Saint Paul’s Nice Ride Failure Shows Need for Downtown Bike Lanes

The 2012 Nice Ride Saint Paul Kick-off Event

I saw my first NiceRider this week, an Asian student crossing the Wasington Avenue bridge on the University of Minnesota campus. It seems that, barring massive snowstorms forcing the bright green bikes to scuttle back to their hibernation caves, the Nice Ride season is upon us. They’re even expanding again, adding 24 new stations along the river and in South Minneapolis.

This time last year, St Paul was celebrating a different expansion. The Nice Ride system installed 30 stations in downtown Saint Paul, and along Grand Avenue.

According to the NiceRide organizer, Bill Dossett, the focus  of the Saint Paul expansion was on the downtown:

“The real focus this year is to do downtown St. Paul,” he said. “St. Paul is so tied to the river and is very much a river city.”

He said hotel patrons and downtown workers will be able to use the bikes to enhance what might otherwise be a walking lunch.

“The bikes make it easier for people to go a little bit farther on their lunch hour,” Dossett said. “Rather than being able to walk eight blocks, they’ll be able to go a mile or two and access the riverfront.”


Yet if the goal of NiceRide was to get people to ride around downtown Saint Paul, last year has to be considered a failure.

I did a rough survey of a representative sample of 10 stations from each of the downtowns, and the results are disheartening for Saint Paul bicycling. Of the ten stations in Saint Paul, only two locations came close to the 1,000 trip barrier. Most spots stayed well below 300 trips per season (or about two rentals per day per station). By contrast, even the worst performing Downtown Minneapolis station was almost at 2,000 trips, with the most popular (the IDS Center) exceeding 10,000 trips during the bicycling season. The total trips at the 10 Minneapolis locations was 46,379, while Saint Paul’s locations equaled  just 5,594, a tiny fraction of the city to the West.



A comparison between 10 Nice Ride stations in each downtown.


Why Were Saint Paul’s Numbers So Dismal?

There are lots of potential culprits for the gap between downtown Saint Paul and downtown Minneapolis’ bicycling numbers. Most obviously, Saint Paul is more hilly. Lowertown is literally lower than the rest of downtown, and to escape from the core, you’ll encounter a hill in almost any direction. That might explain some of the variance. (On the other hand, last week I watched a Pedal Pub very slowly go up the hill at 4th Street, and they were having a great time. Overall, downtown Saint Paul is fairly flat, so I don’t think this is explains the difference.)

Similarly, there are more jobs and people in downtown Minneapolis than in downtown Saint Paul. The downtown Minneapolis residential population is 36,000; Saint Paul’s is only about 8,000. Likewise for jobs: Minneapolis has about 160,000 jobs while Saint Paul has about 60,000.

Still, that doesn’t really explain the gap to me. At worst, you’d have to expect that Saint Paul might have one third or one fourth of the number of bicyclists. (They currently have 12%.) The dismal numbers must have another explanation. What might it be? Are people in Saint Paul so different from people in Minneapolis?

In my opinion, the huge gap can be explained by one simple thing: Nice Ride bikes are mostly useless without Bike Lanes!


The downtown Minneapolis bicycle master plan.

Downtown Minneapolis is filled with bike lanes. In fact, at least a dozen streets (except Washington Avenue) have designated space for bicycles. In Saint Paul, unless you’re a tiny section of Jackson Street, you’re not even going to find a single bike lane anywhere downtown.

That’s not to say that people don’t ride bicycles in downtown Saint Paul. I do, others do, lots of people ride bicycles through the city. We just do it in regular street lanes, because we’re used to riding bikes in the city, used to navigating in traffic.

However, Nice Ride is aimed at a different audience. Throughout the US, bike share systems target people who aren’t that comfortable riding bicylces: tourists, museum goers, office workers on their lunch break. These kinds of riders really need designated spaces to ride, places where they feel comfortable and safe on the street. And that means bike lanes or off-street trails, which are about as common in downtown Saint Paul as a snowplow in July.

Saint Paul has good intentions and fine goals. The city has a new bicycle coordinator (who writes for this very website), and has been working on a bicycle plan for some time. But without bike lanes in downtown Saint Paul, those eye-catching green bikes are are for urban bicycling what those Snoopy statues are for street life. They’re strictly symbolic. Maybe this year will prove me wrong, but I’m afraid that until Saint Paul has contiguous and comfortable bike lanes downtown, Nice Ride will remain a underused symbol of good intentions and lack of action.


