Minneapolis Should Embrace Entropy, Dockless Bikes

If you are interested in Twin Cities history, one of the more amusing things this year was the parallel development in Minneapolis and Saint Paul of dockless bike sharing systems. Dockless bikes are a big leap forward in bike sharing technology —  the use of which is something that tech blogger Kottke recently compared to bluetooth speaker* —  but Minneapolis and Saint Paul have chosen to handle this new technology in starkly opposed ways. In Saint Paul, they’ve put a generous cap on the number of Lime bikes that can be parked anywhere in the city (outside of city park land or blocking the sidewalk right-of-way).

Meanwhile, in Minneapolis we have “dockless (virtual) docks.”

Mpls Liquor Patrol LimitsThe difference is amusing because it’s the perfect embodiment of long-standing tendencies in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, patterns that date all the way back to the mid 19th century. In Minneapolis, you will find a deeply-seeded desire for order, an attempt to craft a regulatory approach that would shape mundane details of everyday life in ways that would be surprising or unwelcome in many other cities. In the 19th century, a lot of that desire centered on liquor, parks, housing, and the cultivation of a Victorian / Yankee protestant domesticity. These days, the focus is more often on environmentalism, public health, equity, and the like.

In Saint Paul, on the other hand, has always been more laissez faire about these sorts of municipally legislated order.

Here are some historical and contemporary examples of what I mean, demonstrating the Minneapolis and Saint Paul approaches to civic governance:

  • Minneapolis’ city liquor laws (e.g. the 1886 “liquor patrol limits”) vs. fewer restrictions on bars in Saint Paul
  • Minneapolis’ street naming conventions (alphabetical, numbered, chronological presidents, etc.) vs. a Saint Paul’s free-for all
  • Minneapolis’ organized trash collection (including city-organized compost) vs. Saint Paul’s “every home for themself” system
  • Minneapolis’ marked versus unmarked multi-use bike / jogging paths (e.g. the River Road) vs. Saint Paul’s nothingness
  • Minneapolis’ well-marked downtown bike lanes versus Saint Paul’s “bikes, you’re on your own” downtown approach
  • Minneapolis’ an institutionally separate park system versus Saint Paul’s “strong mayor” system lumping everything together

I’m not saying these things are good or bad, per se. Only that, if Minneapolis can come up with an organized and/or detailed solution to a problem using a municipal political mechanism, they will probably do so.

Sotw65v

The difference between Minneapolis and Saint Paul in a nutshell.

It is my opinion, however, that sometimes Saint Paul has the right approach. Sometimes less is more, and fewer rules work well. Dockless bikes are a great example of this.

In Saint Paul, they’ve been for the most part fine addition to the civic landscape and working well. On the other hand, the  virtual dock “dockless” bike situation in Minneapolis is weird, overly prescriptive, counter-intuitive, and unnecessary.

Bikes315

A dockless bike in a virtual dock.

Getting into why the virtual docks are confusing is not really necessary. It suffices to say that they negate the #1 reason why dockless bike share is so appealing in the first place. Especially for new users, finding a dock for your shared bike has always been a pain in the butt.  The promise of being able to roll up to a destination without having to look for a specific possibly-hard-to-find designated place to park the bike is the entire appeal of dockless bike sharing!

And yes, Minneapolis / Nice Ride / Motivate’s
“dockless” system keeps that structural hurdle in place.

But my broader argument is that micromanaging dockless bike parking is not even necessary.  In my opinion, the problem that the “virtual dock”  solution is trying to solve — disorder on the city’s sidewalks — does not really exist.

By comparison to any vibrant city, Minneapolis sidewalks are neither full nor crowded.  In fact, I’d venture to say that the last twenty-year period, the sidewalks of Minneapolis have been less active, less busy, and less trodden than at any other similar timeframe in the history of the city. Today, the  #1 problem with Minneapolis sidewalks is that they are too empty, not too full. People don’t walk nearly enough in Minneapolis to warrant this level of care and attention for dockless bicycles. Instead, the streets and sidewalks of the city are often deserted, unpeople’d, neglected, invisible, and uncared for.

Scooter

A scooter on a sidewalk.

Instead of caution, I feel that Minneapolis streets and sidewalks could do with a bit more activity and chaos. I’d like to see Minneapolis streets and sidewalks full of all kinds of “disorderly” activities, things like dockless bikes and scooters, unroped cafés and patios, food trucks, parklets, bike parking corrals, street vendors, skateboarders, and (yes, even) pedal pubs. Imagine a city where the main problem was not deserted and neglected sidewalks, but too much activity on the sidewalks. Imagine if people were routinely spilling off the sidewalks into the streets. Imagine a city where the dangerous hegemony of speeding traffic was challenged not by fiat, but by joyful activity, street life, and an abundance of people.

