One of the cooler facts that I learned from the recently concluded Nice Ride/ streets.mn crowdsource planning project was that the Birchwood Café received the first ever Nice Ride station. On top of that, they also have higher-than-would-be-expected ridership numbers. I have a theory that it all can be traced back to their station placement, and whole-hearted embrace of bicycling, not just as equal-to traveling by car, but as a mode-of-choice, to be placed symbolically and physically at the center.
In other words, the Birchwood is an ideal model for future Nice Ride station placement because they idealize a seamless relationship between architecture, environmental values, business sense, transportation, and neighborhood that can and should be a hallmark of the relationship between small businesses and bicyclists. In short, the Birchwood embodies the “sense of place” that will make Nice Ride thrive.
I guess the Birchwood having the ür-Nice Ride kiosk makes sense. In case you didn’t know, the Birchwood café is one of the bastions of the Seward neighborhood, and a sort of epicenter for Minneapolis’ liberal values, promoting local food, directly-sourced coffee, bicycling, #blacklivesmatter, organic food, community groups, and basically everything else that makes Minneapolis feel (a bit too) good about itself. Plus their food is great, their sidewalk is tops, and they’re right in the middle of Minneapolis’ “numerological twilight zone” (NTZ) which gives it the added air of elitism that comes with being difficult to find.
(I tease because I love.)
Anyway, it’s hard to forget the moment when a non-Seward resident first discovers the Birchwood. For one thing, their sidewalk is fabulous, a lightly-landscaped, often chalked, seamless transition between inside and outside, shop and street, business and neighborhood.
And it was outside the Birchwood where I first noticed the odd psychological effect of bike share stations. I was sitting sipping a coffee in the sunshine, watching people ride and walk up and down the street, and the new kiosk made quite an impression before the front door. As couples walked past, they would stop and gaze at it for a few key seconds.
“Hm, maybe someday I’ll try that out,” I heard someone say.
“How do they work,” couples would murmur to each other
The key thing for me was that these were people, so I thought, that would never bike around South Minneapolis on their own. Even if you never use it, the Nice Ride station breaks down a psychological barrier between us and them, the bicycle people and the rest of us. It offers a gateway into an intimidating world, an exciting potential that is really helpful for forwarding conversations about urban bicycling past a divisive impasse.
And unlike almost every other small business, the Birchwood puts its bike rack and its Nice Ride station right before the front door, taking up (at least) two prime parking spots. That sends a message of welcoming, and amplifies the feeling of comfort that becomes so crucial to actually changing behavior.
The importance of atmosphere
Another thing I learned during the Nice Ride crowdsource project was that station usage was not simply about the latitude and longitude, but about how and where the station was placed. According to Nice Ride director Bill Dossett, and the other staff that chatted with us at length, some stations in seemingly sensible locations — say by a LRT stop or along a bike route — have low performance because of their atmospherics. If the stop is in the middle of a large parking lot, tucked into an alley, or at a chaotic intersection, people are far less likely to use it.
This kind of lesson is something that marketers and interior designers know quite well. Atmospherics can make or break a restaurant, and it should be no surprise when they become the key to an impulse-sensitive transportation mode like a bike share program. I think about this sometimes as I encounter a poorly placed bike rack; for example, the racks at Saint Paul’s new Bad Weather Brewery taproom are tucked around the corner from where everyone expects them to be.
Key point: I believe that changing the atmospherics around the Nice Ride stations will have a huge impact, and are probably just as important as the overall geography of station density. If the kiosk is placed front and center, made to look inviting, and “welcomed” by the business community around it, it will get a large boost in ridership. If not, it will probably languish.
I’ve put the just-released 2015 Nice Ride Power Rankings at the bottom of this post and, as you can see, the Birchwood station comes in about half-way down the pack. According to Nice Ride data wonk Mitch Vars, “given where it’s at and the type of land use in the area Birchwood really outperforms just about any other comparable location.”
In other words, the Birchwood location doesn’t offer any particular network density, and sits in the middle of a largely single-family neighborhood, but consistently outperforms similarly placed locations. The lesson is that, when planning stations, Nice Ride should carefully weigh exactly how a station will be located architecturally and, if possible, give a “atmosphere bonus” for locations that put kiosks at the center of attention.
Conclusion: the Nice Ride welcome mat
Frankly, this is a lesson that can begin to offset the often fraught relationship between small business and bicycling more generally. When bike corrals — replacing an on-street car parking space with a high-quality, high-capacity bike rack — were first proposed for businesses in Portland (and other places), most business owners are very skeptical. For many urban locations, the #1 complaint they get is about inconvenient parking, and taking a valuable on-street spot and removing it for bike racks seems utter folly.
But when you crunch the numbers, a bike rack with 20 spots “turns over” more often than a parking spot for one car. The Birchwood “trips per day” average for 2015 was 8.5, and I’m going to guess that those trips are very unevenly distributed, peaking during the warmest months and days. I’d love to see more businesses place their stations front-and-center and, like the Birchwood, send the signals that reap benefits.
Full Nice Ride 2015 Power Rankings