Dockless Bikeshare Coming to Minneapolis in 2018?

Imagine a bike available on every corner, accessible to you through a single click on your smartphone - that's the vision of the bike share future that was laid out last night at the Nice Ride future of bike share Q&A discussion hosted by Our Streets Minneapolis.

The panel included Ethan Fawley from Our Streets moderating, Bill Dossett Executive Director of Nice Ride Minnesota, Melissa Summers Associate Director of Nice Ride Minnesota, and Matthew Dyrdahl Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator of the City of the Minneapolis. The event was well attended with more than 50 people in the audience. There were also at least two interested vendors in the audience: Spin and Ofo. The consensus from the panel was that everyone wanted to see more bikes on the streets of the Twin Cities and for any dockless system to not interfere with city infrastructure or people with mobility issues. The City of Minneapolis and Nice Ride would like to implement a dockless system that achieves both of these goals.  

What is Dockless Bike Share?

Dockless bike share is literally a bike share system that doesn't rely on users returning the shared bikes to fixed dock locations (like how Nice Ride is set up now). Users instead find and unlock bikes using an app on their smartphone, much like how car2go used to operate in the Twin Cities. Dockless bike systems have boomed in China in the last six months resulting in 20 million bikes throughout cities in China on dockless bikeshare systems at as low as 15 cents (USD) a ride. In the US, Seattle has also rolled out a dockless bikeshare program putting 3,000 bikes on the streets of Seattle in the last month, and putting out another 3,000 this week. Trips on these can be as low as $1 a ride. Dockless bikeshare programs are cheaper, costing a few hundred dollars to put a bike on the street versus upwards of $5,000 a bike on Nice Ride’s current docked system. A dockless system can also be supported in smaller communities and cities that cannot support a docked system. 

Nice Ride, on August 28, put out a request for proposals to transition Nice Ride bikes in docked systems to a dockless system, looking for a proposal from a single vendor to manage this transition. Nice Ride also announced this evening they plan on changing their board to be a contracting entity, with board members from the Minneapolis Park Board, University of Minnesota, and Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. This new vendor will, likely within the next year, stop putting new docks out and start adding dockless bikes to the city. After a year Nice Ride hopes to start removing many docks and continue on with mostly dockless bikes in 2020. Memberships will continue to work throughout 2018 with both docked and any dockless bikes, though the exact mechanism of how that will work hasn't been laid out yet.

Types of bikes and equity concerns

As the discussion moved to a Q&A many people in the audience had questions about how equitable the new system would be. Some questions focused on the bikes themselves - would there be bikes for people who may not fit existing Nice Ride bikes, adaptive bikes for those who need them, etc. Bill and Melissa from Nice Ride responded saying that the ringlock on dockless bikes can be on any bike as it sits on the rear wheel of a bike, so the dockless system could open up the potential for bikes of varying sizes and adaptability. There was no clear answer as to how these bikes would be tracked and distributed so those who needed them could use them. Melissa noted that Nice Ride currently manages 20 bikes that are designed for shorter riders, but there's no way for users to find these bikes in their existing system.

A number of other audience questions focused on equity, primarily around geographic equity and how people who aren't banked or don't have smartphones would access the new system. The panelists suggested a dockless bike system could go in places where docked bikes could not be supported before, specifically citing the east side of St. Paul as an example. It was also stated that bikes will go where they are used, meaning that if they are not used in certain parts of the Cities, bikes may not be there for long. For those without bank accounts or smartphones, Nice Ride felt that the ring locks on the dockless bikes needed to be accessible both via smartphone and via a physical key of some kind. This physical key must be easily purchased and loaded with some type of currency.

A lot of the conversation was on things that dockless bike share could potentially become, but there were no details available since they were waiting to see what companies would propose in their RFP's.

Why just one vendor? 

A member of the audience asked why Nice Ride was asking for RFPs instead of the city, why Nice Ride had to be involved in this new system at all, along with the question of why public officials, not part of the private board, are not a part of reviewing these RFPs and deciding on a vendor. Bill stated the board was changing as a part of the transition from docked to dockless bikes. While there are people from the public sector on the Nice Ride board, they will be creating a new board that will have people from the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Minneapolis Park Board, and the University of Minnesota. When Nice Ride makes the decision on which vendor to go with, they plan to do this by the end of September, they will be working with their current board.

On the question of why only one vendor was going to be picked to start, Bill from Nice Ride discussed the challenges in managing this transition period when docked bikes would still exist, and that there were limitations (Nice Ride received some federal funding to start) on how they could transition and still be in compliance with their contractual obligations with the government. It's unclear however what authority the City of Minneapolis would have to stop a private bike share vendor from circumventing this process and establishing a competing system in the city right now. A representative from Spin bikes in attendance even directly said that he hoped the system would be more competitive in the future, with more vendors participating in the market. Matthew from the City noted that he was not yet sure whether one vendor or an open, regulated market would be better, and that the City is evaluating both approaches while working with Nice Ride.

Uncertainty remains

A major theme of the evening was uncertainty. While it seem clear that by 2020 the face of bike share in Minneapolis will be fundamentally transformed, it's unclear as to what that will look like. Questions remain about what Nice Ride's role will be in a future where private companies are creating their own bike share systems in the Twin Cities. Questions also remain about how bikes will be distributed, what types of bikes will be there, and how Minneapolis and St. Paul will regulate and manage what could be a flood of new bikes coming to our cities. And importantly, will our infrastructure be there to support an influx of new riders?