It is, I suppose, theoretically possible to micromanage street life through the careful permitting of specific locations for food trucks, the meticulous licensing of sidewalk cafés, applying street life and dockless bikes in selected areas like Bob Ross painting happy little trees on a valley landscape. But relying on micro-management to shape social life is not how cities thrive. If you think of any great city, it is a place with compelling dynamic streets that happen because of entropy, accident, and surprise, not in spite of it.

Dockless Nice Ride

Dockless bikes in a non-virtual dock.

There are some potential caveats, of course. In specific cases, spots where the sidewalks, streets, and curbs are truly saturated, it makes sense to carefully control the activity, clutter, and uses on sidewalks and streets. I am thinking the limiting of cars in old town Stockholm or London, or the wrangling the super hero hawkers in Times Square. You sometimes need a firm hand to control how and what people are doing in which places.

But Minneapolis isn’t close to having sidewalks that are that full of people. Even the University of Minnesota, which probably boasts the peak density sidewalks in the city, over-regulation is not the answer. (See the rules for the “scholar’s walk” for example.) In most cases, simple design fixes can serve to manage access, ADA, and safety concerns.

All this is a long way to say that dockless bikes are fine in Saint Paul, and will be fine in Minneapolis. In my opinion, the “gains” of having more people easily using bike share bikes in the city far outweigh the “losses” of having a bit more clutter on the sidewalks.

Dockless bikes are also a good example of my larger point, that Minneapolis needs more activity on its sidewalks and more opportunities for people to use our streets and sidewalks in new and creative ways. To create a diverse, dynamic, exciting city, decision makers should be erring on the side of fewer rules, placing fewer obstacles in the way of things like street performers, food trucks, street vendors, skateboards, cafés, bike racks, and (yes) dockless bikes and scooters.

Before cars and speeding traffic took over the vast majority our city’s shared spaces, our streets were full of activity and a diversity of people using them in countless and unexpected ways. If we relax a bit with the desire for order, for example, by allowing dockless bikes some room to thrive, our city’s streets might be that way again.

Dockless Nice Ride 2

This is fine. Everything is fine.

* Here’s the full quote from Kottke, about dockless bikes in Berlin:

While not quite public transport, Berlin has a thriving bike share scene. I signed up for Mobike because they seemed to have the most inventory. As a bike-friendly city to begin with, there are lots of places on the streets to park these dockless bikes, although locals have complained about bike littering. This was my first time using a dockless bike, and like with WiFi on a laptop or pairing a Bluetooth speaker, the first time feels a little magical.

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18 Responses to Minneapolis Should Embrace Entropy, Dockless Bikes

  1. Andrew Evans November 12, 2018 at 12:53 pm #

    I was thinking the other day about how dockless bikes could play into ADA requirements? What happens if the sidewalk is cluttered and impassable by someone with needs, or if someone injures themselves trying to move or get around one of these bikes or scooters?

    As a homeowner, if one of these are parked on my sidewalk, am I required to move them when I’m shoveling and then put them back? Should I move them in the street to make my winter sidewalk more passable?

    At least with a bike lock they were off to the side, without the ability to completely block the sidewalk or access.

    Not sure why people keep talking about Paris, London, and other cities as examples. Times Square as well, although that seemed more like a security and tourist thing than anything practical, since driving in NYC isn’t really all that great anyway. Old European cities, especially their city centers, were never setup for traffic or even commuting.

    Maybe there should be more talk about opening the sidewalks to businesses and removing some red tape. However again, they would need to be ADA complaint and allow people to pass through, so it wouldn’t be able to happen everywhere.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller November 12, 2018 at 1:20 pm #

      Are they going to be out in the winter? The docked ones are not.

      I just don’t see a big concern about bikes (or scooters) blocking access, primarily because we’ve had two different scooter companies for months and it hasn’t really been a problem.

      Sure, on fairly rare occasion, someone parks poorly and leaves one in the way. I moved one this morning. But it really is pretty rare.

    • jeffk November 12, 2018 at 1:30 pm #

      It’s possible in this scenario to mean well, to attempt to impose those good intentions by meticulously following the letter of the law, and ultimately make things worse for everyone.

