Nice Ride Minnesota is losing its main sponsor next year, and without a replacement, the popular bike and scooter sharing program may shut down.
Without sponsorship money from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, the Nice Ride system will face a $2 million shortfall in 2023 and would need to find a new sponsor or secure public funding to open for the season, said Ashwat Narayanan, executive director of the transportation advocacy organization Our Streets Minneapolis.
Narayanan sent a letter signed by officials from several transportation and environmental advocacy groups to Minneapolis City Council members this month, asking them to include $2 million in the city's 2023 budget to fill the gap until a new sponsor can be found.
"If funding cannot be obtained for the program by the end of 2022, Nice Ride will not be able to reopen next year, and the green-and-black bikes that our residents and visitors rely on will disappear," the letter said.
The city's latest Transportation Action Plan aims to reduce car trips and increase biking, walking and nonmotorized transportation.
Minneapolis spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie said in a statement that the city supports Nice Ride's efforts to find a corporate sponsor.
Blue Cross Blue Shield has been Nice Ride's primary sponsor since the program's inception 13 years ago. The Eagan-based health insurance company has contributed millions of dollars annually to Nice Ride during that time, and in return, its logo appears on the fleet of classic pedal bikes and e-bikes.
But Blue Cross's contract with the Nice Ride ends in August, and its changing approach to community engagement and sponsorships meant the company's support would not continue, said Blue Cross spokesman Jim McManus.
"Blue Cross supported every aspect of the program's growth — from an expanded geographic reach into other communities to making more bikes available overall," said McManus.
He said the company this year notified Nice Ride that it would not renew its sponsorship and was told the program would begin looking for a new primary sponsor.
"We continue to wish Nice Ride all the best in their endeavors and hope that Nice Ride will continue as a successful bike sharing program for many years to come," he said.
Blue Cross contributed $3 million annually to cover the Nice Ride system's operating costs and made its last sponsorship payment of $1 million this year to cover its obligations for 2023. That's where the $2 million shortfall comes in, and why groups such as Our Streets are turning to the city for help.
Nice Ride Minnesota is a nonprofit, but does not directly receive the $3 million sponsorship money from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota. The money goes to the Nice Ride system operator, Lyft, which is responsible for operating costs.
"We hope folks will step up," Narayanan said.
Bike-share programs commonly rely on corporate sponsors for revenue, but sponsorships don't cover everything. Nice Ride lost $858,000 in 2019 and $617,000 in 2020, according to tax filings.
And Minneapolis is not the only city being asked to fund its bike share program. Similar scenarios have played out in Boston and Washington D.C., and Columbus, Ohio, where in 2021 the city authorized $1 million in its annual budget after its bike-share program also lost its primary sponsor.
"A lot of bike-shares have public investment to make them work," said Great Plains Institute Vice President Brendan Jordan, who was among those who signed the letter to the Minneapolis council. "We will probably need public support here in the Twin Cities."
Nice Ride initially ran its bike-share program alone, but in recent years has partnered with other organizations to operate its fleet of bicycles and scooters — a task currently carried out by rideshare company Lyft.
Nice Ride is in merger talks with the Great Plains Institute, which could take over the program. But it would still need an operator, Jordan said.
After a slump in the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nice Ride rebounded in 2021 with a record 533,000 trips on bikes and scooters. Much of the growth came from 70,000 first-time riders and from a jump in enrollment in Nice Ride for All, which offers $5 yearly memberships and deeply discounted e-bike and scooter rides for those who qualify as low-income.
Nice Ride had more than 450,000 bike and scooter rides this year, including nearly 100,000 in September, according to Lyft. Nice Ride is not responsible for the $2 million loss; that falls on the system operator, Lyft, said Jordan Levine, a Lyft spokesman.
"We are continuing to explore every avenue to ensure Nice Ride's long-term financial sustainability in the wake of the loss of the system's presenting sponsor and a challenging economic environment," Levine said.
Levine said Lyft is also looking for sponsors, though the process could take six to 12 months, especially as traditional bike-share sponsors are tightening their belts.
And though it's unclear whether Minneapolis would step in to bridge the gap if a corporate sponsor isn't found, Narayanan said the city's help would be critical. The $2 million shortfall must be filled by the end of the year so Nice Ride can hire a team to relaunch the program in the spring.
"It's a lifeline for thousands of people," Narayanan said. "It is important to make this priority transportation for the city of Minneapolis."