Yesterday was a big day in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, and I'm not talking about April Fool's Day. No, it was much more important than that. Yesterday brought the return of Nice Ride, the bike share organization that I have come to love and trust as an integral part of how I move around my city from April until November. Seeing the neon green bikes begin to fill up the stations was genuinely exciting. Operating for just a shade under five years, Nice Ride has become a fixture in the Twin Cities going from 100,000 rides its first season to over 400,000 last year. I began using the system during its first season and purchased a membership to start the second year in 2011 despite living well outside its network footprint at the time. Working downtown and coming into the city pretty much every weekend gave me more than enough opportunity to feel like I got my money's worth.
Now that Nice Ride is well-established around here, I don’t get as many questions about why I use it as I did a few years ago. People seem to more or less get why it’s useful for others even if they have no interest in using it themselves. Still, every once in a while someone asks what the value is for me. Don’t I have a bike myself? Why use it instead of driving a car or riding my own bike? Things like that. If you’re not from here or another city that has this kind of system, you might be asking the same questions. I think bike share programs can be an invaluable addition to city life and a sign that your city is paying attention to real quality of life indicators. Here’s why.
Low Maintenance? Try No Maintenance
My personal bike is a dead simple, single speed Torker U District. It’s pretty great! It rides well enough, looks reasonably cool, and didn’t cost a lot of money. Best of all, because it’s so simple it requires almost no maintenance. If all you’re looking for is a basic bike to knock around town, I wholeheartedly recommend it.
But you know what’s even better than low maintenance? None. At all. Ever. Using Nice Ride means I’ve outsourced all responsibility for making sure the bikes are in working order to the organization. The type of bikes used in most bike share systems, including ours, are built like tanks. Sure, they’re slow as molasses, but they are comfortable and easy to ride. They are heavy and sturdy, and as such are probably not prone to needing many repairs in the first place.
Even so my sense is that Nice Ride is doing a great job making sure things run smoothly. I’ve taken 125 trips since becoming a member, and only twice have I had any problem with any aspect of using the system.* In both cases it had to do with not being able to check a bike out, and all I had to do was grab a different one. This is usually where someone asks, “what if there are no bikes at a station?” Good question. I’ve had that happen maybe 5 times, and in almost every instance another station was within reasonable distance. Again, Nice Ride manages this well, actively moving bikes around as necessary. What’s more, as a customer I can use the Nice Ride website or the app Spotcycle to monitor availability in realtime so I avoid going to an empty station ahead of time.
Bike Share Means Commitment Free Mobility
Nice Ride and other bike share systems operate in a pretty straightforward manner. Check a bike out of one station, ride to wherever you’re going, and check it in at the station nearest your destination. The one-way nature of the system means you almost never have to worry about a bike getting lost or stolen somehow, not to mention there is really zero incentive to steal them in the first place. The bike’s never out of your sight because it’s only your responsibility while you’re actually using it. I don’t worry a lot about my personal bike getting stolen either, but I still take the necessary precautions to prevent it by locking it up. It only adds a small bit of time, but there’s something liberating about being able to walk up to a Nice Ride station, grab a bike, and take it where I want without any planning required.
One-way trips have another great benefit. If I take my bike somewhere, I’m committed to getting home on my bike as well, even if that becomes inconvenient for whatever reason. The same is true for a personal automobile. If I get a flat tire, run into inclement weather or simply don’t feel like biking home, I can choose another way to return. The reverse is also true, of course. If I’m out and about and see a station, I can just hop on a bike if I feel like it.
If at this point you’re protesting that this is only true if I didn’t drive to where I was in the first place, you may be missing the point. Nice Rice along with other tools of the “sharing economy” such as car share from Car2Go or ride share from Lyft and Uber plus public transportation means that my day to day life rarely requires a personal, private vehicle. For me this represents a net increase in freedom of mobility and not a decrease.
Extended Connectivity, Low Cost
My preferred method of transportation is always walking unless it is truly unfeasible for reasons of time, distance, safety or bad weather.** I enjoy it, it’s healthy, and it requires almost no planning. I simply go out the door when I’m ready or feel like it. After that, I like biking for a lot of the reasons spelled out here. It’s nearly free and can get me really close to where I’m going while also being healthy and easy to plan for in most cases.
Because I generally choose to walk almost everywhere, when the green bikes start to show up again as they did yesterday I feel like the scale of the city has gotten smaller. The bikes are just there! I can go use one! While I could be using my own bike all along, the fact is I just don’t. It’s down in the basement of our building. I’ve got to check the tires and brakes, etc. If you think that makes me lazy, you’re not entirely wrong. Just don’t say so yelling out your car window while I’m walking two miles in 20 degree weather. Nice Ride is so easy to use and connects so many desirable places around Minneapolis and Saint Paul that lots of spots I normally don’t see as convenient are now within my ideal trip length.*** And it accomplishes this without me having to do much additional preparation.
Bike share extends my reach through the city in other ways. The expanded area I’m willing to travel means there are more public transit routes I’m willing to take, which further expands my network because I can hop back on Nice Ride again when I get off the bus or train. We’ve still got some gaps in this aspect of our network here in the Twin Cities, but having it at all is still pretty great. Along with other tools mentioned above like Car2Go and ride share apps, it’s easier than ever to go car free or at least down to one per household as my wife and I have done. This saves us thousands of dollars a year in cost avoidance and/or depreciating capital in the form of a second car that rarely gets used. This leaves us with more money for all sorts of things, including supporting local shops, restaurants and bars…which we arrive at on our bikes. Hooray!****
More Nice Ride!
Bike share is not a silver bullet for a successful city or a good urban environment. If anything, it’s more of an outcome of already having met those criteria to a certain level of sufficiency that make it viable. But there is no doubt that it can enhance the quality of life in a city for both its residents and visitors when done well. When Nice Ride launched there were enthusiastic early adopters like me, but most people seemed to regard it with either confusion or derision. What’s the point? Who’s going to use it?
Today, the only real problem with Nice Ride is that we could use more of it. And they’re working on it! The network has expanded steadily and will again in 2015. I’ve occasionally heard grumblings from folks who wish they’d add more stations to more places sooner than later, and I acknowledge that my current location means I’m kind of in the thick of the network. Still, I have no objections to the conservative nature of their expansion. I’d rather see the system grow slowly but with consistent success rather than go boom and bust.
While we’re waiting on that, I’ll be out and about on a bike, grabbing coffee or heading to the farmer’s market. You’re welcome to join me. Just, you know, don’t be creepy about it.
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Photo courtesy of Nice Ride Minnesota under Creative Commons 2.0
*It’s hard to believe I’ve only taken 125 trips in four years as a member, but I suppose that’s because I did not live anywhere near a station for the first two and a half of those.
**Bad weather does not mean cold until we’re talking about temperatures or wind chill below zero or heavy snow/rain. Even then, it’s more of a sliding scale based on distance. The distance I’m willing to walk somewhere begins to shrink a bit as the temperature drops to those really low temps, but if I’m wearing the right clothes a brisk walk will keep me plenty warm.
***Which is roughly 30 minutes or less depending on a gazillion factors.
****This is not about all the reasons why you or someone else can’t or won’t give up your car or a second or third one, which is a reaction I often get if I make a point like this. I say it because there are people out there who would consider doing so if they were more confident in their ability to make it work. These things exist on a sliding scale of personal preference. We would only own one car regardless of Nice Ride’s existence, but it’s a nice boon to have it around all the same.