Expanding Access Is Nice Ride’s Seminal Challenge

crowdsource-logoNote: This post is part of the streets.mn/Nice Ride crowdsource conversation, a series of crowdsourced looks at how to expand or improve Nice Ride planning.Check out the rest here.

As an interloper to Minnesota and now as a former resident, one of the proudest features of my adopted hometown is Nice Ride Minnesota, our (not sure if I can use “our” anymore, having moved?) pioneering bike share system. I’ve written in the past about how Minnesota has an uncanny ability to punch above its weight, and Nice Ride is a perfect example. It was the second bike sharing system to launch in a major American city, and briefly the largest. While you can now find larger systems, (in New York, Chicago, and DC), more heavily used systems (shoutout to Boston), and systems which ripped off the color scheme (screw you, Seattle), Nice Ride continues to distinguish itself in other ways. The system’s non-profit model, expansive advocacy for car-free life, pilot rental program in Bemidji, and Orange Bike outreach program, are unusual and innovative. While Nice Ride has continually expanded to serve new areas and remains among the nation’s largest operations, it deserves its image of a plucky, creative, underdog.

I love bike share, and have watched Nice Ride’s evolution with tremendous interest and excitement over the years. I compared Nice Ride with Saint Paul’s doomed Yellow Bike program for my undergraduate capstone paper. As a consequence, I’m really excited for the invitation from the organization and Streets.MN to contribute to a discussion about Nice Ride’s future. I’ve really enjoyed reading the posts so far, and as the deadline is nearly up, it’s time I finished this article, which I started when the collaboration was announced, and let languish while schoolwork piled up.

Towards a larger mode shift

The write-up of the crowdsourcing project posed a number of intriguing questions. This article focuses just on one issue raised by the inquiry but when I first encountered the project, I tried to provide an answer to all. Briefly—I’m excited about the future of Nice Ride, but am skeptical that it can perform at the level of systems in Europe, Asia, or New York without a drastic change in urban form in the Twin Cities. As MSP grows denser, Nice Ride will benefit, but I wouldn’t be surprised or discouraged if Nice Ride continues to be outperformed in terms of  trips per bike per day. While sitting around and waiting for MSP to become more urban, the goal for Nice Ride must be to affect a mode shift among people who aren’t currently using the system. That seems to be a more promising and manageable plan of attack, and I’ve been really encouraged by Nice Ride’s marketing and outreach, especially this past season.

To that end, in my view, Nice Ride’s expansion plan should be focused upon supplementing growing bike infrastructure at every turn. As Saint Paul laboriously puts into action their bike plan, Nice Ride should be a swooping in the day after the striping to throw down stations. The guiding principles for Nice Ride’s expansion in the next five years should be:

  • (1) supplement new biking infrastructure immediately
  • (2) carpet new regions with high station density, and
  • (3) adjust new stations to become more visible.

I’m pretty sure the folks at Nice Ride know this by heart already, but I wanted to put it in writing all the same.

While building the network out and expanding outreach programs will continue to be physical and monetary challenges for Nice Ride, the biggest challenge that Nice Ride could accept over the next five years is to redesign the way metropolitan bike share systems are accessed. Through RFID technology, we have built and extensively tested systems over the past twenty years that are sustainable enough in terms of earning revenue to maintain the system and preventing losses through theft and vandalism, which crippled previous free bike schemes. The next steps for bike share systems are to find ways to protect their unavoidable mandate for economic sustainability while lowering their guard and expanding access. Nice Ride’s non-profit structure, forward-thinking initiatives, and communitarian ethos recommend it as the perfect system to push the envelope in this direction.

These are big undertakings. But I think they’re worth it.


From Metro Transit’s Website

Transit integration

One of the mental leaps that cities and citizens need to make (and are making) about bicycles is understanding them as a distinct mode of transportation, with strengths and weaknesses, that fits into the palate of consumer choice. They are not just vehicles for children and adult recreation, nor tools of necessity for the very poor, nor tools of luxury for the over-privileged. There are certain types of trips for which biking is the most rational transportation choice.

It follows that we should also think of bike share as a part of our transit network. It’s not hard to conceive of a trip in which the most reasonable method of transport would involve a ride on a Nice Ride bike, followed by a trip on the light rail. These systems should not act independently from each other, and Nice Ride is well aware of this. Every Green Line station has a corresponding bicycle dock. Short of actually building space for Nice Ride on the station platform (which would really be ideal in some cases, but may not always be feasible), the systems match-up well.

The geography is the easy part. The larger and more important challenge is to integrate these two systems in terms of the means of access. That means hooking Nice Ride up with the Go-To card system. Go-To users would be able to tap their pass and immediately receive the five digit unlocking code. They would be charged a small fee for a single rental ($0.50?), deducted from their Go-To total and passed on to Nice Ride, and be on their way. Members would have the option to link their Nice Ride pass with your Go-To card, to use if they forget or do not prefer their key. Simple.