      To me it seems plausible – actually it seems likely – that a city with a vibrant pedestrian experience, where sidewalks are bustling and cars are generally secondary, is probably an overall safer and more pleasant experience for the majority of disabled people – even if every now and again they have to step around a inproperly parked bicycle.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke November 13, 2018 at 11:34 am #

      I would like to see some more strict regulation of the companies, e.g. requiring removal during winter, in cases where it is blocked, and having some sort of low-cost way of having people report these that might allow a city to put pressure on a company. But still the benefits of a true dockless system are pretty large, and regulating the effects instead of the “docks” seems a better way to go.

  2. Scott November 12, 2018 at 1:09 pm #

    Hmmmmm…. Not sure I’m buying this argument. It’s people that makes streets lively and they need reasons to want to spend time on them. Cluttering sidewalks with stuff just makes it more inconvenient to walk.

    IMO Minneapolis needs more retail frontages, slower/quieter traffic, a greater mix of uses, boulevard trees that actually provide shade, and fewer parking facilities and their driveways along commercial corridors to create places people want to spend time. A far better transit system and greater density would go a long way too.

    Just spent several days walking around Washington D.C. and Alexandria, VA where people were walking everywhere. Didn’t see many outdoor cafes or stuff filling sidewalks but rather lots of stores, restaurants, museums, offices, apartments, etc. that drew people out.

    Have no idea how to make a dockless bike system work well.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller November 12, 2018 at 1:24 pm #

      To grab a bike seems like a reason to go outside to the sidewalk.

      Bill’s kinda wrong that people in Minneapolis don’t walk enough to have active sidewalks. They do. They just do it inside.

      And now you’ve got me thinking about how inadequate the sidewalks on U Street are. Much of DC just doesn’t have the sidewalk space to have anything on them.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke November 13, 2018 at 11:30 am #

      A far better transit system and greater density are, of course, wonderful solutions to creating vibrant streets and a culture of walking. I am all in favor. That, however, will take decades and decades of focused work and funding.

      Meanwhile, low-overhead interventions like the list above (e.g. food trucks, scooters, parklets) can be done right away.

  3. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller November 12, 2018 at 1:15 pm #

    Gotta disagree that everything is fine in that last photo. Would be good if someone could lend a hand and park that bike so it’s not in the middle of the sidewalk. Then everything would be fine.

  4. Alex Schieferdecker
    Alex Schieferdecker November 12, 2018 at 1:52 pm #

    I think Joe Huber (aka Avocado Joe, aka @joesephahuber) had it right when he wrote:

    “Few thoughts on @NiceRideMN “dockless bikes”

    1. The system would work better if you get .25/.50 back for parking at a hub vs. $5 fee for not parking at one.
    2. Allow bike parking anywhere in dense areas
    3. Require hub parking in low density areas
    4. All docks should be hub zones”

    All of these points still make sense to me. Hub parking should be incentive-based, not mandatory. Hubs have some usefulness in less dense areas, where you’d rather walk a longer distance to a set location to get a guaranteed bike. But at the very minimum within the freeway loop, hubs aren’t essential.

    I hope Nice Ride will make adjustments on these lines.

    One final note, I don’t fully agree with Bill in this piece, I think the photo he uses is *not* fine, especially for someone in a wheelchair or with crutches. But it’s not the end of the world either, and is a problem that is better solved with carrots than sticks, because the overall benefits of bicycling are so much higher.

  5. Anon November 12, 2018 at 2:26 pm #

    Not innovating is more comfortable in the short term. It is easy to *not* do something by citing a legal issue, a hypothetical drawback, or a similar instance where someone else failed. But progress marches along –with someone else– if we aren’t game.

    The ADA was meant to ensure that everybody is included as society moved forward; it was never intended to hold society back. $Vehicle sharing is almost certainly in a transitional state, let’s give it a chance to develop before we tilt at it.

    The two joyful teenagers careening down Nicollet on a single strained lime scooter may not be the utopian urban ideal we envisioned, but those kids aren’t endlessly cruising the suburban streets in their parent’s gasoline-powered sedans either. Just as innovation disrupts the establishment, it disrupts our visions for the future. Sometimes the future is not as we hoped or predicted. Sometimes it is better.

  6. Michelle Dobbratz November 12, 2018 at 3:01 pm #

    http://m.startribune.com/st-paul-orders-scooters-removed-from-sidewalks-until-rules-adopted-next-month/488660801/

    You were saying about St Paul?

