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Bike-sharing programs expand as Minnesota's smaller cities get in on the ride

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A handful of Minnesota cities are finding out whether bike-sharing programs so successful in Minneapolis-St. Paul and other major U.S. cities can work on a smaller scale.

On Monday, the city of Austin (population 24,716) approved its own public bike-sharing program, dubbed "Red Bike," which will see one-speed adult bikes placed in 11 red-painted racks around the city, the Austin Daily Herald reports.

Austin is following the footsteps of Willmar (population 19,680), Hastings (population 22,424), and Bemidji (population 14,435), which have all implemented their own programs inspired by the rollout of the increasingly popular "Nice Ride" program in the Twin Cities.

The West Central Tribune reports Willmar put 40 yellow bikes on 21 public racks in May with the intention that this grow to 100 by the end of summer, while the Pioneer Press reports Hastings – which has 20 miles of nearby bike trails – opened up rental stations along its downtown riverfront in June.

Bemidji meanwhile is in the second year of a three-year pilot program by Nice Ride, which encourages visitors to the city to explore the picturesque surrounding on a bike, as well as residents to choose it over their cars for getting to work and around town.

'World is watching' MN efforts

The response to this pilot project – as well as the efforts of the other smaller Minnesota cities – could be a key indicator of whether bike-sharing is viable in lower-populated locations, with Nice Ride Bemidji manager Melinda Neville telling the Star Tribune "we're being watched all over the world."

The newspaper notes there have been teething problems, particularly for Willmar's program, with its decision not to have a formal check-out process – instead telling borrowers to "Ride. Respect. Return." – resulting in many bikes ending up in people's backyards.

The experiments in Minnesota come as the bike-sharing phenomenon spreads nationally, with CityLab reporting earlier this month Los Angeles is "finally" catching up with Minneapolis, New York, Denver and many more by launching its own program.

There are now 1 million bike-sharing bicycles in use worldwide, according to this interactive timeline by CityLab, which explains that one of the main reasons it has taken so long for the programs to proliferate was down to the time it took to find a way to overcome the thefts and vandalism that plagued many of the early European efforts.

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