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Konrad Yakabuski (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Konrad Yakabuski

(Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

KONRAD YAKABUSKI

It’s too early to give up on bike sharing Add to ...

They have become the pet projects of publicity-savvy mayors everywhere. Bike-share programs that aspire to turn dirty and car-congested urban cores into cyclist-friendly clones of Amsterdam or Copenhagen have been popping up faster than you can say pedal power.

Entranced by the image of fashionable yuppies in Paris and Montreal rolling along on borrowed Vélibs and Bixis, mayors from New York to London have gotten in on the game. Who cares if bike-sharing hasn’t actually displaced many cars, attracted new cyclists or reduced carbon emissions? It sure seems hip, green and fun. And it makes for a terrific photo op.

Is it any wonder Rob Ford hates the idea?

The anti-everything Toronto mayor has had it in for his city’s Bixi program since it launched in 2011. That was just after Mr. Ford declared an end to the “war on the car” apparently waged by the previous mayor and city council. When it was revealed this year that Bixi Toronto couldn’t meet payments on $3.9-million in bank debt guaranteed by the city, Mr. Ford was quick to declare the program a “failure” and call for its dissolution. Bixi Toronto’s fate will be decided this fall.

It would be foolish for Toronto to drain the the tires of its fledgling Bixi program before it really gets going, however. Even if bike sharing has so far failed to live up to the hype of its promoters, the concept remains relatively new and programs are constantly improving. Cities are still testing business models and fleet sizes to figure out the best way to deliver on the promise of a cleaner environment, reduced congestion and more active citizens without soaking taxpayers.

While bike sharing has been around at least since Amsterdam launched a program in 1965, it has exploded in the past five years. With an annual membership or a small daily fee, users can hop on any of the thousands of bikes parked in strategic locations. As long they keep each trip short, usually no more than 30 minutes, no additional fees apply.

Montreal’s city-controlled Public Bike System Co. has been the catalyst for much of this expansion, spawning the multimillion-dollar Quebec industry that supplies the sturdy aluminum bikes, solar-powered docking stations and (in most cases) software for programs in London, New York, Washington and half a dozen other cities. The federal Harper government has even claimed credit for this industrial success, touting its loans to the Saguenay-based bicycle manufacturer.

The global publicity hasn’t come without risk for Montreal taxpayers. Under former mayor Gérald Tremblay, the city lent $37-million to the paramunicipal entity that oversees the Bixi empire and guaranteed a $71-million line of credit. The arrangement was blasted by Montreal’s auditor-general and the city undertook to sell the global business to a private operator.

While the program’s finances remain opaque, Montrealers are deeply attached to their Bixis. In its short life, the Bixi has become as integral to the city’s image as wrought-iron staircases. Torontonians, however, have shown little such enthusiasm.

Part of the problem is that Bixi Toronto, in its current form, lacks the scale to be successful. With barely 1,000 bikes and 80 docking stations, it breaks the cardinal rule of bike sharing: Convenience is paramount. Montreal has more than 5,000 bikes and 400 stations. A 2011 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that Montrealers were far more likely to use a Bixi when a docking station was located within 250 metres of their residences.

Bike sharing has worked best as a “last mile” connection to public transit, which should make it particularly appealing in Toronto, where downtown condo dwellers in Liberty Village, Corktown or along the Lakeshore remain a good distance from subway lines. That’s why location of docking stations and rush-hour availability are critical to program success.

If city council insists that Bixi Toronto operate without any public subsidy at all, it should at least allow the program to increase its access to advertising revenues. Bikes in New York and many other cities are rolling billboards. In Paris, a private operator runs the system in exchange for the right to advertising revenues. The city pays only to replace vandalized bikes.

It would be a shame for Toronto to bail out of Bixi before it really has a chance to get rolling.

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Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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