    I’m all for bikes, but clutter on the sidewalk in no way makes the city better or more vibrant. Also, it isn’t something everyone can just “step over.” If you use a cane, wheelchair, walker, stroller crutches, have run-of-the-mill joint issues, are carrying a baby, are holding the hand of a small child, are carrying groceries, etc, it isn’t the sort of thing you can easily walk around. The sidewalks are for everyone. They are not storage areas, especially for businesses that make a profit. Could I install lockers on the sidewalk that benefit the city by enabling people to walk around without carrying their belongings? What about pay showers? A massage table? Public spaces should be carefully maintained for their specific purpose. Sidewalks are for walking on. Bike racks are for parking at. I’m all for innovation. Purveyors of dockless bikes and scooters need to innovate a way for their rental products to be accessible to those who want them without burdening the sidewalks with storing them. Like a stiff fine if they are not locked to a bike rack. Otherwise, this is called externalizing- making a profit by pushing the cost of operations on to someone else, with whom you have not made a contract.

    • Anon November 12, 2018 at 4:34 pm #

      The sidewalks are for whatever we want them to be for. We built sidewalks to serve our needs, and now our needs are changing. We can use the sidewalks however we want.

      Scooters and bikes really rankle some folks, but I find it hard to believe that the detractor’s common concerns are sincerely held. My pedometer tells me that I walk over 6 miles per day, much of it pushing a stroller and all of it downtown. I have never been inconvenienced by poorly parked scooter. If this is truly a problem, then it is a very small problem. Ironically, many inconveniences for people with limited mobility are inconveniences for scooters: Sidewalks closed for construction, potholes, uneven pavements and curbs. If anything, all people riding on small wheels are natural allies.

      Another common argument against the scooter companies is the highly selective resentment they engender for using a public resource for profit. But the world is full of businesses using public infrastructure for profit; it is *why* we build public infrastructure. Newspaper vending boxes come to mind. Virtually all businesses use publicly funded infrastructure for profit.

      A thought experiment for the scooter detractors: Imagine a world where no scooter is ever miss-parked, and where all scooter profits are donated to your favorite charity….. Do you now love and embrace this new traffic-reducing, joy-bringing, emissions-reducing technology? If not, perhaps something else is the source of scooter consternation.

      Note: We sort of are in this world. Scooters are rarely miss-parked. Bird and Lime have never made a cent of profit; meaning that investors are subsidizing our joyful jaunts.

      • Janne November 13, 2018 at 3:46 pm #

        I’m struck by your comment that “the world is full of businesses using public infrastructure for profit.”

        The example that jumped to mind first is delivery trucks using streets to deliver things. Minneapolis is actually preparing a whole section of the Transportation Action Plan titled “freight.”

        Maybe profit isn’t the problem people actually have with scooters and bikes?

        • Bill Lindeke
          Bill Lindeke November 13, 2018 at 4:30 pm #

          Yeah, the “profit” thing is a red herring IMO. Car companies make a profit and profit by our choices about public space. Cars themselves are privately owned. At least the bikes and scooters are available for rent, unlike someone’s personal Toyota.

  7. SMpls2018 November 12, 2018 at 4:17 pm #

    I was just in Singapore in July, enjoying some time on their dockless bikes. If you think Minneapolis has an OCD control-freak personality, it’s got nothin’ on Singapore. Even there, though, dockless bike sprawl is getting to be a bit of a problem. I saw bikes taking up almost all the standing room at bus stops, or forming “islands” at the bottom of the staircases that lead up to the pedestrian walk-overs. We’ll have to see how our comparatively less-disciplined culture responds to the new system. Between laziness/apathy and hooliganism/vandalism potential, we have an interesting social experiment coming up. I hope it works out to a positive sustainable outcome. We’ll have to see if we’re grown up enough to deserve it.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke November 13, 2018 at 11:31 am #

      I am guessing the vandalism stories are overblown. Who knows?

  8. Matt L November 13, 2018 at 7:23 am #

    I work in Lowertown and spend a lot of time walking around downtown St Paul and I’ve seen and moved a badly parked bike/scooter maybe once? It’s fine. I’m far more likely to see a detour sign and sandbags blocking the right of way than a scooter.

    But scooters/limebikes have extended my range when I’m looking for a place to eat lunch, and have made getting to off-site meetings easier when otherwise I’d be driving or trying to cobble together an awkward short transit trip.

    I’m with Bill, we need more people out and using our streets and sidewalks, we don’t need to micromanage companies actually enabling that. And if it works so well that the sidewalks get over crowded, well then maybe it will be time to take back some space from the roads.

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