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A Mobi bike sits idle under the Cambie Street Bridge. Vancouver soft launched the program, seven years in the making and plagued with numerous bumps and crashes along the way, on Wednesday.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver, where municipal politicians have championed bicycle commuting, has finally begun begun rolling out a bike-share system, long after places such as Houston, Istanbul, Tulsa and Hangzhou, cities not known for having a bike culture.

The new Mobi system was kicked off on Wednesday in a soft launch with only 260 bikes and 23 stations open for people who signed up to the system early. It has been seven years since the city started work on a bike-share program.

"It was worth the wait," Mayor Gregor Robertson said after he did a staged ride on one of the new bikes at the news conference announcing the launch.

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And he said it will help boost bike commuting in Vancouver, which he claimed has the highest numbers of bike commuters in North America, at 10 per cent of all trips.

The blue-and-white bikes will eventually number 1,500 and be available at 150 docks in the downtown and between Main and Arbutus streets north of 16th Avenue by the end of the summer. It will cost $180 a year for a membership that allows unlimited 30-minute rides, although the current price is only $99.

Bike-share systems have soared in popularity around the world, ever since Paris kicked off its Velib system in 2007.

But Vancouver's attempt to get a bike-share system going has been plagued with bumps and crashes. City manager Sadhu Johnston wryly admitted at the news conference that he had been working on it for seven years.

In 2012, after several years of planning, the city chose the combination team of Bixi, a Montreal company that builds bikes and dock systems, and Alta Planning, a Portland company that plans and manages bike shares.

But Bixi ran into financial problems and Alta struggled to find an alternative supplier while it was dealing with a boom in business, as cities from New York to Portland contracted with them.

As well, Vancouver has always had to grapple with the provincial law that requires all cyclists to wear helmets. In the new system, each bike comes with a helmet locked to it.

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Seattle, which started its public-bike system just last year, is the only other North American city that requires helmets. The city recently took over the bike-share company, which had lower ridership than anticipated.

Eventually, Vancouver abandoned its contract with Alta and asked for new bids. In February, it chose the combination of CycleHop, a U.S. company that has set up systems from Ottawa to Santa Monica, and the French bike producer Smoove SAS.

The city says it will subsidize the system with $5-million for the first five years.

Mr. Johnston said CycleHop is working on getting sponsorships to add financial support to the system, and those will be announced in the coming months.

The bikes were enthusiastically welcomed by the core group of 1,300 who signed up early.

Nic Waller, a 30-year-old software engineer, test drove one of the seven-speed bikes from the Stadium SkyTrain station to Nelson and Hornby streets.

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"I signed up pretty early," he said. "I'm a big believer in bicycles for transportation. They're important for reducing injuries and for an active lifestyle."

The arrival of bike-share, which is in about 70 North American cities with 10 more about to launch, has local bike-store owners cautiously waiting to see the impact.

Barry Potts at Bayshore Rentals on Denman Street said the company is interested in what will happen, but the owner and he "aren't too concerned right now."

"There will be some adjustment in the marketplace. But anything that puts more bikes on the streets is good for the city overall," said Paul Dragan at the Reckless Bike Store near False Creek.

Mr. Dragan said he is likely to be less affected because he is further from the popular tourist destination of Stanley Park and he gets more customers who want rentals that last more than an hour.

But he does worry that the rates for the Mobi bikes are not that much different from the private rentals.

His customers typically rent bikes for about 90 minutes and pay $18.

The Mobi bike costs $7.50 for a one-day pass, which entitles the user to an unlimited number of 30-minute rides. People who keep the bike longer than 30 minutes then pay $5 per half hour, so that a 90-minute rental on a Mobi would cost $17.50.

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