester, Minn., and Bemidji, Minn., as well as neighborhood-specific projects in North Minneapolis, Frogtown and elsewhere. With the orange bikes, the goal has been to engage communities of color and nontraditional users who may not see cycling as a viable transportation option in the city.
“We just gave away the last of the orange bikes on Saturday,” Summers said.