Dockless bike share–the free-range, largely startup-driven alternative to the traditional station-based systems in cities like New York and Washington, D.C.–does not exactly have the best reputation. Headlines call the brightly colored bikes a “nuisance” and accuse them of cluttering city sidewalks (or in some cases, ending up in trees).
So it may come as a surprise that Minneapolis–whose Nice Ride program, launched in 2010, was one of the first docked systems in the U.S.–is shifting to a dockless model. But Bill Dossett, who’s headed up Nice Ride since its inception, feels confident that both the company and the city of Minneapolis have landed on a solution that could cure the woes of dockless bike share–and actually realize its potential for creating a more expansive, flexible, and equitable bike-share system for a city.
To begin with, Nice Ride’s transition to dockless fixes one of the biggest issues with the model: lack of local government oversight. Instead of just welcoming a startup like Lime to the city and permitting to deposit thousands of bikes on the street, as Dallas notoriously did before terminating the program last month, Nice Ride, a nonprofit, will be managing the transition to dockless in close collaboration with both the city and Motivate, the company behind some of most successful bike-share systems in the country, including New York’s Citi Bike. As of September 18, blue dockless bikes will hit the streets of Minneapolis alongside Nice Ride’s traditional green-colored docked bikes to rapidly expand the city’s bike-share system.
The chief motivation for the switch to dockless, Dossett says, is equity. Since launching in 2010 with around 150 stations, Nice Ride has grown modestly; it now comprises 200 stations and 1,850 bikes, which ferry people on around 500,000 trips per year during the warmer months (the system hibernates once daylight savings time ends to avoid Minnesota’s harsh winters). But due to the costs of rolling out docking infrastructure, it hasn’t been able to expand enough, Dossett says, to reach lower-income neighborhoods like North Minneapolis and Phillips. Those neighborhoods, and others that lack access to not only bike share but public transit in general, says Josh Johnson, mobility manager for the Minneapolis Department of Public Works, will be among the first to welcome the new dockless bikes.
Motivate, which the City and Nice Ride brought on board to help carry out the transition, will essentially serve as the on-the-ground operator, responsible for bike maintenance, rebalancing, and app development. “We’re getting the benefit of the dockless bikes while still maintaining quality and control,” Dossett says. Nice Ride belongs to organizations like the North American Bike Share Association, and will be able to share best practices with other cities looking to implement a similar strategy.
Making the transition to a dockless model has been on the minds of officials at Nice Ride and the city for a while. “Around a year and a half ago, when we saw what was happening in China, with the growth of dockless bike sharing there, and then as the model started to take off in the U.S., we had a meeting with our board where we asked: What’s our next move?” Dossett says. “Ultimately, we decided that dockless was better–you can reach more people, and you can do it at a lower cost because you don’t have to maintain the docks and all the electronic equipment, like the keypads and touch screens.” Users will be able to unlock the dockless bikes via an app (and will eventually roll out an alternative system for people without smartphones) cutting down on system costs. For winter, it will be much easier for Nice Ride to just remove and store a bunch of bikes, without having to worry about transplanting the whole docking systems along with them.
But Dossett and his team was also very cognizant that there were things about the current state of dockless bike sharing that did not work, namely, the lack of order in the public right-of-way. “We thought the idea that bikes could end up in the middle of a sidewalk, where someone with a disability might be trying to navigate, would not work for us,” Dossett says.
Nice Ride, instead, will create “virtual stations” to support the transition to dockless. “Virtual station” is essentially a fancy name for a designated drop-off and pick-up zone for dockless bikes, which could be little more than just some paint striped onto a sidewalk or public pathway to delineate where the bikes should go. It’s a solution that’s so astonishingly simple that one wonders why Minneapolis is among the first to try it–until you consider that making even such basic changes to the public right-of-way requires the authorization of the city, which startups like Lime often do not have.
There are other places, like Singapore, for instance, that have created designated dockless bike parking zones in cites. “You see people painting boxes onto sidewalks or plazas and asking people to bring the bikes back there, as a way to signal to people not to put the bikes in the sidewalk,” Dossett says. “That’s a good thing, but that’s not what we’re doing.” Those parking zones, he adds, often appear as a corrective, after a city has already tried to go fully free-range dockless and found itself overwhelmed. Nice Ride is trying to head off that initial panic phase by introducing the parking along with the bikes–sometimes, right next to existing docked stations, so people get the idea. “Every single location starts with a site plan,” Dossett says.
But really, he hopes that the stations will begin with a request: Nice Ride has opened up channels of communication with residents in neighborhoods across the city so they can offer feedback about the transition and request a site for a station. “We turn that request into a site plan, and then it goes to the City as a permit application,” Dossett says. The City of Minneapolis Department of Public Works then sends the permit around to various departments, like the traffic and active transportation divisions, to ensure it fits with existing infrastructure and amenities, and then the City will actually carry out designing and implementing the markings for the stations.
“That’s the way we worked for the docked stations, and we think it works well,” Dossett says. But both Nice Ride and the City of Minneapolis are determined to streamline the process of fielding requests and granting permits so the system can expand as rapidly as is feasible. Motivate will bring 1,500 new bikes to the city this year, and another 1,500 next year, to ultimately triple the bikes available in the older docked stations. Motivate will oversee everything related to bike maintenance and distribution across the city; its on-the-ground staff will track the bikes via the GPS embedded in the smart lock to ensure that they don’t pile up in one station while failing to make it back to another. If a user fails to return a bike to a virtual station, Motivate staff will be able to repatriate it (but errant users would have to pay a small fee).
As dockless scales up rapidly in Minneapolis, equity will remain at the core of the expansion. As part of its new contract with the City and with Motivate, Nice Ride has drawn up an “equity plan” that will guide both expansion strategy and community outreach efforts to ensure that the new system reaches as diverse a ridership as possible–something docked bike-share systems have long struggled with. Even though Minneapolis is frequently listed as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the U.S., Johnson says, there’s room for improvement, and he’s hopeful that rapidly expanding its bike-share system will both drive demand for better infrastructure, and get more people on bikes who previously lacked access.