Molina Acosta: Nice Ride is a public service, not a corporate charity

Blue Cross Blue Shield just sank one of the country’s longest-running bike share programs. Why does a private corporation have that power?

Lyft+recently+suspended+the+Nice+Ride+program+in+Minnesota.+

Image by Ethan Fine

Lyft recently suspended the Nice Ride program in Minnesota.

by Paula Molina Acosta

The news broke in November 2022 that Blue Cross Blue Shield, the multi-million dollar insurance company, would be withdrawing from its role as the cornerstone sponsor of the Nice Ride Minnesota bike share program.

The bike share, administered by Lyft since its purchase of the program’s original nonprofit operator, has been running in Minneapolis for 13 years. Due to Blue Cross Blue Shield’s withdrawal, Lyft has recently suspended the program completely.

There will be no Nice Ride bikes this summer, or ever again.

The biggest shock of this news isn’t necessarily the end of a groundbreaking, 13-year-long public transportation initiative. The real surprise is such an enduring and critical program has been running for so long on the mercy donations of a private corporation — a corporation which, on a whim, seems to have run out of such generosity.

Nate Gahr is a fourth-year environmental science, policy and management student working as a University of Minnesota Bike Center service coordinator at The Hub Bike Co-op. For students, bicycling is a matter of affordability and convenience, they said.

“[Bicycling is] definitely so much cheaper than having to own a car and pay insurance,” Gahr said.

Given that, a bike share program offers particular perks that owning your own bicycle does not. For example, a rider is not on the hook for part replacements or repairs.

“The biggest draw for the Nice Ride program would be that the bikes are maintained,” Gahr said. “It really opens the door for a lot of people who might live in apartments where they can’t store a bike, or just don’t have the budget to keep and maintain a bike of their own.”

Lily Osler is a first-year MFA student in creative writing. When it was running, she was a frequent Nice Ride user who relished the convenience and flexibility it allowed. She was especially a fan of the program’s fleet of 2,000 ebikes, which was introduced in 2020.

“[Nice Ride ebikes] meant that I could leave for appointments the way that someone who owns a car could,” Osler said. “Where you don’t have to live your life around the schedule for public transit or have to schedule so much around how you’re going to dry off all the sweat after you bike somewhere.”

The Nice Ride Minnesota program had a record-breaking year in 2021, with 533,000 total rides, up 200,000 from the previous year. A whopping 70,000 riders gave the program a shot for the first time. The increase was made up predominantly of students, people of color and low-income residents who qualified for the bike share’s “Nice Ride for All” reduced-cost membership initiative.

Students in particular benefited from the program. If you were on campus last fall you might remember a flurry of outreach events and membership registration drives splattered with Lyft and Blue Cross Blue Shield branding.

Students receiving FAFSA financial aid qualified for the reduced-cost membership.

In September 2022 alone, students took more than 31,000 rides and accounted for more than 40% of rides taken across the entire bike share system. In 2022, nine of the top 10 busiest Nice Ride stations were on the University of Minnesota campus.

These statistics describe a popular program well-used by residents who might otherwise struggle to access other forms of transportation. But, that doesn’t seem to mean much to Blue Cross Blue Shield. The corporation’s decision to stop donating money to a nonprofit has single-handedly ended 13 years of low-cost public transportation access.

But, why was a corporation funding public infrastructure anyway?

The residents of St. Paul have already learned this lesson — the city ended its bike share contract with Nice Ride in 2018 to open a new one with Lime. Then, after just three months, that fell through, too, leaving the city without any bike share program at all.

It’s becoming clear, in case there was any doubt before, that for-profit companies are fickle partners when it comes to providing accessible and affordable public services. Transportation cannot operate on a whim. It requires consistency that corporations are not capable of.

And corporations don’t need to be. Public services should come from the public sector.

The state of Minnesota currently has a $17.2 billion budget surplus, a number most states would dream of. Despite the extra money, public transportation in Minneapolis is suffering.

“Public transportation has gotten worse in the cities since I was in high school,” Osler said.

Just last winter, the city reduced service on dozens of bus routes and suspended two routes entirely.

“But it sucks, it’s harder to live in the city now without a car than it was before,” Osler said. “And this is just another thing that makes me feel like Minneapolis does not care as much as it says it does about trying to encourage people to get places by means other than driving.”

Hope supposedly remains. A Minneapolis city spokesperson told KARE 11 News that “the City has other licensees in the Shared Bike and Scooter Program interested in providing shared bikes, ensuring that the city will have bikes in the program this upcoming season.”

With such a promise, though, I have to ask: if such a miracle does indeed come through for the city’s 2023 biking season, what guarantee do we have that the deal won’t fall apart yet again next year? Or the year after that? What plan is in place to provide long-term bike share access to Minneapolis if no corporation can hack it?

“Minneapolis is and has always been a city that talks a big game about progressive politics and social justice while not doing everything it can to support those policies materially,” Osler said. “And I just don’t understand why you’ve got to be reliant on an insurance company to be able to have a public service here.”