The city that prides itself on its cycling culture is finally set to hop onto the saddle of the biggest urban trend of the century: a public bike-share system.
Vancouver has finalized an agreement for Alta Bicycle Share Inc. in Portland, Ore., to roll out a first stage of the system in the fall, using Montreal's Bixi bikes, with a $6-million contribution from the city. It will have 1,500 bikes and 125 stations in operation by the spring.
Alta will also install the continent's first helmet-dispensing system to address the province's helmet laws, which have been a hurdle for the past three years. Only two other cities – Sydney and Melbourne in Australia – are known to require helmets for bike-share users.
The Alta/Bixi system is being used for bike-share operations that launched recently in New York and Chicago.
The news has prompted excitement from the city's avid cycling community, and some wariness from those who fear financial problems or a negative impact on local bike-rental companies.
But the city's deputy manager said Vancouver learned from other cities about the best way to avoid getting into a financial mess.
Unlike Toronto, which provided a loan guarantee to get its bike-share operation going, Vancouver will shell out $6-million up front and provide staff to support the system. It is also going to give up revenue as some parking meters near bike stations will no longer be in use. But Alta will be on the hook for everything else, Sadhu Johnston said.
"Alta owns the system. They're liable," Mr. Johnston said. "Then if the numbers aren't working, it's their responsibility. It's enabling and regulating rather than owning and operating."
A report on the proposed system that goes to council next Tuesday also recommends that no bike-share stations be set up within 50 metres of private bike-rental stores.
Cities have experimented with bike-share systems – which allow people to rent a bike for brief periods – since the 1970s. But the idea really took off after Paris created the Vélib system in 2007. The distinctive grey bikes and docking stations are now ubiquitous in the city.
More than 500 cities, from London to Mexico City to Hangzhou in China, have bike-share systems that range in size from a few hundred bikes to 60,000.
Some have pooh-poohed the idea of a bike-share system in Vancouver, saying the city is too hilly and too rainy.
But others point to the dramatic increase in cycling in recent years as the city has moved aggressively to put separated bike lanes downtown and enhanced cycling routes elsewhere.
City councillor George Affleck, who is in the minority Non-Partisan Association, said he is in favour of bike-share systems.
But, he said, he does not understand why Vancouver is putting in so much money, when New York got a sponsor to cover all $41-million of its costs.
He said he is glad the money will come from the city's parking reserve instead of being added to tax bills, but he thinks the city could have found more partners to help with the costs.
Mr. Johnston said that Alta is lining up sponsors to cover half of the remaining $15-million in costs for the system. Those deals are being finalized and will be announced later. However, Vancouver is unlikely to get a single sponsor, the way New York or London did.
"It's been quite difficult identifying sponsors. We don't have the same kinds of headquarters."
The city is still deciding on a name, colour and logo for the bikes.
It is also allowing Alta to limit its coverage in the early years to downtown, plus parts of Kitsilano and Mount Pleasant, bounded by 12th Avenue, Arbutus and Main streets. That means no stations for the heavily used Commercial/Broadway station, or Commercial Drive, which is popular with cyclists.
Mr. Johnston said Alta determined the industrial area between Commercial Drive and downtown did not have enough density to support bike stations all the way there.