18 thoughts on “Saint Paul’s Nice Ride Failure Shows Need for Downtown Bike Lanes

  1. Ross Williams

    There are a couple other factors here. One is that downtown Saint Paul is much more compact than Minneapolis. It is also bordered by freeways with very hostile street crossings that are barriers to get to destinations that are relatively close, like the capitol area. The crossing on Wabasha over the river to the West Side is decent, but its a long way to anywhere very interesting besides Harriet Island.

    In short there are very few desirable destinations where someone would typically use a bike. They are either walkable, very far away or require crossing a MNDOT facility. SInce MNDOT is hostile to both bicycles and pedestrians, its unlikely that downtown Saint Paul is ever going to have a rich network of bike lanes that connects it to the rest of the city.

  2. Joanna

    I agree with you, Bill, and with Ross. I used to be in the hardcore biker demographic, but health and age make NiceRide a much more attractive alternative than using my own bike: I can no longer carry a bike up and down stairs in my flat; I don’t have to worry about theft, and the stations and routes are convenient to me in Minneapolis. When I think about riding in downtown St Paul, I get the shudders.

  3. Max

    I agree, but….. I almost didn’t want to keep reading because of the first sentence.

    “I saw my first NiceRider this week, an Asian student crossing the Wasington Avenue bridge on the University of Minnesota campus. ”
    What relevance is it that the NiceRider was Asian? Just saying.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      I find it interesting that one of the groups that seems to use the Nice Ride bikes quite frequently on campus are the international students. They seem more adventurous and open minded about bikes than many of the US students, for some reason.

  4. Kassie

    One thing I believe my union is working on is getting state employees subsidized subscriptions to Nice Ride. We currently get subsidies for parking and/or bus passes. Adding this would help, I think. I have lots of meetings at one of two other buildings, both of which have Nice Rides near by. Most my co-workers take a shuttle to one building and walk to the other. It would be great if Nice Ride was an option too.

  5. Brendon SlotterbackBrendon Slotterback

    I wonder if this is more about destinations. Nice Ride trips need to end at a Nice Ride station, not just anywhere. The density of destinations (stations outside of downtown) is definitely quite a bit lower in St. Paul than in Minneapolis. Downtown St. Paul is also quite a bit smaller than downtown Minneapolis (if you compare inside the freeway rings). If you want to ride from downtown out: hills. If you want to travel intra-downtown, it’s pretty easy to walk.

  6. Andy

    Overall I think this is right on. Downtown St. Paul could have much better infrastructure for bikes. Two things come to mind though:

    1. Did the Downtown St. Paul stations open at the same time as the Downtown Minneapolis stations last year? Nice Ride tends to open the new stations a month or so later than the stations that existed the previous year. The St. Paul stations may have had a shorter season than Minneapolis.

    2. I’ve got to imagine there’s a bit of maturing to the system. I find I have a much better idea of the station locations that have existed a year or two and how I can use the system to get where I want to go. Areas that are new may have a bit of a learning curve for people to find out how the system can work for them.

    I wonder how a 10 station comparison might look between the first year of Downtown Minneapolis service to the first year of Downtown St. Paul service.

  7. Sam

    You also missed the fact that much of downtown St. Paul was torn up last summer — it was hard to get anywhere, and by bike even more so.

    I have a subscription to NiceRide and work downtown St. Paul. I gave up after ~4 round trips. The stations weren’t where I’d want them to be (Rice and Mears park, or wherever food trucks are). It was a ~3 block walk to a station from my office, then I’d bike 4 blocks, and have to walk ~2 more. It wasn’t worth getting on the bike. And yes, I ended up biking on the sidewalks, because the streets did not feel safe to me on such a slow bike.

  8. kevin

    NiceRide didn’t come to St. Paul until June of 2012, (not April, like you say), so the season was shorter and undoubtedly this means lower numbers. Did you account for that in your data?

    You compared St. Paul’s first year data with Minneapolis’ third year of data. You should have compared it to Minneapolis’ first year. People need time to get socialized to the bikes. Did you account for that?

    I have my own bike and I use a NiceRide, so you make erroneous assumptions about the demographic, too.

    I am a fan of bike lanes, but this is sloppy research to justify a provactive headline.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Yeah, its sloppy. I crunched these numbers and made the chart in an hour on a plane ride. But that’s what you get with volunteer blogging. I DO try to avoid overdramatic conclusions, though. I think St Paul’s Nice Ride numbers are very low, and I’ve heard this from a few key sources too. So it’s not all in my head.

      You don’t think that Saint Paul needs downtown bike lanes? All the problems mentioned in this post (and in the comment thread) are real, and the city needs to pay more attention to connecting downtown and making it safe and comfortable for bicycles.

