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.”
[extremely non-profit voice] to clarify, the hubs are not dockless—they remain stationary. please do not undock the hubs. dockless bikes use the hub stations, while other bikes use the docks. thank you for your cooperation. pic.twitter.com/jqpYuQ9jkY
— Nick Magrino (@nickmagrino) September 18, 2018
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* 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.