Sponsors Sold on Health, Economic Benefits of Minneapolis Bike-Share

Don't count out Boston just yet, but it looks like Minneapolis may be the first American city out of the gate with a public bicycle system of 1,000 bikes or more. Last week, the non-profit Nice Ride Minnesota selected the Public Bike System Company (the same firm behind Montreal's Bixi) to install its system, which is slated to feature 1,000 bicycles at about 75 stations when the first phase wraps up later this year.

nice_ride_kiosk.jpgThe first phase of Minneapolis's bike-share system will consist of about 1,000 bikes at 75 kiosks. Image: Nice Ride Minnesota.
Boston's bike-share will also launch this year with a fleet of about 1,000 bicycles, reports NPR's Andrea Bernstein. With Denver planning to get a 600-bike system up and running in April, and Washington, DC working out some kinks in the plan to expand its SmartBike pilot, 2010 is shaping up to be a momentous year for bike-share in American cities.

The multi-city horse race is fun to track, but Nice Ride director Bill Dossett downplayed the competition. "My view is that if all of us weren't doing this, then none of us would be," he said.

As each of these cities figures out how to make bike-share work, one of the interesting things to watch is how they get people excited about the idea of public bikes. For Nice Ride, the name of the game is public health and economic development. The project has attracted a broad range of support, with major chunks of funding coming courtesy of health insurer BlueCross BlueShield and contributions from local businesses.

A $1.75 million federal grant will cover much of the initial cost, with $1 million from BlueCross providing most of the remainder. "BlueCross BlueShield is all about fighting obesity right now," said Dossett. "They're interested in anything that encourages physical activity."

Small businesses in Minneapolis's downtown retail area are bullish on bike-share, he added, "because it's an economic development tool. It gets people to come out to lunch from office towers a mile away."

Subscriptions ($60 per year, $5 per day) will cover 80 percent of the cost of running Nice Ride, with contributions from local businesses -- who can pay to sponsor individual bike-share kiosks -- taking care of the rest. Other bike-share systems, including Washington's SmartBike and Paris's Velib, rely heavily on contracts with major outdoor advertising firms, which have proven problematic on more than one occasion.

After Nice Ride's first season, which runs through November (the kiosks will be removed during the winter), Dossett hopes to expand beyond the downtown core and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus. "Our plan is to expand into new neighborhoods through partnerships with local businesses," he said. "We hope to be doing those kind of constantly."