by Eric Miller, July 2012
Arriving in Minneapolis was fraught with a few frustrations. The walk through the airport to a light-rail station without the need for a connecting bus was convenient enough. But with the skyline in sight, the train stopped. It seemed track work this weekend would mean we'd have to get a shuttle bus for the remainder of the ride.
The signs explaining the situation could not be found, so we asked around, and after a few circles found the bus. It arrived quickly enough, and took us to within a few blocks of our hotel.
There was still time, so we headed to the Walker Art Center. It seemed like walking was too far, and figuring out the bus in time would take longer than the Walker would be open. So we hailed a cab. Just then we noticed the bike sharing program. It was the last cab ride of the weekend.
No longer pressed for time, we did walk back to the downtown hotel from the Walker, taking the free downtown bus a few of the blocks. From then on our tour was by bicycle.
I had experienced bike-sharing before, in San Antonio, where they seem to be used largely by tourists wanting to experience the Riverwalk. Minneapolis is different. Here it was apparent there was a comprehensive system of bike trails, and they were in use. You could tell the folks who rode by on rented bikes-they're all the same green color. I'd guess about half of the bikes on downtown streets were from the rental program.
If you've never experienced a bike-sharing program, it works like this. You pay a standard fee—in Minneapolis it is $6. You can ride for a specified period of time, usually a half hour. If you return the bike to another stand within a half hour, the ride is included in the $6 fee. If you take longer than a half hour to get to the next station, there's a $1.50 additional charge. The bike stands are not a half hour apart. (Minnesota nice wouldn't tolerate that).
You never have to worry about locking up the bike—you just lock it in a station, and then take another bike when you're ready to go again. You can take as many half-hour trips as you like in a 24-hour period, and it will be included in the fee. One friendly resident showed us his resident key, which he said you can get for a yearly fee of just $60. This allows unlimited use of the bicycles.
We rode around quite a bit. We traveled on bike lanes to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The trails led us around the Mississippi River, over the pedestrian- and bike-only stone arch bridge, and luckily passed a restaurant where we had breakfast and chatted a bit with some seemingly more professional bikers.
Knowing Dallas used the excuse that "it's too hot, nobody will ride bikes," I asked if people in Minneapolis rode much in the winter. Yes, they most certainly do—though on their own bikes, as Nice Ride is open only from April to November. Later, in recalling the trip with someone back in Texas, I was told the frozen rivers come alive in the winter with all kinds of activities, including cross-country skiing.
The bike-sharing program is something every city and town should have. I can see it working in the Dallas suburbs like Grapevine, Texas, which gets a lot of tourists and is already pretty well connected by trails. In big cities like Dallas, a key ingredient that's missing is the bike lanes. That's a big barrier, especially considering the sidewalks are often very narrow, and even missing in many places. Still, the demand is there, and smart cities will find a way to make it happen.
According to BikesBelong, between 1990 and 2009, the number of bike commuters in the U.S. rose by 64 percent. Big cities with a growth in bicycling have seen a boom because they have consciously worked to grow bicycling.
Currently Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, Portland and Washington have bike-sharing programs. Others are planned in Miami, Boulder, Los Angeles, and Madison. With 700 bikes and 65 stations, the system in Minneapolis is impressive. New York and Washington will beat that (but are both larger cities). Washington has 1,100 bikes and 100 stations; New York will have 10,000 bikes and 600 stations.
In both San Antonio and Minneapolis I saw people walk up to the stations and try to understand how it works, only to opt against it. I'm not sure the signage needs improvements, it's just a learning curve. And like the people of Minneapolis, once you try it, the learning happens fast—and then you won't be able to imagine life without it.
It's resulted in the naming of Minneapolis by Bicycling magazine as the most bike-friendly city in the U.S.
If you're not sure about the value of bike-sharing, go to Minneapolis. It's there, it works, and it's wildly successful. Try it, and you'll want it in your town too.
Text and photos by Eric Miller