“Bike share is pretty new, and there are a whole lot of things about Nice Ride that aren’t really solved yet.” – Bill Dossett
You might have noticed that streets.mn and Nice Ride Minnesota are trying something new: getting ideas from you, the interested public, about how best to plan our metro’s innovative bike sharing system.
We had a great event last week, kicking off the project with short presentations from Bill Dossett, director of Nice Ride Minnesota, and Antonio Rosell, the head of local planning firm Community Design Group that does a lot of consulting work for the system.
A good time was had by all, and there were lots of great questions from the two dozen or so people in the audience at the McKnight Foundation headquarters.
Even though I’ve read a lot about bike share in general, and Nice Ride in particular, I learned a lot from the 2-hour conversation. Here are a few of the key takeways.
ALSO NOTE: This is simply my take on what was said, as a non-Nice Ride representative. I don’t work for Nice Ride and this is a layman’s take (albeit a layman with a PhD).
#1) Two types of costs
Every bike share system has two kinds of costs: one-time capitol equipment and ongoing operations and maintenance. Capital is a big initial cost of bikes and stations. For example, a Nice Ride kiosk with 19 docks and 12 bikes typically costs about $50K; ongoing costs for a typical station are around $3,500 per season.
Ongoing operational costs are mostly for maintenance and rebalancing. (For more on rebalancing, see here.) Rebalancing is the constant movement of bikes across the system, with the goal of making sure there are bikes at every dock.
For Nice Ride, capital costs come from grants while operations costs are “self-financing”: memberships equal about 70%, and the remaining ~30% comes from ads and sponsorships.
#2) Density differences
There are hundreds of bike share systems around the world. Expanding over the years to Saint Paul and other places means that, compared to successful systems in other cities, Nice Ride looks different because of the station density. For example, Mexico City has around twice the density of stations per square mile than Minneapolis.
That’s why Nice Ride’s rate of utilization is lower than other systems, about 2 trips per bike per day. Other cities can be as high as 7-8 trips per bike per day. A lot of this has to do with different goals, different funding, and different geography.
#3) Big difference between annual and daily riders. Sort of.
The standard distinction between “transportation” and “recreation” sort of maps onto one key distinction in the Nice Ride system: annual vs. daily rides. For example, subscription users pay once and take lots of trips throughout the year. Each trip imposes some costs, mostly from rebalancing, but these cash flow considerations impact the system.
For the most part, daily users have fewer of these needs. For example, at the Lake Calhoun station, many people take out bikes to simply go around the lake, returning it to the same place it started. From a cash flow perspective, this is the most ideal kind of station.
#4) Three systems in one, or the “Nice Ride trinity”
If you look at patterns in the data, there are really three sub-systems within the single Nice Ride system. First there’s the “daily transportation” network of people going to school, work, errands, etc. These are your membership users.
Second, there is the attraction / sight seeing / tourism system. These are the one-day riders taking out a bike around Lake Calhoun, the riverfront, or other scenic places. These aren’t people traveling to a job, but to the city’s many beautiful places, riding a bike and making use of these trails.
Third, there’s the system that mirrors more of a “transit function.” Just like with a bus, it’s not quite correct to provide bike sharing system only in places that today have high demand, ignoring locations in our city where there are populations experiencing health disparities, where people have lower incomes, or can’t afford a car. But that’s not OK, so Nice Ride also functions to provide mobility in equitable ways across the urban region.
#5) Bike share is urban
Land use is really important, which is why downtown Minneapolis drives system ridership.
“When people own fewer cars, that’s when we’re going to get more people riding bikes,” Bill Dossett said during the presentation. “My marketing plan doesn’t have nearly as much impact as the fact that heh north loop within a mile of downtown is building more high rises.”
The takeaway here is that one of the biggest determinants to whether someone is going to use Nice Ride or not is whether they own a car. If they don’t own a car, and rely on transit, biking, and walking, they are far more likely to be a regular Nice Ride user. (If they do own a car, chances are slim.)
That means that land use and density are huge biggest factors driving Nice Ride usage, and the maps of station really bear that out. Downtown, the University, the Wedge, a bit of Northeast, and some of Uptown are where usage is the highest. These are also the places with the highest overall densities, transit ridership, an lowest rates of car ownership.
#6) Membership has been flat
Since the initial two-year push, subscriptions have been pretty flat at around 4,000 per year. Meanwhile, the numbers of “casual” riders are growing each year, and now represent over half of the total system users.
This has impacts for how you design a system, and is driving some of the trends for Nice Ride and other similar bike share systems.
Here’s a quote from Bill Dossett on the technology trends:
People don’t want another subscription in their lives. […] We believe the future is the mobile phone. People are going to want to pay for lots of diff services on their phone, … [For example there are more] aggregated user interfaces that provide intermodal information, but want to also be able to ‘book your trip’ and be a single user interface for car share, ride share, transit, or whatever. It will happen, but nobody knows how fast.
The relationship between subscribers, technology, and casual consumers is something to keep in mind.
#7) The tricky Re-Balancing Act
Station density and placement matters because rebalancing for stations in the middle of the system is much easier than rebalancing stations on the edge. For a station in the downtown core, there’s always a truck nearby. Even if it gets really busy, the rebalancing activity its not that expensive. On the other hand, rebalancing an edge station like Minnehaha Falls is more difficult, and ongoing costs are going to go up.
But sometimes there are exceptions. For example, the new (this year) Como Park station in Saint Paul was a big success, despite being one of the farthest removed from the rest of the network. Initially, Nice Ride planners were very reluctant to place the station there because of potential rebalancing costs. But it’s worked out because most simply riding around the park.
What do you think?
Here’s another quote from Bill:
“If I go downtown, find two busy stations, and put another station in between them, all three stations will get more trips. Downtown continues to get busier and busier, while ridership at outlying stations hasn’t grown very much.”
The Nice Ride system is literally a balancing act: density vs. equity, everyday users vs. one-time users, etc. The challenge of this crowdsource planning project is to figure out what to do next.
- Where in the Twin Cities does the green bike system work best? How do land-use, density, and parking cost/availability shape bike share usage? What else correlates strongly?
- Are there zones where a denser grid of stations (i.e., a station every two blocks) will maximize utilization? What are the current boundaries of those zones? Will those zones expand with new development? How far?
- Are there destinations outside the “dense grid zone” where isolated bike share stations can work with high utilization? What are the characteristics of those destinations and how far from the dense grid zone can they be?
- Should any stations be placed in lower-density neighborhoods (single-family residential districts)? If yes, in which neighborhoods and at what density?
- How should Nice Ride address equity goals in distributing stations and making the system and its stations accessible to the diversity of communities and populations in the Twin Cities?
- Assuming Nice Ride could add 10-20 new bike share stations each year for the next five years (50 to 100 total) – where should those stations be placed, and how should their deployment be staged?
- What new tools and approaches should Nice Ride explore to make it easy for more people in Minnesota to choose active transportation?
If you have any thoughts, get in touch. Thanks!