How do you even begin to make improvements in a town that already boasts some of the finest cycling infrastructure of any major American city and a near-perfect park system?

If you’re Minneapolis, you add kayak rental kiosks to the mix.

Due to launch later this month along the banks of the Upper Mississippi as a joint effort between the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization and the Mississippi Park Connection (a charitable nonprofit partner of the National Park Service that oversees the national park-designated stretch of the river that flows through the Twin Cities), the Mississippi River Paddle Share pilot scheme aims to be an aquatic sister program of sorts to Minnesota’s nonprofit Nice Ride bicycle sharing program, which was launched in 2010 and remains true to its moniker as one of the nicest bike-share initiatives out there.

Indeed, Mississippi River Paddle Share, the first paddle-share program on the Mississippi and the first paddle share program located within a national park, functions in a similar manner to Nice Ride and other urban bike-share programs but with a few key differences.

Mississippi River Paddle Share LogoFor one, advance reservations are made online though the Mississippi River Paddle Share website. Here, users view a brief safety video, sign a waiver and pay in advance for a four-hour rental period.

Once the reservation is successful booked for a future date and time, paddle-happy commuters over 18 years of age will receive a code unlocking access to all the necessary gear (boat, paddles, life jacket) at one of two volunteer-manned riverside paddle stations at North Mississippi Regional Park or MWMO Stormwater Park and Learning Center.

Unlike the “strongly recommended” but not mandatory use of helmets with Nice Ride, rental life jackets are required for Mississippi River Paddle Share users.

While all equipment (the program will launch with 32 kayaks furnished by Minnesota-based manufacturer Wenonah Canoe) must be returned downriver at Boom Island State Park within the allotted time frame, each of the three stations are paddle-to-pedal compatible — that is, they’re paired with Nice Ride stations so that users can hop on a bike and pedal back upriver to their launch point at the end of the journey.

As for cost, a 4-hour kayak rental will set users back $30.

While this may seem a touch steep, the fee is comparable to a 4-hour single ride spin on a Nice Ride rental at $4 for every half-hour. (Frequent Nice Ride users often opt for $75 annual memberships which are good for the entire 215-ish day rental season lasting April through November). Mississippi River Paddle Share's rental fees are expected to drop as the initiative grows out of the pilot phase. Aiming to be affordable and accessible to all, the National Park Service and its partners hope to ultimately expand paddle sharing along all 72 miles of Minnesota’s Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.

Located north of downtown Minneapolis, the pilot paddle route stretches from North Mississippi Regional Park to Boom Island Park. Located just north of downtown Minneapolis, the pilot paddle route stretches roughly 4 miles from North Mississippi Regional Park downriver to Boom Island Park. (Image: Google Maps)

The pilot was funded by a $175,000 grant from the National Park Service Federal Lands Transportation Program and a $40,000 grant awarded by Seattle-based outdoor gear emporium REI. Future expansions will be funded by additional grants and revenue generated during the initiative's 2016 run.

"I am really proud of the National Park Service for approving something so innovative and approving the funding for it,” Susan Overson, a landscape architect for the NPS and project manager of National Park Service Paddle Share, tells the Star Tribune. “I am over-the-top excited to be able to offer a paddle share. It's for people who don't own their own equipment. It's meant to be easy and affordable."

While Overson singles out non-kayak owners as being target users, Katie Nyberg, executive director of Mississippi Park Connection, goes on to note that that 4-mile stretch of river is one best traversed by those who have some previous paddling experience given that Mississippi River Paddle Share is “not a guided experience.”

Minneapolis Nice Ride bike share program Minneapolis' Nice Ride bike-share program is getting a kayak-based cousin for those looking to combine paddle and pedal power. (Photo: Tony Webster/flickr)

Nyberg refers to the route, which takes roughly 2 to a full 4 hours to complete depending on picnic-centric pit stops, as being “the perfect combination of natural and urban.” She adds: “You get to see great blue herons and eagles and you get to see the skyline of Minneapolis. It's really fun."

As the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board explains, this particular stretch of river between North Mississippi Regional Park and Boom Island State Park was selected over six other potential routes due largely to its proximity to underserved communities that would most benefit from the addition of paddle-power to the neighborhood. What’s more, the selected route for the pilot phase is “within walking distance of multiple riverfront destinations and entertainment venues, showcases a picturesque portion of the Mississippi and does not require installing new river access points.”

As the NPS and its partner organizations jump through a final few bureaucratic hoops, Mississippi River Paddle Share is prepping for its first batch of kayak-sharing urban paddlers.

Twin Cities residents: Do you think you’ll be among them?

Everyone else: would you welcome a share program in your city that extends beyond bikes to kayaks and other modes of people-powered transportation?

Mississippi River Paddle Share logo: Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Minneapolis launches public kayak-share program
Just think of it as a spin on urban bike sharing that requires a life jacket.