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It’s been five years since a bike share was first discussed in Vancouver’s city council. A cyclist stops at a traffic light in Vancouver, British Columbia, Friday, July 19, 2013. Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)
It’s been five years since a bike share was first discussed in Vancouver’s city council. A cyclist stops at a traffic light in Vancouver, British Columbia, Friday, July 19, 2013. Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

Vancouver bike share program aims to avoid mistakes of other cities Add to ...

In the dream scenario of Vancouver City Hall, here’s how things could work next spring.

You take the SkyTrain in from the suburbs and arrive in downtown Vancouver. You’re trying to get to Stanley Park, or Kits Beach, or a movie theatre, or your office. You could walk or wait for a bus, but instead you head to a bike share docking station.

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With a swipe of a card, you grab one of the seven-speed aluminum bikes, agile enough to handle Vancouver’s hilly terrain and arched bridges, durable enough to be on the streets every day of the year, rain or shine.

If you didn’t bring a helmet, a vending machine will deliver one that’s yours for 24 hours. It’s part of the world’s first integrated bike-share helmet-rental system, a pioneering technology that other cities are now eagerly adopting.

At your destination, a docking station will be no less than three blocks away. The trip took less than 30 minutes, so with your annual $95 bike-share membership, it cost you nothing.

This is what it could look like if everything goes according to plan. But of the estimated 500 bike shares now operating in cities around the world, not all have been sparkling successes.

In Toronto, the company running the bike share has been unable to make payments on the city’s $4.8-million guaranteed loan, leaving taxpayers on the hook for an undersized, underused system.

In New York, the bike share installed this spring is popular, but the company’s new software – the same company and software relied upon for Vancouver’s proposed system – has had serious glitches, rendering some docking stations useless for hours at a time.

And in Australia’s Melbourne and Brisbane, the only other cities in the world attempting a bike share with mandatory helmets, the systems launched in 2010 without a co-ordinated helmet rental system and have had embarrassingly meagre usage rates ever since.

It’s been five years since a bike share was first discussed in Vancouver’s city council. The challenge of a helmet rental system and questions about the business model pushed the launch date back a year from initial plans. With a final proposal now ready for a vote at the July 23 city council meeting, the big question is: Can Vancouver avoid the mistakes of other cities?

“It’s taken longer than I expected, but it’s taken longer because we’ve been spending a lot of time looking at other cities, learning from them,” said Heather Deal, the Vancouver city councillor responsible for the cycling portfolio.

A big part of that process was monthly conference calls with staff from 17 other cities around North America working on bike shares. Sadhu Johnston, Vancouver’s deputy city manager, said cities in this group who already have bike shares, such as Denver and Boston, were constantly giving advice on how they managed problems. “It was helpful just to be on the calls, hearing the various issues that they were having, like tracking metrics and holding vendors accountable,” Mr. Johnston said.

In recent months, Vancouver has worked most closely with staff from New York and Chattanooga, Tenn. Both cities launched bike shares this year with Alta Bicycle Share Inc. as the operator and Bixi bikes as the equipment, the same combination as Vancouver.

The glitches plaguing New York’s system are the result of a sudden change two years ago in software for the Bixi bikes. Vancouver city staff say Alta has been able to fix most of the problems, but it’s a situation they’ll be monitoring closely over the next year.

For the business model, Mr. Johnston said they decided on a $6-million startup grant to avoid the debt repayment crisis that hit Toronto. “We really wanted to know what we were committing to, and commit to it and know that we had fulfilled our obligation and we weren't going to be hearing back from [Alta],” Mr. Johnston said. The company will own the system, and Vancouver has no further financial obligation if the system loses money. Profits, if they come, are split between the city and Alta.

But the biggest risk in the proposal is the integrated helmet rental system, which has never been attempted before.

Elliot Fishman, a PhD scholar at Australia’s Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety in Queensland, has studied usage of bike shares for years. He says the cities in Australia made a huge error in waiting to make rental helmets available.

“Both Melbourne and Brisbane didn’t think too much about helmet legislation when they launched their bike shares, just hoping it wouldn’t be a problem,” Mr. Fishman said. “Ever since their launch they’ve been trying to catch up …but there was a public perception that this is a white elephant, that no one’s using them, that it was ill-thought-out.”

“The helmet issue is one that we've been addressing right from the beginning,” Ms. Deal said. “I'm quite satisfied that we have something that’s not only going to work for us, but we’re getting requests from other cities for information about our program as it launches.”

Mr. Fisher said that in his experience, bike shares are successful when they are combined with significant cycling infrastructure and have sufficient numbers to adequately serve the area of coverage, which Vancouver’s proposal seems to do. “It needs to be convenient,” he said. “The worst thing that a city can do is produce a very small pilot scheme. … That’s almost setting up something to fail.”

Eventually, if city hall’s dream scenario comes true, Ms. Deal said the bike’s docking stations won’t stand out as being any different than a bus stop or a SkyTrain station. “I think people will find themselves using it in times and places when they didn’t even plan to.”

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