NiceRide with Mom: Testing Minneapolis' new bike sharing program

I've been pleasantly surprised by how many NiceRide bicycles I’ve seen meandering around town. I saw my first one near the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis. Neon yellow and blue and a bit ungainly, it looked good as some Minneapolis stranger pleasantly pedaled it past. I remember asking him something trite, like “how’s it work?” or “What do you think?” His reply was unmemorable.

Since then, I’ve seen a bunch of these bikes. In particular, while hanging out on the University campus this summer, I’ve been struck by how many folks use them. The kiosks are located all around campus, and if you sit near Nicollet Mall during a lunchtime, you’ll see all sorts of people going by on the yellow green bikes.

And importantly, from my point of view, those people are often older women. It’s no secret that the demographics of the bike community leave a lot to be desired. Cyclists are overwhelming young, male, and white. (I’m pretty much par for the course.) Perhaps in other countries you find women and older folks riding bikes. But here in the Twin Cities, like most of the US, we have a long way to go.

And it’s too bad. One of the big goals for cycling advocates needs to be finding out a way to attract more riders, to make biking comfortable and convenient for people who aren’t daredevils, exercise buffs, or crunchy hipsters. Perhaps NiceRide, with their vaguely ‘Dutch city bike’ feel and low-price convenience, may be beginning to attract more people to urban cycling. Perhaps NiceRide get rid of some of the anxiety and trepidation surrounding people’s vision of cycling in the city. Perhaps NiceRide can be a ‘gateway bike’.*

So, with that in mind, I decided to try out the NiceRide bikes using a non-demographically aligned test subject. My mom, a suburb-dwelling medical professional in her early 60s with a nagging knee injury who hasn’t ridden a bike in something close to ten years, has always showed no small amount of motherly fear and concern whenever I mentioned how I ride a bicycle around the city. To her mind, every time I said I was biking home, it was as if Evil Knievel was going to jump a canyon, her nightmares no doubt filling with an imagistic flurry of near-death experiences, face-shaped fender dents, and broken bones raining down onto windshields of cars. So, I figured she’d be the perfect test case for the NiceRide bikes. If she could enjoy biking through Minneapolis, then almost anyone could.

[My mom's image of "biking in Minneapolis."]

I went to pick her up at her office on the University campus, and we set out on a beautiful Monday afternoon in the Minneapolis summertime. She was "terrified", and told me so repeatedly. She didn’t know if she could "do it", and probably had little inkling of where she was going, or how she would get there.

As it turned out, we visited a good smattering of Minneapolis lefty lady locations, including The Birchwood, the Midtown Global Market, and the Common Roots Café before winding up at the Open Eye Figure Theater for Kevin Kling’s annual Fringe-adjacent storytelling play. She did great, seemingly enjoyed the experience, and afterwards her “sitter downer” wasn’t even sore the next day.

I quizzed her at the end, and we came up with a list of conclusions about the NiceRide bicycles, and whether or not they will be able to make the Minneapolis bike scene more inclusive.

NiceRide pros:

  • Cheap – $5 a day, or $60 a year is a hell of a steal. You can’t rent bikes for this. Sure, there’s also time charge if you keep for more than a half hour, but most of your trips will surely be shorter than that (especially since there’s no lock on the bikes).
  • Flexible – One of the nice things I discovered about the kiosk system, is that you’re not really tied to any time or place. My mom and I rented bikes and dropped them off four or five times, eventually leaving the bikes we took from the campus over in the Phillips / Central neighborhood. No problem! It’s great not having to ‘return’ your bike to the place you got it.
  • Comfy bikes – While gawky and slow, the bikes are comfy and easy to use. While their slow speed makes them a bit overly-sensitive when steering, the seat is totally tripped out on gelly, and you sit nice and high. Believe it or not, there’s a certain sort of stork-like dignity to sitting so high on a city cruiser.
  • Extra bike features – there’s an adaptable rack on the front of the bikes. The chain is almost totally enclosed. A good quality kickstand, three speeds, and a bell for ringing.
  • Fun in a public way – A dude seated at a coffee shop, shouting out as we bike past, “Nice ride!” I bet this happens a lot.

NiceRide cons:

Hard to find kiosks – The biggest problem we had on the trip was trying to figure out where the kiosks were. For example, you are heading down the Greenway and want to stop at the Midtown Global Market for some Holy Land pita and a fresh tamale. Well, you have to know which exit to get off, find your way down the street and to the front of the old Sears building. It’s a bit confusing, and, an effort to avoid unnecessary ascents, we ended up walking our bikes inside the Freewheel bike shop, down several long hallways and corridors, up an elevator, and awkwardly out a doorway down some steps to find the kiosk.

