Behind the bikes

A look at what it takes to run the bike-sharing program Nice Ride

Get on a Nice Ride bicycle, and it all seems so simple. Check out the subscription options, unlock a bike at a station, ride it to your location and return it at another station. The uniquely shaped bright green bikes circulate around the city by users taking advantage of the affordable, environmentally friendly transportation. The more users on the bikes, the more they circulate around the city.

Of course, it’s not as easy as all that.

Yes, the Nice Ride concept is simple. But a network of 700 bikes and 73 stations doesn’t maintain itself. Behind the networks of bikes is another network, designed to keep the bike-sharing system running smoothly.

Headquartered in the Midtown Bike Center on the Midtown Greenway, the Nice Ride offices are home to a handful of staffers who handle issues like funding, customer service and marketing. Among them is Josh Sweet, Nice Ride’s field manager. Sweet supervises another group of seven employees whose office is the city itself. This street team is the critical component of keeping the Nice Ride network running smoothly.

“I’m in charge of the basic maintenance of the bicycles, making sure our crew is out and making sure the system is balanced properly,” says Sweet. “It’s a big network, and in order for the system to work appropriately there has to be a balance of bikes and empty bike docks at the stations so people can ride up to park a bike, or there’s a bike to check out. So our seven crew members out on the street are taking care of rebalancing the system, making sure that there’s an even mix of empty spaces and bicycles at each station so that there’s always a place to park a bike or a bike to take.”

The maintenance teams work in teams of one or two, driving around the Nice Ride area and balancing stations by removing bikes from stations that are too full and moving them by truck to stations that are low. For most stations, the teams try to maintain a 50-50 split of bikes to empty stalls, but some require a slightly different mix. For example, so many Nice Ride users travel into Downtown and check their bikes into the IDS Center station that it needs to be nearly empty at the start of each workday. The IDS station can hold 23 bikes, but the team tries to make sure there are never more than three or four parked there on weekday mornings.

Tracking bikes

Each Nice Ride truck is equipped with a computer that displays the status of each station in real time, so the crews can monitor which stations need their attention. “We can see live how many bikes are at a station, what the serial number is of a bike at a station is and we can see how much power is coming into the station through the solar panels,” says Sweet. “We can see every little nuance of the machines.”

Through the monitoring of Nice Ride bikes and stations, the Nice Ride team has identified patterns of use that helps them stay on top of where they need to be on their shift.

In any given day, a Nice Ride field team moves around 100 of the 40-pound bikes and visits roughly 25 stations. In addition to circulating the bikes through the network, the field teams also take care of bicycle maintenance and keep the docking stations clean, the bikes functional and both free of graffiti. So far, the track record has been good.

Of Nice Ride’s hundreds of bikes, there are typically no more than 20 out of the system at a time for upkeep, and only two have been taken permanently out of commission. The bikes are so distinctive that the few that have been stolen always find their way back. “We’ve only had one bike stolen last year that we never recovered,” says Sweet. The other was the victim of what Sweet calls “extreme vandalism,” completely repainted with glitter and flowers — and a picture of a walrus.

The decorated fender is on display in the Nice Ride offices, where the office team works hard to iron out any remaining kinks in the still-young system. After all, Nice Ride only hit the streets in June of 2010, although the planning stretches back a bit further. Inspired by bike-sharing programs in Europe and Canada, Nice Ride was the first such program developed in the United States — although a smaller-scale network came online in Denver a few weeks earlier than the Minneapolis system.

The frontrunner status of Nice Ride has made it a model for other cities, even though there have been growing pains. At launch, a $250 deposit caused problems with overdraft fees for some users who rented a bike on a debit card. Nice Ride addressed the issue by lowering the deposit to $50 and adding an explanatory screen to the rental kiosks, which largely fixed the issue.

“Everybody was watching us in the first year,” says Nice Ride Executive Director Bill Dossett. “Were we going to have theft, were bicycles going to get destroyed? Since that didn’t happen, everyone is moving forward in a big way.” Cities like Chicago, Seattle, Austin and Portland are launching their own bike-sharing programs, and Nice Ride is sharing its experience with the other organizations.

That experience will be a valuable asset for the other cities. Not only is Nice Ride one of the first such programs, it’s also one of the best.

“Based on our own statistics and Bixi, the company that makes the bikes and the stations, we’ve actually got the best-balanced bike system in the world,” says Sweet. “That’s something that these guys are working their tails off to do, and we’re definitely glad that we’ve got that title.”

The recognition of other cities and bike share organizations is nice, but what makes all the hard work truly worthwhile for the Nice Ride team is how the community embraced it. There were more than 100,000 bike rentals last year, and one-year subscription sales have already nearly doubled over last year.

The nonprofit Nice Ride will add another 500 bikes and 43 stations by the end of the summer. A mix of station sponsorships and user subscription fees funds the program, so if either component were missing, Nice Ride wouldn’t have been a success. “It’s nice to see how the community has taken to supporting Nice Ride,” says field team member Mourette Valcin. “It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, you can get out on a bike.”