Nice Ride hits 500,000 trips

Four Toronto visitors, in town for two days on a business trip, went sightseeing on Nice Rides.
Four Toronto visitors, in town for two days on a business trip, went sightseeing on Nice Rides.
Kelsey Reid

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Earlier this week, not long after noon, an anonymous cyclist checked out a Nice Ride bike and brought the two-and-a-half year old bike sharing program up to its 500,000th trip.

No confetti burst out from the rental machine at the half-millionth user. Even the people who run the popular program didn't do much to mark the occasion. "Things are pretty busy here at Nice Ride headquarters," wrote Mitch Vars, who heads IT operations, in an email not long after the milestone. "Bill [Dossett, director] and I just got a cookie from the coffee shop next door."

Still, the benchmark is important for the young and growing project. It launched two summers ago, in June 2010, with 65 stations, and averaged 761 rides per day that July. The bikes went into storage in November, and when the second season started in April, the number of stations jumped to 116, and rides for July to 1,207 a day. This year, Nice Ride added another 30 locations -- including an expansion into St. Paul -- and last month, averaged 1,576 rides daily.

Dossett, Nice Ride's director, describes this season as somewhat of a breakthrough one. "The weekend of Northern Spark, we had 7,000 rides," he says. "Whenever you've got something like this, there's a tipping point that happens, as far as people understanding how it works and hearing about it and being excited by it, and I think we're hitting that."

Vars echoes Dossett, and notes, "The curve is going up so quickly." He predicts that the program could hit a million trips by the end of next season.

The majority of these rides come from the about 4,025 year-long subscribers, who buy a $60 annual membership for unlimited access. Vars estimates that subscribers' trips comprise 65 percent of rides. The rest -- around 30,000 per year -- come from $6, 24-hour rentals. So far this season, Nice Ride's racked up 184,305 trips.

Though the program expanded this year, it's still largely "a downtown phenomenon," says Dossett. The bulk of stations are near the North Loop, Loring Park, and Nicollet Mall, with the station by the IDS building -- the network's busiest -- serving as a center point. (One exception: the station on the west side of Lake Calhoun is the only non-downtown spot to crack the top four best-used).

Consultant Fred Gehrig lives in Minneapolis, but just started using the bike share this summer, "mostly at night," he says. "It's very handy."

"Most of our rides happen in the urban core," Dossett says. "In the areas we just reached, around Macalester or north Minneapolis, there are some increases, but it's slow."

Nice Ride's long-range plan brings it up to 200 locations, and Vars expects another 30-station expansion for next season. "The biggest barrier is funding," he says. "The capital cost of these is very high. And a lot of times, the funding is tied to specific locations."

To determine the best locations for new stations, the program looks at density and demand, balancing metrics like transit boardings (how many people are getting on the bus or light rail) with community conversations."The rule of thumb is that people will walk no more than a quarter mile to do anything, which is about four city blocks," Vars says. "Of course, with a greater density of stations, we would have a much more useful system."

So far, Nice Ride hasn't closed any stations, though it is examining how to optimize less-trafficked spots. "The farther you get from the center of the system, the IDS building, the more [rides] seem to taper off," says Vars. "But even if usage isn't as high, we do feel an obligation to serve all communities."

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