How One Bike Share Program Went Beyond Infrastructure to Make Streets Look More Complete

Editor’s Note:

Melody Hoffmann is the author of “Recruiting people like you: socioeconomic sustainability in Minneapolis’ bike infrastructure,” Chapter 8 of Incomplete Streets, in which she critiques the tendency in Minneapolis, Minnesota to build bicycle infrastructure as a strategy to attract young, educated professionals. The chapter discusses the socioeconomic inequalities that arise from infrastructure-focused bike planning. In this post, Hoffmann highlights an attempt to address bike infrastructure inequality by Minnesota’s Nice Ride bike share program and asks “What happens when you stop focusing on the infrastructure and start focusing on the people?”

By Melody Hoffmann

Bike share is not designed for lower-income residents and helps keep Complete Street visions incomplete. Minnesota’s Nice Ride, the first U.S. bike share to launch, is no exception. Other bike share programs look to Nice Ride as the model for maintaining high ridership numbers and for its ability to financially thrive with only non-profit funding. Its successful model does not excuse it from starting a nationwide pattern that initially keeps bike share stations from lower-income neighborhoods. Other cities, such as Washington D.C. and New York City, followed in Nice Ride’s initial inequitable footsteps which angered those without access to this bourgeoning form of transportation.

Complete Streets planning is often focused on the built environment, street design, or transportation infrastructure. City officials and transportation advocates hope that through these avenues they can change what the streets look like. Fewer cars, more pedestrians, more bicyclists on the streets (as opposed to sidewalks), slower traffic, more bus and light rail routes, and so on. But what so many people argue in Incomplete Streets (2015) is that these forms of planning are always already incomplete. “These physical changes can make certain street users and the dwellers in some neighborhoods invisible, further diminishing their rights and roles in the community” (Zavestoski & Agyeman, p. 7).  This is certainly the case for Nice Ride’s traditional bike share model.

Data visualization of Nice Ride usage (click image to visit data visualization tool)

Data visualization of Nice Ride usage (click image to visit data visualization tool)

But what happens when you stop focusing on the infrastructure and start focusing on the people?

In summer 2014, Nice Ride launched Nice Ride Neighborhood, a textbook attempt at “retrofitting equity” in neighborhoods the program had once avoided due to financial risk. Nice Ride Neighborhood put bikes into the hands of lower-income residents, the majority of them immigrants and people of color. Instead of using Nice Ride’s regular structure of borrowing a bicycle for an hour or two at a time, Nice Ride gave the bicycles to the participants for three months at no cost. The program loaned out roughly 140 bright orange bikes in North Minneapolis and East St. Paul. Nice Ride partnered with multiple community organizations to target people who would benefit from this program. Participants could earn $200 towards a bicycle at a local community bicycle shop by completing a few tasks over the summer. First, the participants had to ride their bike at least twice a week and keep a record of their trips. Second, participants had to attend at least four community events organized by Nice Ride and the Major Taylor Bicycling Club. Each event typically included socializing, a bicycle ride led by a member of Major Taylor, and freshly cooked food. The Nice Ride Neighborhood events were scheduled around existing community happenings such as farmers’ markets, Open Streets events, and music festivals. These community gatherings were crucial to stay in touch with Nice Ride Neighborhood participants and created an opportunity for more seasoned bicyclists to talk with participants about successes with and barriers to their bicycling experience. If participants met the riding and community event goals, they were given a $200 voucher when they returned their Nice Ride bicycles in October.

I was involved with this program from the initial planning stages and helped with the launch in St. Paul (full disclosure: I was monetarily compensated for some of my time). I also followed the program throughout the summer by attending some of the community events and wrap-up dinners in October.  As a person trained to critique pretty much everything, it is easy for me to dwell on what I observed as the program’s lack of cultural sensitivity and last-minute community engagement tactics. But as a person also committed to making bicycling more equitable in urban spaces, there is no doubt that Nice Ride Neighborhood made a big difference in who is able to ride a bicycle in the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

What the Nice Ride Neighborhood program did was make highly-visible bicycles extremely accessible to people who normally do not bike. This was not about changing the street layout or making better bike trails. It was about giving people bicycles. The program also addressed a common reason lower-income people do not own a bicycle: the cost. Many people do not see the value in investing money into a bike or are tired of buying cheap bikes that routinely break down. Nice Ride loaned high-quality bicycles to people so they could experiment with using one on a daily basis. This alone changed the city scape. For one, new bicyclists started appearing in areas of the city where bicycle infrastructure is lacking. Over 100 people starting riding a bike and they certainly stood out.

The high visibility of the bright orange bicycles drew attention to the riders whom were predominately people of color. At the wrap-up dinner in North Minneapolis Anthony Taylor of the Major Taylor Bicycling Club commented on the neighborhood being flush with orange bikes and recounted all the waves and car honks the riders encountered during the summer. The community events also acted as a type of spectacle with a train of orange bikes riding through the neighborhood. LaTrisa VeTaw, a community partner in North Minneapolis, recounted how she saw the orange bikes everywhere, “at Cub Foods, at church, at Popeye’s, on the bus racks.” To VeTaw this was more than the spectacle, it was also about breaking down racial stereotypes. “This breaks the myth that we don’t bike. We do.” VeTaw also addressed the presumed class of people participating and cultivated stigma about riding the orange bikes. “We need to get past [Nice Ride Neighborhood] being a poor person’s program. Because it is not. Not everything is about being poor.”

In the League of American Bicyclists “The New Movement: Bike Equity Today” (PDF) report (2014), Taylor comments on the importance of temporarily deprioritizing infrastructure. “It’s not infrastructure first. It’s relationships first, understanding the culture and motivations first, and then infrastructure can be a solution” (pg. 21). Complete Streets visions often imply a “if you build it they will come” approach but Taylor’s argument pushes back against this. I am of a similar mind in that a “complete street” is not so much about the stripes of white paint but about having the bodies on the street be a complete representation of who lives in that community. If this becomes the priority then the stereotype of bike lanes being white lanes will lose its merit. Nice Ride Neighborhood is a good start. Knowing that its existing infrastructure (bike share stations) was not speaking to the needs of many Twin Cities residents, they created a program outside of any infrastructure. Even if just temporarily, all it took was a fleet of bicycles to complete some streets and empower many people to keep riding in the Twin Cities.

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