Minneapolis looks “to avoid bike-sharing mistakes made in other cities

Sure, the bikes are on their way. But what about the broken locks, the busted kiosks and the bankrupting expense of theft and repair? Are we getting those, too?

The recent announcement that Minneapolis would adopt Montreal’s BIXI system for the city’s bike-sharing program triggered a wave of enthusiasm. Not only were we getting a taste of European-style transit here in the Twin Cities, but we had hired the best in the bike-sharing business to bring it here. The BIXI system — with its beefed-up bikes and its computer-chip based, solar-powered, WiFi-enabled parking stations — was named one of the top inventions of 2008 by Time magazine. It has been a hit in Montreal, where it accommodated more than 1 million riders in its first six months of operation. And its success has been noted by London, Boston and Melbourne, Australia — cities that have all signed on to bring BIXI to their downtown districts.

But even the best has its problems.

Less than two months after BIXI’s launch, Montreal newspaper La Presse reported that one in five BIXI bikes had been damaged, and that 15 percent of the parking stations were defective.

Even worse, in Paris, home of the world’s most high-profile bike-sharing system, vandalism and theft had been so bad that more than half of the original 15,000 bikes had to be replaced just 18 months after the program’s launch. Costs were so high that JCDecaux, the media company sponsoring the system, was forced to petition the Paris government for a bailout. Paris does not use the BIXI system, but its troubles have served as a warning for bike-sharing systems worldwide.

With the fast escalating costs associated with theft and damage in other cities, some in the local bike community wonder if Minneapolis’ system will be able to stay out of the red — especially since subscriptions will be so cheap. A year’s worth of bike access will cost only $60, officials say, $50 for students.

Bill Dossett, the man in charge of bike sharing in Minneapolis, hopes to cut down on costs by learning from the problems faced by other cities. Dossett is the executive director of Nice Ride Minnesota, a new nonprofit created to oversee the implementation of the system. Having a nonprofit take full control of the project — instead of relying on corporate advertising, as was done in Paris, or giving government control over purse strings, which was the case in Montreal — is just one thing Minneapolis will do differently.

The nonprofit model cuts down on the pressure to be profitable. Nice Ride was started with the help of  $1.75 million in federal funding, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota has given an additional $1 million, the fruits of a legal settlement with tobacco companies.

Still, the bikes are far from cheap. Replacing a BIXI can run upward of $600. But Nice Ride asserts that measures are already in place to reduce the risk of theft and vandalism.

“The big selling point with BIXI was that it’s much more theft-resistant than other systems,” said Nice Ride Minnesota operations director Dan Breva. (Note: Breva is also a columnist for the Journal.)

The Minneapolis bikes have theft-resistant nuts and bolts, which respond only to specialized wrenches, and all break cables will be encased in the metal frame of the bike. A special computer chip will be able to track bikes taken improperly from a kiosk, meaning in the rare instance of a theft, the bike can be found and returned, instead of totally replaced.

“We get to buy a tested system,” Dossett added. “It’s true that in the first three to four weeks [Montreal] had some serious problems.” He said that the main flaw was the locking system, which previously involved a plastic cassette that would fasten a bike to a kiosk. Vandals could break the plastic cassette, so BIXI engineers decided to replace the plastic with metal.

“Since that time, they have had very, very little theft,” Dossett said. “They learned what works, and they built a really rugged system. They spent a ton of money. The bikes now even have graffiti-proof paint.”

Still, Nice Ride Minnesota has budgeted for potential theft and repairs. According to Dossett, the business plan accounts for a loss rate of up to 10 percent, as well as enough funding to replace each bicycle twice and each parking kiosk once during a 10-year period. Plus, Dossett said, the bikes and kiosks will be removed during winter, hopefully cutting down on maintenance. Downtown and Uptown businesses have also pledged to ease costs by sponsoring certain kiosks.

“I’d love to sell 12,000 to 15,000 annual subscriptions,” Dossett said. “But we don’t need to hit 15,000 to survive.”

Key cards will come with discount coupons for theaters, restaurants and other area businesses. And, Dossett pointed out, they will work for BIXI systems worldwide, saving Minneapolis travelers a few bucks on their bicycle tourism.

While it’s clear the BIXI will be a cost saver for Downtown commuters and residents, we’ll have to wait to see if it proves a frugal move by the city. The official bike-sharing launch is scheduled for June.