Last Friday afternoon marked the beginning of Nice Ride Minnesota’s fifth season of bike-share in the Twin Cities. The system’s size and geographic layout for 2014 remains largely the same as last season. But there’s still plenty of change as subscribers are introduced to more generous ride times of 60 minutes, and prospective members are given the option of monthly subscriptions. Anthony Ongaro, Nice Ride’s Director of Marketing, agreed to discuss what’s new and what’s to come for Nice Ride and bike-share in general.
Q: Portland’s bike share system has been delayed this year because the company (PBSC) that produces and services their–as well as Nice Ride’s–system is in financial trouble. How has the PBSC bankruptcy affected your planning for this or future years? How much longer do you anticipate that being an issue?
A: From the perspective of system viability, Nice Ride hasn’t been affected much at all. As an organization, we’re still in a very strong position to continue offering our services to our members and guest users. The bankruptcy did prevent us from expanding with new stations and bikes for 2014, which was unfortunate because we did have the funding for 17 additional stations. We’re not letting that slow us down though, we decided to focus on making the member experience even better by increasing trip time to 60 minutes and adding a new 30-day product. The ripples of the PBSC bankruptcy will be felt for a while as it gets sorted out, but we don’t expect it to inhibit us too much beyond this year.
(Below: Nice Ride station installation at Bryant Square Park)
Q: It seems like Nice Ride’s big new thing for 2014 is the Bemidji/Greater Minnesota expansion. But what’s the short term plan in the Twin Cities for the next year or two? Plans to expand geographically? Fill in the gaps for areas you already serve? Will we see many new stations?
A: In the near term, we’re working on making the member experience as great as we can. Nice Ride is all about convenience and getting around in a fun, healthy way. We’re looking to optimize that experience and bring more members to the system this year. We have funding for an additional 17 stations, so once we’re able to purchase them we’ll build on the existing network, not necessarily expanding outwards, but adding key connecting points to make the system more and more functional as we go.
Q: Winter operation of a bike share system is more expensive and taxing on the bikes than operating during the other three seasons. Despite this, cities like Denver and Toronto are able to operate year-round. Is this something that could be overcome in the future with additional funding (I’m speaking of the full range of possibilities, from 8 or 9 months to a full 12 month season)? Is it simply that Toronto and Denver are better funded systems?
A: It is highly unlikely that we will provide a winter bike sharing service, but if we did it would be on a much smaller scale than our spring/summer network. As a local nonprofit, we depend heavily on casual system usage (24-hour passes) to help fund our operations. When the weather goes south, the casual usage drops to practically none. In short, we’d be adding 3-5 months of operational costs without adding much revenue to help cover those costs. Boston, New York & Chicago all had some form of winter pilot this year, and we’re interested in hearing the results.
Q: While looking at your 2013 report I found it kind of astonishing that your subscription and sponsorship revenue for the year exceeds your operations budget. I had no idea there wasn’t at least a small public subsidy coming your way (for operations). In light of how we subsidize car travel and transit, does Nice Ride deserve a piece of the transportation funding pie?
A: It is true that every year Nice Ride ends up in the black, basically breaking even financially. Approximately 65% of our operational costs are covered by revenue generated from memberships, subscriptions and trip fees. The other 35% approximately is covered by private sponsors like Seward Coop, Peace Coffee, Freewheel Bike, etc. Local businesses that believe in our mission and want to support it. We couldn’t do it without them. That being said, Nice Ride does receive public funds for capital costs. Our title sponsor Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota helps match funds that we receive through public grants that allow us to purchase new stations and bikes. It’s how we’ve been able to grow as a system and continue to expand each year. So as it is, we definitely do get a piece of the transportation funding pie, but it does not help cover our operational costs.
Q: What are some things state and local governments could do better to support Nice Ride in particular, and cycling in general?
A: We’ve been very lucky to have the support of local governments and do feel like this is a mission we’re all in together. People generally know that providing safe bikeways for everyone is the way to end up with a healthier population. There can really never be enough protected bike lanes, greenways and bike paths. That and getting the word out about how we all need to share the roads together. We’re all just people trying to get somewhere whether you’re on four wheels [or] two wheels.
Q: Let’s daydream for a moment. You’ve referred to this as a “chicken-or-the-egg” proposition in the past. If Nice Ride were to be handed a big pile of money to bring in as many new users as possible in the Twin Cities, which of these two areas would you emphasize to get the most bang for your buck:
- Improving bike infrastructure (protected lanes, cycle tracks, trails) to increase the potential pool of cyclists who are bold enough to ride a bike in the city.
- Carpet bomb the city with bikes and stations so that you’re never more than 2 blocks from a bike.