Solving the “last mile” problem

The potential benefits to this are (I think) huge. Creating an easy synergy between Nice Ride and Metro Transit is a ready-made solution to the last mile problem that transit agencies everywhere must act to solve. As a result, it expands the area that can be considered in the remit of a transit station, potentially opening up new areas for TOD. It also removes the small but significant barrier of Nice Ride’s somewhat cumbersome rental process for a huge pool of potential users. Because of this, it explodes Nice Ride’s potential pool of members, and ought to be a boost for ridership.

The costs are largely fixed, one-time expenditures. Go-To readers would need to be installed and the software would need to be connected to the Nice Ride operation at each dock. I will not pretend to know the complexity of this, I’ll only assume that with governmental agencies and technology both being involved, there’s red tape. On the positive side, there is little operational risk for Nice Ride in partnering with Metro Transit. The Go-To system provides a guarantee of payment for Nice Ride and accountability for lost or damaged bikes.

Nice Ride would be among the leaders in this arena. I do not know an exhaustive list of cities that have taken this step, but they exist in smaller numbers. Bordeaux’s VCub (or V3) system is integrated with the transit network. Los Angeles’ future system will be, because the LA transit agency is running the program.

If nothing else, we can’t let Los Angeles get the better of us in bike friendliness, can we?


From Nice Ride’s website

Convenience Store Expansion

One of the most enduring challenges of the modern bike share system is reaching potential users who do not have credit cards (alternately, reliable internet service). Nice Ride has already innovated in reaching under-served populations more broadly with their Orange Bike program. But the Nice Ride system itself is not built to accommodate people off the banking grid, who paradoxically may derive the greatest benefit from the system if they could access it. Reaching this population is a challenging goal, and one that will require taking on a degree of risk. The advantage of the credit card requirement is that it insures the system against vandalism and theft. Creating avenues to use that are accessible to people without credit cards will necessarily open Nice Ride up to the danger that unaccountable people that cannot be easily fined will gain access to Nice Ride bikes and wreak havoc. The charge to Nice Ride in the future is to navigate these waters.

One way forward has been tried in several US based systems, including DC’s Capital Bike Share and Philadelphia’s new IndeGo system. The general idea is that you open up locations where people can purchase memberships for cash. Capital Bike Share partnered with The Commuter Store to offer full-price memberships at their four locations. IndeGo partnered with PayNearMe and memberships are available at 7-11s and Family Dollar stores, after first registering online. The process is cumbersome, to say the least. DC’s more streamlined but less available program has also not been met with a rousing response.

I’m unaware of better examples of this kind of cash payment system, though I’m sure they exist, and likely not in this country. Nice Ride might be better positioned to find an answer to this.

Still, it’s not hard to imagine a better program that Nice Ride could pioneer. Three keys to a workable program:

  • (1) Memberships bought with cash need to be steeply discounted, maybe to $15 or $20.
  • (2) To ensure that the discounts go to those who need them, they could be restricted to holders of an EBT card (the memberships would still be bought with cash).
  • (3) The points of sale and registration need to be widely available. The perfect partner for this type of program would be a common convenience store, like Super America, or an omnipotent retailer, like Target. This company might also be persuaded to contribute to the subsidy and write off the loss as a corporate give-back to the community.

There would doubtless need to be a bit of trial and error with a program like this one as well. One tweak that occurs to me is that while Nice Ride memberships purchased through this method ought to be indistinguishable in terms of use, it seems appropriate to apply a different fine structure (perhaps none at all) for late returns. Education and outreach, in multiple languages, would also be a good component to a program like this. There are a host of challenges.

So Why Do It?

The easy and simple answer is that by expanding the ease of access to transit riders and people without credit cards, Nice Ride ought to gain members who will take more rides, improving their health, increasing the number of bikes on the roads, and decreasing car dependence. These are all self-evident goals. But these two populations are also more diverse, less wealthy, and in greater need of more transportation options than many of us. Older bike share programs, like the yellow bikes of Saint Paul or Willmar are always going to fail because they lack the accountability that prevents the commons from becoming a tragedy. But programs like Nice Ride suffer from the opposite problem, in solving the issue of accountability, and in seeking to prevent huge losses in maintaining that accountability system, we restrict access to those who may lack the means to join. We trade economic unsustainability for social unsustainability.

Nice Ride has been a rousing success, growing by leaps and bounds since its inception. Even as it continues to expand its access in geographic terms, it ought also to consider the process of expanding access in social terms.

Alex Schieferdecker

About Alex Schieferdecker

Alex Schieferdecker is a transportation planner. He grew up in New York City, lived in Philadelphia for seven years, and now lives in Minneapolis. His twitter handle is @alexschief. He is on BlueSky at @alexschief.bsky.social