I had similar frustrating problems locating some of the kiosks at other destinations. They can be a bit hard to see, and the large-scale map doesn’t do you any favors. One of the big advantages of biking, for me, is how easy it is to park. Almost everywhere I travel, I can simply lock my bike up very near the doorway or building at my destination. The NiceRide kiosks don’t have that advantage. Plus you have to memorize your destination kiosk in advance, something I didn’t do when headed to Common Roots at 26th and Lyndale.

I ended up calling the number written on the bicycle, and talking to a semi-helpful phone answerer who informed me that the nearest kiosk was ‘at’ 26th and Lyndale. Finally I spotted it kitty corner, only to find it empty, out of order, and covered with crime scene tape. (It’ll be up and running soon!) In order to have dinner, we ended up having to bike up Lyndale to 22nd and walk back (about ½ mile). My mom thought it might be nice if there was a little map of the kiosks you could take with you, something in the ‘detachable flier’ variety.

Akward kiosk location -- Similar to above complaint, only more specific. Like, why have one next to a huge parking lot, or in the little-trafficked area in the midst of the daunting Moos tower? Shouldn't all the kiosks be very visible on busy street corners?

Hard to find good bike routes – According to my mom, this is the most important thing for attracting new cyclists to the city. For our trip, I served as a capable guide, directing us to all of the good low-traffic and off-street routes through the city. My mom had, for example, never been on the Midtown Greenway, and was rightly amazed by its greatness.

But, for anyone new to the city or new to cycling, for any tourist at a downtown Hotel, it’s not going to be so easy to find the Midtown greenway, the LRT bike path, or the river road. And nobody who doesn’t know what they’re looking for will ever find the second tier of good biking streets, like 22nd or Aldrich in South Minneapolis or SE 5th St near campus. I wonder if there’s a better way to make sure that folks who are new to biking can find the safest routes, the ‘green circle’ runs through the city without accidentally ending up biking down some of the city’s ‘black diamonds’ (like Lyndale Avenue, Franklin between 35W and Chicago, or just about anything downtown that isn’t Nicollet Mall).

Conclusion? They're Grrrrrr-reat!

Anyway, its probably a lot to ask, but until the city gets its network of bicycle boulevards and separated bike lanes built (e.g. a loooooong time from now), finding bike routes that help new riders feel safe and secure is going to the one thing that keeps a lid on the Minneapolis cycling community. But, at least for now, the NiceRide bikes are a good start.

[Fortified with 10 essential vitamins and minerals, NiceRide bikes have no cholesterol, are fat-free, and taste delicious!]

* This would lead to "a vicious cycle."


Andy said...

Yea for NiceRide, Cyclopath, and bicycle commuting in the Twin Cities. Thanks for an excellent summary of this valuable service.

Ed Kohler said...

Great post. Agreed on the locations of kiosks. I did the Nice Ride 65 Challenge, to hit all of the kiosks in one day. A lot of them - especially around the U of MN - were tucked away. What makes it extra challenging is that the map on their site plots the locations inaccurately. The geocodes are perfect, but the markers they use are poorly designed and put the stations north of where they actually are. Enough north to be on the other sides of buildings on the U or other sides of blocks in downtown.

Mulad said...

Did you rent 2 bikes with one credit card? When I tried that with my brother a few weeks ago, the kiosk only printed out one unlocking code slip, so he ended up having to rent one himself.

Ed Kohler said...

@Mulad, you have to re-swipe the card to get the 2nd code. It doesn't make sense, but that's what works.

Daniel said...

Thanks for the review. NiceRide has been my lady and I's default transportation option since the program's launch. As we are both bikeless, NiceRide has replaced pedestrian, transit, and car trips. Living downtown means close access to kiosks near home and kiosks in every direction I wish to travel.

I was excited before NiceRide launched, but also nervous that the lack of bike infrastructure (esp. downtown) could cause its failure.

But NiceRide has been more successful than I dared to hope. While taking my 50+ rides I've talked to scores of people curiously eyeing the bikes and have heard hardly a bad word about it. It is not uncommon to see groups of middle aged women confidently riding down the street.

The best intangible benefit may be to show citizens and tourists that biking in Minneapolis is an officially sanctioned way to get around, and not just the domain of rebellious daredevils.