      1. kevin

        You ground your work in research, and when it’s called into question, you brush it off as “Hey I’m just a volunteer.” Why don’t you own your work–and edit the post?

        You use a sensationalized headline “NiceRide Fails in St.Paul…” but say you try to avoid overdramatic conclusions?

        I share your interest in better streets and connectivity for bikes in St. Paul. I don’t share your approach.

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

          Couple points on my writing philosophy:

          1) I don’t like going back and editing original posts unless there’s a clear factual error or misspelling. I feel like there’s more dishonesty to that, and I’d rather leave up the original argument. Rather, this kind of nuance and correction is what comment threads are for. We rely on an informed intelligent community of people (like yourself) to critique things we write, and to start discussions. E.g. You don’t think it was a “failure”? Which word would you use? Is “disappointment” OK? Well, there’s a conversation, and so far on we’ve had a bunch of great comment discussions pop up. That’s the whole point of this website.

          2) I read a hell of a lot of actual peer reviewed research on bicycling, and you’d be surprised at how “sloppy” some of it is. Granted, that’s not a defense.

          3) You should see my first drafts. They’re melodramatic! I tone it way down. But overall, my personal editorial philosophy is to be blunt. Too often, writing about advocacy issues can be framed to be unconfrontational. I think that kind of writing is boring. I’d rather “call a spade a spade” if I think its defensible. And at this point, I think downtown Saint Paul’s lack of bicycle infrastructure is indefensible.

          1. kevin

            The maps and charts give your post the appearance of credible research. I poked a few holes in it and you lower your bar by saying essentially that everyone writing on this topic is sloppy. Or that you have well-placed sources (though you don’t share them).

            I wish I could pay more attention to your main point: the desire for better infrastructure in St. Paul, but the path you take to arrive at the conclusion is as important as the conclusion itself. My overall take-away is about credibility and for me, you’ve lost it.

  9. aj

    Having grown up in Saint Paul, I spent quite a few years commuting through downtown.

    1. Hills. Mpls has none, but geological barriers do impact the choice of transportation. I chose to bike from Western and Selby, down a large hill, then across the Wabasha Street Bridge (downhill again) to the Westside of Saint Paul. It was fun to go to work, but not to much fun on the uphill commute home.

    2. Saint Paul’s Love Affair with Grand Avenue. NiceRide chose to go in and around Grand Avenue. Shops didn’t want them and everyone up there drives. The 63 bus is never full because the city requires off-street parking, thus making the avenue gull of lots, congested and unfriendly to biking. Besides the college campuses, not a lot of people ride bicycles, but Selby Avenue is a different story.

    3. Funnels in and out of downtown STP. There are many bike paths that parallel West 7th street, yet have no good connection to downtown. By building Kellogg into such a large street, it has isolated all fringe downtown neighborhoods, and cut connectivity. Downtown is more of an island compared with downtown MPLS.

    NiceRides can work in and out of downtown STP, just put them on main arteries leading in and out of downtown.

  10. minneapolisite

    This is true,” Nice Ride is aimed at a different audience. Throughout the US, bike share systems target people who aren’t that comfortable riding bicylces”. My friend visiting from Columbus is too scard to ride a bike there (good luck finding bike lanes or boulevard just about anywhere). Yet we had no problem riding from Loring Park along the lakes to Minnehaha Falls and up Minnehaha Ave to West Bank.

    Columbus not only focused its upcoming bike share on downtown stations geared towards office workers (who drive there), but destinations are sparse and spread out to boot: Downtown Columbus is more expansive than Chicago’s Loop, but with tons of parking lots and has 0 bike lanes despite talk of bike lanes there years ago. St Paul s has the advantage of a compact downtown, but that doesn’t mean much when it’s not well connected to surrounding neighborhoods by bike infrastructure.

    St Paul clearly doesn’t want people biking into Downtown since they haven’t bothered to install the infrastructure for that to happen. Therefore, like Columbus should have done, the bike share should be focused on density rich areas in various neighborhoods and connect those together (even though I don’t reside there anymore for obvious reasons I did give my 2 cents on switching out some planned downtown stations at office buildings for destination-rich neighborhood districts). Destinations west of Downtown, on Marshall in particular because it has bike lanes, should also have stations on Selby, Grand, Cleveland, Dale, etc, where quiet low-traffic residential streets even without bike lanes are much more approachable than miniature one-way highways for tourists, novices, and the like. These low-traffic streets conveniently parallel these commercial streets which have more traffic and higher speeds/are bike-unfriendly.

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