The Nice Ride Minnesota bike-share program will begin its fifth season with a focus on outreach to full-time, devoted car drivers. As Richard Bobby, Nice Ride’s Director of Driver Outreach, explained, “We need to communicate that we understand the plight of the driver, and we think these new ideas can accomplish that.” These ideas range from promotional freebies to more serious efforts aimed at making drivers comfortable with the idea of biking as a daily transportation routine.
Beginning this season, the portion of Nice Ride’s budget previously devoted to green helmet giveaways at events like Open Streets, will instead be spent on items like license plate frames and antenna toppers (to help avid drivers find their cars in the boundless expanse of suburban parking lots).
Mr. Bobby believes the branded swag will serve as outreach beyond just the drivers who receive it. “If one driver on the highway sees another driver with a branded Nice Ride license plate frame or antenna topper, we want all the other drivers to think to themselves, ‘Maybe Nice Ride users aren’t the far-out, tattooed, body-pierced, bearded freak-shows we thought; maybe riding a bike isn’t so bad; maybe I could do that!’”
While the non-profit is proud of the success they’ve had promoting bike-share to users across the Twin Cities, they don’t shy from the fact they could do better. “It’s possible that all this emphasis on bikes and biking has alienated a segment of the population that’s really attached to driving,” admits Mr. Bobby. “We opened a lot of stations in our first four seasons, but we didn’t give any thought to things like parking. I mean, where will our users park? That was a mistake.”
To fix that mistake, Nice Ride plans to implement a park-and-ride system. For users, this means free parking with downtown parking providers in Minneapolis and St Paul. “Some of these parking garages are a block or two from a person’s ultimate destination. That’s a long walk for a lot of drivers. A bike would be really useful in that situation.”
Another parking solution that’s under consideration: mandating parking minimums for all future bike stations. Mr Bobby says the project is essential. “I don’t think there’s a station in the system that wouldn’t benefit from having a dozen or so dedicated parking spots. That would drive a lot of subscriptions, bring in a lot of users. No doubt.” The plan would consist of issuing permits to Nice Ride users; cars parked in these “Nice Ride only” lots without a permit would be towed. “It’s not possible with some of our older stations, but with all future stations [parking minimums] will be a priority.”
Even if they can lure drivers to the stations with free parking, Mr. Bobby says there are still obstacles. Nice Ride has discovered some things about its users after four seasons of feedback. There’s a sense of vulnerability and powerlessness that comes with riding a bike on city streets that can be too much for many drivers.
Mr. Bobby put it this way: “If I’m used to sitting up real high in my SUV and suddenly someone tells me, ‘Hey, let’s get on a bike,’ I might be worried about being so much lower to the ground. And another thing, if you get caught behind someone in traffic, here’s this dainty, tinkly bell that nobody will pay attention to. It can be a disorienting, demeaning experience when you go from being a full-time driver to a casual bike rider.”
To fix these problems, a 2014 pilot project will have 20% of Nice Ride’s bikes equipped with a bellowing car horn. “It’s gonna be loud, really f—in’ loud, semi-truck loud,” Bobby said with a chuckle. Additionally, Nice Ride plans to modify it’s fleet of bikes so that, beginning in 2015, users will be able to sit as high or higher than a driver in an SUV. “We’re really psyched about taking our bikes to new heights–literally.” In addition to instilling confidence, he says it will increase rider safety. “The cyclist has a better perspective on the road, and at the same time, is more visible to drivers.”
Another idea, still in the planning stage, is to convert the shopping cart returns of suburban parking lots into bike returns. Said Mr. Bobby, “You get on a bike at Macy’s and get off in the Sears parking lot where you left your car–those lots are always empty. Does anyone shop at Sears anymore? But anyways, we think that has a lot of potential. You have to be an athlete to cover some of the distances in these mall parking lots. It’s like an Olympic event. If we can get them riding bikes in parking lots, they’re one step closer to riding a bike around town.”
One proposal would dot the parking lots of three metro area malls with Nice Ride stations. Each parking lot would get roughly a half-dozen stations. The goal is to give suburban dwellers a taste of what bike-share could mean in their communities.
Nice Ride hopes these ideas will get some significant portion of committed, full-time drivers onto a big green bike. But what if it all fails? “I don’t know,” replied Bobby. “Maybe we’ll try golf carts instead of bikes. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around this biking stuff. I’m more of a car guy.”