A: That’s a great question and I think both are equally important. I will be a bit biased in saying that I’d love to ‘carpet bomb’ the city with bike share stations. I strongly believe that there would be a point of critical mass, where people just realize that Nice Ride is simply the easiest, most convenient way to get around. If we could reduce the amount of walking someone would have to do to a block or two in any direction to grab a bike and go – you’d have to live under a rock to not figure out that this was going to be really convenient. As it is, it’s still ridiculously convenient and never having to worry about theft or repairs is just awesome. Adding more stations would just multiply the effect.
Q: I see bike-share as a complementary service to things like public transit and car-share. There’s a non-profit car-share service in San Francisco launching a pilot program to give users access to electric bikes. Is Nice Ride exploring partnerships with companies like Car2go, or MetroTransit? It would be very cool to be able to use a Go-To card (transit pass) to transfer from the bus to a bike and vice versa; or to have car-share bundled with bike-share.
A: We’ve always been strong partners with MetroTransit, I think you’re absolutely right about bike sharing being complementary. It’s all about getting around and when you have more options, it makes life easier. We’re partnering with Car2Go in a big way this spring (they are actually one of our sponsors) – what they’re doing with one-way car sharing is a game changer. The transportationalists dream would be to have a Go-To card that works for MetroTransit, Carshare and Bikeshare. Can you imagine? One bill you pay, gets you around to every transportation service you could ever need. So many complications making that happen though, it’ll be a few years before we see anything like that. ie: which organization gets the money, when? Is it a standard amount that each organization gets, or based on percentage of usage? etc.
— NiceRiders (@NiceRiders) April 3, 2014
Q: With all the new housing construction in the Twin Cities, how common is it for a property owner or developer to partner with you on a new station? Do you see increasing interest for this kind of arrangement? Do they sponsor the startup costs, and/or contribute to ongoing expenses for that station? Is the sponsorship area ripe for system expansion?
A: We get calls from just about every new development that begins work asking how much space they should put for a Nice Ride station. There are benefits to including the station on your property, so it’s definitely an incentive for them to do it – but it’s such a great thing that they’re considering us and their residents in the process. If the building is in a high density living space, it’s most likely going to be a desirable location for us anyway and we’ll want to have a station there regardless of sponsorship. As we grow, any additional sponsorship dollars do help – but we’re mostly focused on building a great network and putting stations where it’s going to count.
Q: Nice Ride has an excellent safety record that some find counter-intuitive. Is this because drivers assume a Nice Ride user is incompetent and drive more carefully as a result? Or is it that Nice Ride users are a less confident, more cautious bunch? Any insights on safety in general that you’ve discovered over the years?
A: Nice Ride does have an excellent safety record and there are several factors that play into that. The style of the bike helps a lot, the rider is completely upright so you can see the world around you much better. You’re higher up, more visible to drivers and other cyclists – there are big advantages to not being aerodynamic down on drop bars. Also, you’re on a bright green bike – they’re hard to miss. Every single Nice Ride bike has built in tail lights and headlights – so by default, you’re higher up, on a bright green bike with flashing lights all over it. Your odds of being seen are much better on a Nice Ride bike. As we all know, these bikes aren’t built for speed – the focus is having a durable, reliable bike that will get you where you need to go – so realistically no one is pounding pavement on these things which helps the safety record as well. I’d like to think that Nice Riders know what they’re doing and are more careful in general, though.
Q: Are there recent bike-share innovations that have you excited? Any cities that you admire or who do it particularly well?
A: There are some startups doing some pretty cool things with bike sharing. From station-independent bike sharing (just place the bike back in a ‘zone’ to dock it) to bikes with GPS and full Android tablets built into them for rental purposes, there’s a lot happening. Entrepreneurs are recognizing the growth of bike share and it’s quickly becoming a large industry as a whole. I do think that bike sharing will look quite a bit different 10 years from now, though.
Q: Do you think going station-less is the direction bike-share systems will tend toward in the future?
A: There is a company called SoBi that is doing something where there are no actual dock points for the bike to lock into, rather the bicycles are locked into a traditional rack like any other bike. They initially started out with no stations/hubs at all and the bikes were tracked via GPS and a website/app but since have moved to more of a similar system like Nice Ride. Without having centralized docking points, it makes it incredibly difficult for teams to rebalance the network if the bikes move to unfavorable locations during certain times of the day. So it might not be a totally randomized system like car2go, but costs might be able to be reduced if standardized bike racks are used as opposed to docking stations.
Q: What are some really big, ambitious things you would love to do but funding, policy, or other obstacles make unrealistic or very difficult?
A: I would love to have Elon Musk’s Hyperloop between Minneapolis, Madison, Chicago and Detroit – probably won’t happen for a while though.