As a college student jerks at the handlebars of a bike, a metal clank echoes in the back parking lot of Coffman Memorial Union, followed by a pleasant chirp, letting the student know he's free to pull the bike from its docking stand. The student smiles, places his backpack on a front rack, and pedals around the vacant strip of road. A built-in light illuminates his path. He clicks through three gears and picks up speed. A small group watches him, waiting for their turn to do the same.
All are here to test the proposed Minneapolis bike-sharing program, an ambitious plan that could be a benefit to our collective health and economy—but only if it receives federal funding.
Among those watching is Bill Dossett, a volunteer with Nice Ride Minnesota, the nonprofit that would run the bike-sharing program. He smiles as the student pedals around. Transit for Livable Communities, the local nonprofit tasked with allocating the federal funds, meets on March 3 to determine the fate of bike sharing in Minneapolis. If everything goes well, Dossett will be smiling for years to come.
Under the program, 1,000 bikes would be placed at 75 kiosks throughout the city. Folks could purchase a season pass (for about $50 annually) and check out a bike anytime they want and return it at any kiosk they choose. The first 30 minutes are free; more time costs cash. For visitors, day passes are available. It'd be open from April through November, with the goal of turning skyway prowlers into pedal pushers and getting them into the streets, where strained businesses would welcome the traffic.
"It absolutely increases the vitality of downtown, helps out mom-and-pop shops, and benefits the health of the employees," says Andrew Rankin, a Projects and Programs Specialist for Downtown TMO. "It will be something that changes mobility for a lot of people."
The city's proposed bike-share program grew from the yellow-bike systems of the '80s and '90s and, more recently, the Paris Velib program in France. But designers of the local program only took what worked and left out what didn't. For example, while Paris installed the kiosks directly into their streets, the Minneapolis kiosks are movable and can be repositioned as needed. That keeps costs down and operations running when the inevitable construction project comes along.
Detractors of the program cite theft and vandalism as their top concerns, and for good reason: This is what destroyed the yellow bikes. In Paris, the Velib program, after a miraculous start, has seen almost half its bike fleet damaged or stolen.
But here is where numbers, business models, and direct comparisons break down. Minneapolis is no Paris. "A better comparison is the French city of Lyon," says Dossett. "This city only saw 153 bikes stolen in their first year, 5 percent of their fleet. We're prepared for a 10 percent theft rate. When you compare crime rates, we're more like Lyon than Paris."
Minneapolis also plans to use a beefed-up bike that is more resistant to abuse. Time magazine listed the bikes and kiosks as the 19th best invention of 2008, just behind the New Mars Rover.
And they look fly when pedaled in dress pants. Which is the point. These bikes are for folks who don't normally ride. They're built with business suits in mind, and the hope is to change the bicycling culture of the city.
"We want bicycling to be a mainstream activity," says Nick Mason, the point man for Dero Bike Rack Company. "It's a question of how you take it to the next level. You can spend hundreds of millions on infrastructure, which is important, but nothing has the potential to shift mode share as quickly as a successful bike sharing program."
Think of it as Field of Dreams in reverse: If they come, you'll have the support to build it.
The perfect example of this is Councilwoman Betsy Hodges. She represents the West Calhoun/Linden Hills area and describes herself as a timid rider. Last year, she took the opportunity to ride a bicycle downtown, and whatever she experienced, be it the freedom of movement or the way a downtown opens up from behind a set of handlebars, she enjoyed it.
"Yes, I am an ardent advocate," says Hodges. "I think it is an innovative program. It extends and deepens our capacity to increase bicycle use while decreasing car use. If it would happen, it would be great."
While European cities have two types of mayors—those who have a bike-sharing program and those who want one—mayors here are still racing to launch the first large-scale program in the United States.
Paul DeMaio runs the Bike Sharing Blog out of Washington, D.C. He believes the genius of the Minneapolis bike-share program is that a nonprofit will run it. This is critical, because if there is one unifying theme among Americans, it's our undying love of lawsuits. "By having a nonprofit run the program, it doesn't place the liability on the local government," says DeMaio. " Europe did it their way. But Minneapolis is doing it to fit within the fabric of our culture."
But the fabric cannot change without federal support. The bike-share program is currently fighting for $1.75 million of transportation-program funding. If they don't get it, the program is DOA.
"The 1,000-bike program is approximately the minimum size needed for success," says Dossett. "You can't achieve it with a smaller system."