On the streets of Montreal, where visitors once flocked to watch Formula One cars race through the streets, you can now cruise the city on two wheels. That is, on one of the 3,000 sleek bicycles in the city's new bike-sharing program.
Launched this month, Bixi is North America's largest and most innovative bike-sharing program, billed as a green, cheap method of getting around. With the city's 450 kilometres of bike paths, you can cruise around like a local. "Tourists are most welcome to use the system and experience the city the way local residents do," Tourisme Montreal's Patrick Guidote says.
As urban cycling gains in popularity, following the European example, cities and hotels are offering bike-sharing and bike paths - along with bikes as amenities for guests - as a way to attract visitors and open up a new tourism experience.
With the $15-million Bixi - the name blends the words "bicycle" and "taxi" - Montreal is building on its potential for visitors. In an online video, Tourism Montreal blogger "Tamy" recommends pedalling to places slightly off the beaten path: Jean-Drapeau Park, for instance, where you can bike on the F1 Gilles Villeneuve track and then stop for a dip at the Jean-Drapeau beach.
The formula for such programs is simple. In Montreal, riders use a member's key or credit card to unlock a bike, pedal it around town and return it to one of 300 solar-powered docking stations. The sturdy aluminum bikes have three speeds, raised handlebars, lights, and tires built for urban cycling.
They're also theft-resistant - and come with a modest rental price. The first 30 minutes of every ride is free. After that, it costs from $1.50 for an hour to $5 for a full day of cycling.
Bixi is modelled after programs in Europe, including Berlin, Barcelona and particularly Paris. After two years of operation in Paris, a city of 2.2 million, the Vélib' program has clocked 42 million riders - thanks in part to tour guides who lead visitors around the Latin Quarter by bike.
If success is based on longevity and popularity, then Bycyklen in Copenhagen is perhaps the biggest success story. Copenhagen brands itself as the City of Cyclists, and 36 per cent of locals travel by bicycle; the city is aiming for 50 per cent by 2015. Founded in 1995, Bycyklen was the first large-scale urban bike-share program featuring specially designed bikes.
And it's free: Riders leave a $4.25 deposit, which is refunded when they return the bikes. Its tourism board weaves promotional campaigns with tips on how to experience the city like a local and boasts about its extensive network of bike paths, which expands every year.
According to bike-sharing consultant Paul DeMaio, Montreal and other cities are likely to see bike-sharing programs become a favourite mode of transport for visitors. "Tourism improves when visitors can rely on the local transit network, including bike-sharing, rather than needing a car rental," he says.
"Tourists get to experience a city more up close when they're biking. They can smell the aromas of the bakeries and enjoy urban life, rather than be frustrated about being stuck in traffic and worried about where to find parking."
Given the growth of bike-sharing globally, that sort of experience should be a common part of city tourism within a few years. London plans to unveil its 6,000-bicycle-strong share program by 2010. Boston, Minneapolis, Denver, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and Phoenix have announced programs for the near future.
In New York, the quintessential urban jungle, the city has conducted a comprehensive study to assess the potential for a bike-sharing program.
And this summer, the neighbourhood group Alliance for Downtown New York is running its second annual Bike Around Downtown program, which provides the public with bicycle rentals (free for members, and anyone can register online to be a member), including helmets and baby seats.
Some of the hippest hotels in North America are also getting in on the action. In New York, the Hotel Gansevoort invites guests to hop on their fleet of ultramodern Puma bicycles, complete with helmets. Chicago's James Hotel stocks trendy Paul Frank-designed bikes for adults and kids that are perfect for a ride down Lake Shore Drive. And in Miami Beach, where visitors are used to seeing fancy cars vying for attention along Ocean Drive, The Raleigh hotel encourages guests to cruise along the boardwalk with their own set of wheels.
Bike-sharing programs are designed for short trips, which means there has to be a critical mass of activities that are accessible by bike in order for tourists to embrace the trend, says Jennifer Keesmaat, a founding partner of Office for Urbanism, a Toronto-based planning and design firm.
"Cyclists don't stay on their bikes," she says, "They use cabs, buses and their feet to get around, so a network of paths has to tie all of the pieces together." Local governments have to invest in constructing bike lanes, trails and good signage, she argues, before they implement bike-sharing programs.
Detroit seems to be getting the idea. This month, it officially unveiled the Dequindre Cut, a walking and cycling trail on an abandoned rail line just outside downtown. It has three access points: the Detroit riverfront, the established residential community of Lafayette Park, and the southern end of Eastern Market, a historic district that is home to a farmers market and restaurants.
In a general sense, Keesmaat argues, a strong environment for urban cycling improves a city for its residents and acts as a major draw for visitors. "People measure cities by how easily they can get around. If you're sitting in traffic for hours, you generally don't want to be on the road," Keesmaat says.
"But if you're cycling on safe, well-signed bike lanes, feeling the breeze and seeing the sights en route, then you'll be a lot happier where you are."
* * *
Pack your bags
HOTELS WITH BICYCLE AMENITIES Proximity Hotel Greensboro, N.C.; 336-379-8200; www.proximityhotel.com. Offers complimentary use of its bicycles to explore the nearby eight-kilometre Greenway trail. Raleigh Hotel Miami Beach; 305-534-6300; www.raleighhotel.com. Hotel Gansevoort New York; 212-206-6700; www.hotelgansevoort.com. James Hotel Chicago; (312) 337-1000; www.jameshotels.com. Lorien Hotel & Spa Alexandria, Va.; 877-956-7436; www.lorienhotelandspa.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail