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Minneapolis' Nice Ride bikes launch in a changed market

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A worker at Nice Ride's warehouse in Minneapolis
A worker at Nice Ride's warehouse in Minneapolis prepares to deploy a fleet of 3,300 bicycles on Monday.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

After a snowstorm earlier this month delayed the rollout of Nice Ride bikes in Minneapolis, they're back for a 10th season. 

Besides the traditional three-speed pedal bikes, the nonprofit also hopes to launch a fleet of electric-assist bikes this year. It's the latest effort to respond to a more competitive sharing economy.

At Nice Ride's sprawling Minneapolis warehouse, bikes sit packed pedal to pedal. After repairing and cleaning them and filling the tires with nitrogen, workers are finally deploying the bikes. This involves loading them onto custom trailers and driving them to their docking stations.

With 3,300 bicycles to move, fleet manager Andrew Corson says his crew is busy.

"We identify certain zones in the city that we're going to fill up first, which are usually the densest, most used. We spread out from there," Corson said. "We have people in the warehouse whose job it is to do nothing but pull out bikes and help load trailers and get them out the door."

Workers at Nice Ride's warehouse in Minneapolis
Workers at Nice Ride's warehouse in Minneapolis prepare to deploy a fleet of 3,300 bicycles.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

If Nice Ride executive director Bill Dossett gets his way, you'll see fewer of those green bikes in the coming months. A new fleet of e-bikes is slated to take their place.

"The motor controller senses torque in the pedals. So, if you're accelerating or going up a hill, that torque sensor is going to say I should give you a boost. But when the speedometer inside of it says you've hit 18 miles an hour, no more assist," Dossett explained.

The e-bikes were due to go out this week, but the launch has been scrubbed for the time being because of a brake recall.

Nice Ride is putting out more of the blue pedal bikes introduced last year that don't have to be parked in a docking station. Customers unlock them with a smartphone app.

Dossett said these upgrades would never have been possible but for Nice Ride's partnership with the ride hailing company Lyft. Nice Ride still exists as a nonprofit, but Lyft owns most of the bicycles and maintains the entire system.

A fleet of 1,500 dockless bicycles is part of Nice Ride's fleet for 2019.
A fleet of 1,500 dockless bicycles is part of Nice Ride's fleet for 2019.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Dossett started Nice Ride a decade ago with a federal grant, making Minneapolis a bike sharing pioneer. But now private investors — including Silicon Valley venture capitalists — are sinking money into the business. Dossett said that means public grants are on the way out.

Private investment has led to changes: Nice Ride pulled up stakes in St. Paul last August after city officials signed a bike sharing contract with Lime.

Then Lime decided not to bring its bikes back, leaving St. Paul riders without an option for now. In a statement, the company said it chose to focus on its electric scooters this year "after listening to customer and community feedback."

Alison Cohen runs Bicycle Transit Systems, a Philadelphia company that operates rental systems there and in three other cities. Like Dossett, she's witnessed some big changes in the bike sharing world.

With high overhead costs, Cohen said many systems have survived only because of corporate sponsorships and advertising. She said she saw coming Lime's decision to get out of the dockless bike business in St. Paul as elsewhere.

"Bike share isn't profitable. It's pretty simple," Cohen said. "When all this dockless stuff came out two years ago, a lot of the folks who'd been in the industry for years and years were scratching their heads, saying, 'What are we missing in this business model?'"

Lime's retreat is an about-face from late 2017, when investors went long on bicycles and valued the firm at $225 million, according to Wired Magazine.

Now, St. Paul transportation engineer Reuben Collins is on the hunt for a new bike share operator.

"We're disappointed that Lime is choosing not to provide bike share in St. Paul, but we're also not surprised. We've seen Lime and other vendors make similar announcements in a lot of other cities across the nation over the last several months," Collins said.

Collins hopes rental bikes will return to St. Paul yet this year, as does Bill Dossett of Nice Ride, who says cooperation between the cities is the best way forward at a topsy-turvy time for the bike sharing business.