By Guy Still

The Twin Cities had its first foray in to bike sharing more than 20 years ago, when the Yellow Bike Coalition was created. The well-intentioned group fixed up and painted donated bikes yellow and left them at public spaces in Saint Paul and, a few years later, Minneapolis. Sadly, the much maligned program folded after bikes continually fell victim to vandals and thieves. (The attached story is from former WCCO reporter Mike Walcher who put together a tongue-in-cheek piece in September 1995 in search of the bikes in Saint Paul.)

Fast forward to 2010, when Nice Ride was born. The bike-sharing program, championed by then Mayor RT Rybak, has steadily grown in scope and popularity. Today, the fleet of lime-green two-wheelers numbers more than 1,700, with 201 docking stations throughout Minneapolis and Saint Paul. By the end of this riding season the program will have provided upward of 2 million rides since its inception.

(credit: CBS)

But the bike-sharing model which Nice Ride is based on, and has been replicated in metropolitan cities throughout the world, faces stiff competition from a boom in a new concept of dockless bike sharing.

Just three years ago Chinese-based ofo launched the concept of dockless bike-sharing. Instead of having to pick up or return your ride to a specific location, a registered user simply opens a cellphone app to locate the nearest bike. A scan of the bicycle’s unique QR code will allow the user to manually unlock the bike’s combination lock. And you’re off. Once you arrive at your destination, simply lock the bike or use the app to indicate your trip is done. No more searching for a docking station and hoofing it the last ¾ mile.

(credit: Ofo)

Since 2014, a number of companies have jumped into the dockless concept, often funded by venture capitalists. But, with more than 8 million bicycles worldwide the yellow ofo bikes are king. And, this concept recently made its way into the United States.

Earlier this year the city of Seattle shut down its bike-share program, known as Pronto. Like Nice Ride, it was a system which utilized docking stations. But city officials blamed hilly terrain and mandatory helmet laws for the program’s lack of success. To fill the void, three dockless bike sharing companies (Ofo, LimeBike and Spin) have all set up shop in the city which boasts a cycling culture rivaling that of Minneapolis.

While the concept of finding bikes closer than the nearest docking station is appealing, in practice the system has already proved to be rife with challenges which may prove difficult to solve. Foremost are the issues of parking and vandalism. While some riders are just dropping bikes in the middle of the sidewalk, other people are placing them in very difficult locations to retrieve, as seen in this amusing article on GeekWire.

(credit: @icebox505/Twitter)

But, it is clear that the tide is changing in the bike-sharing game, and Nice Ride acknowledges this. Bill Dossett, Executive Director of Nice ride recently told me that “the dockless model creates amazing opportunities to put more people on bikes.” But he also cautioned that “we want to make sure it is executed in a way that addresses safety, quality, reliability and equity.”

As such the company has issued a request for proposals “for transition of the Twin Cities bike sharing system.” In a recent press release Nice Ride explained it expects dockless bike-sharing to enter the market soon and hopes to be part of “rapidly adding” these types of bikes, while including “a ‘Plan B’ if the dockless strategy proves unsustainable.”

While no bike-sharing companies have yet publicly expressed interest in the Minneapolis market, you can be assured that it’s not far off. Besides all of the aforementioned companies already operating in Seattle, yet another similar company (Mobike) is currently hiring for regional Government Affairs interns, with one being sought just a stone’s throw away in Chicago.

Nice Ride and Our Streets MPLS  is hosting a public discussion on changes in the bike sharing industry Thursday, Sept. 7, at 5 p.m. at Honey (205 E Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis).

One thing is certain: If and when dockless bike sharing launches you can be sure that one of the units will be unceremoniously launched off the Stone Arch Bridge not 24 hours later.