Dockless rideshare bikes are coming!

Richard Tsong-Taatarii

Richard Tsong-Taatarii

Sometime this summer, on quiet Twin Cities streets, they will appear, massed on corners or huddled by alleys: clusters of brightly colored “dockless” bicycles, thousands in total. They’ll flock together on sidewalks like Hitchcock’s birds, but colorful as tropical toucans.

Unlike the familiar neon-green Nice Ride Bikes, these shared cycles (run by the bike share company Motivate) will be blue. At first, they may appear unruly. That they’re “dockless” means riders don’t have to put them in those elaborate (sometimes hard-to-find) stations. Instead, they can be parked almost anywhere.

Dockless bikes are the wave of the bike-share future, and have been booming in China, Seattle, D.C., and a dozen other cities around the U.S. Now, they’re coming to Minneapolis, while St. Paul officials continue to pore over proposals. We have a few predictions for the aftermath.

1. Civic order people will lose their minds.

Because the dockless bikes can be parked “anywhere”—that is, within the complex legal regulations of the bike-share system, which vary by city and might be difficult to fully understand at first—it’s inevitable that some riders will get it wrong. At one point, soon after the bikes appear, some fool will park one in the middle of the sidewalk, in a doorway, on top of a mailbox, or up a tree, and before you can say “dockless revolution,” the overreactions will sound like tornado sirens on the first Wednesday of the month.

Newspaper screeds about “bikes out of control.” Old men shaking fists. Photos of bikes heaped in piles posted to neighborhood Facebook groups, followed by hundreds of comments of about “those people” and red lights and histrionic law-and-order hand wringing.

Minneapolis’ already-OCD tendency to arrange everything neatly (alphabetized streets, anyone?) will rear its head once more. The city is creating special “virtual stations” where people will be able to park bikes on the street, but these will be hard to use. In more laid-back St. Paul, there won’t be any special parking zones, just an obscure set of rules to follow.

Either way, people will mess up, Joe Soucheray will emerge from his dark garage to inveigh against these “kids today,” and finger-wagging throngs will castigate the millennial riders of these rogue machines.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of people using dockless bikes will park them responsibly. Sidewalks will survive, and 99.9 percent of the time, everything will be fine.

2. A more diverse group of riders will use them.

One big problem with Nice Ride is that the limited number of expensive stations means ridership tends to be concentrated in only a few places: downtown Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota, Uptown, the Wedge, and around the chain of lakes. It means the vast majority of rides and stations are in those spots, and expanding the system is a chicken-and-egg problem that continues to stump planners.

With dockless bikes, geography isn’t an issue. You can park them anywhere within city limits, including previously ignored neighborhoods—like St. Paul’s East Side, or north Minneapolis—that were excluded by the old technology.

In other cities like D.C. and Seattle, that flexibility has meant far more people of color have been using the new bikes, an exciting step forward for making bicycling more equitable. On the other hand, in those cities, the vast majority of dockless riders remain younger folks under the age of 45. Older people still don’t like to ride them, and I’m betting that’ll be true in the Twin Cities as well.

3. The border will be lit.

For a bunch of byzantine reasons related to contracts and whatnot, Minneapolis and St. Paul might use different dockless bike companies. That means that—and yes, this is a distinct possibility—you might not be able to ride one of the new bikes from one city to another.

Imagine the chaos at the border! Dockless bikes of competing colors parked on either side of the Lake/Marshall bridge. Cyclists trudging over the river like spies crossing the frontier. Clumps of bikes huddled on Emerald Street, abandoned by people who have crossed to the other side, quite possibly never to be seen again....

Golden Valley and Edina have already announced that they’re teaming up with Lime Bike, a different vendor, which means going over that border will a bit like pushing a Cub Foods shopping cart outside the parking lot boundary. Rest assured that, at some point, borders will get weird.

4. It’s a sign of things to come.

Battery power is improving by leaps and bounds every year, and smart mobile technologies are getting billions of dollars in financing. More and more, people in cities will have creative alternatives to driving a massive, expensive car all the time.

Just this week, the company Bird debuted dockless scooter sharing (!) in the Twin Cities. Then there are e-bikes, which many dockless bike-share brands are using. These nifty bikes are getting cheaper every year, and give cyclists a calculated electric boost, allowing far more people to pedal up and down hills and over greater distances with ease.

Like it or not, the future of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and even suburban streets will be full of small, shared devices with vastly reduced carbon footprints. Bike lanes, sidewalks, and Nicollet Malls will be full of new kinds of smartphone vehicles, with lots more people using them.

Get ready, because the electric revolution is happening sooner than you think.

Cruise around to rest of our 2018 Bike Issue: