May we Bixi?

Why not think big?

With the St. John’s bike plan officially underway, there has never been a better time to seriously consider a city-wide bike sharing system. This May, Montréal became the first Canadian city to develop its own such system, and is actively trying to export it to other cities. Would St. John’s be suitable for such a move?

Shawn Hayward takes the idea out for a spin.

June 26 was a beautiful day to be in Montréal on vacation. The air was warm and the sky was blue. It was a perfect day to bike downtown, past Parc Lafontaine and down St. Laurent Boulevard, on a bike that wasn’t even mine. No I didn’t steal it. As a tourist visiting from Newfoundland, I didn’t have a bike of my own, so my friend Alex suggested taking Montréal’s newest mode of transportation: a Bixi bike.

Bixi is Montréal’s bike sharing system, a way for people to rent a bike for a short period of time, and then drop it off at another one of the 300 automated Bixi stations around the city. There is a small access fee, and the service is free for the first half hour. So like any commuter service, it’s designed for short trips—to get people from here to there.

A portmanteau of the words bicycle and taxi, Bixi was designed independently by Stationnement de Montréal, Montréal’s parking authority, and unveiled in May of this year. Since then, the city has made 3,000 bikes available to the public.

To recover the costs of researching and developing the first large-scale bicycle sharing program in the country, Stationnment de Montréal intends to export Bixi to other cities in Canada and around the world.

“What we want to do is to share that R and D with other cities so everybody can benefit from the research and development we did and have a good system that will be self sufficient,” says Alain Ayotte, executive vice president for Stationnment de Montréal.

Back home
Phase one of the St. John’s Cycling Master Plan officially began on July 9, after $1.6 million in funding was received from the provincial government. The first phase includes painting 43 km of bike lanes throughout the city, and putting up signs alongside another 73 km of road. The city says it will also create 20 bike parking facilities and install bike racks on 53 city buses with the money.

According to Ayotte, this expansion will provide the minimum requirement for a program like Bixi to operate in St. John’s.

“You need a minimum of infrastructure,” he says. “If a city doesn’t have any bike lanes it can be a problem.”

Already Bixi has expanded to Ottawa-Gatineau and will be there on a trial basis until September. Ayotte says Toronto, Boston, and Minneapolis, Minnesota have expressed interest in the system.

St. John’s isn’t as large as any of those cities, but Ayotte says it’s not the size that counts, it’s density.

“If you have a very dense downtown, then it makes sense to have a system in that core location,” he says. “St. John’s is a dense city, so it would make perfect sense.”

The closest thing to Bixi in St. John’s right now is Bikeshare, a program run by MUN’s Project Green which offers bikes (and soon access to a repair shop) to students and faculty of the university for an annual $20 fee.

Alanna Felt, a member of Bikeshare’s steering committee, says she’d be in favour of having a program like Bixi in St. John’s, even if it made Bikeshare obsolete.

“In the initial stages of Bikeshare we had discussed eventually handing it over to the city of St. John’s and having them run it as a public service, for everyone,” she says. “If the city was to initiate a program like Bixi, we would happily hand it over.”

Rain on the parade
For various reasons Bixi bikes in Montreal are supplied without helmets. St. John’s, unlike Montréal, has a bylaw that prohibits riding a bike on city streets without a helmet. Bylaw No. 1332 sets the fine for riding without a helmet between $20 and $40.

Ayotte says one solution would be to partner with a manufacturer and offer Bixi users discounts on bike helmets.

Drivers’ experience with cyclists is also different in St. John’s than in Montréal. While St. John’s is now getting bike lanes, Montréal has had them for years, and according to Feldt, many drivers here aren’t used to sharing the road with bikers.

“There seems to be a lot of tension between drivers and cyclists,” she says. “I know a lot of potential commuter cyclists who refuse to commute around St. John’s because they feel unsafe doing so when they would in cities like Montréal, Toronto, or Ottawa.”

The Bixi system itself isn’t perfect either. In June Bixi officials told CBC that dozens of bikes had been stolen after thieves forced open the locking mechanisms.

People have also reported glitches in the payment system— something I experienced for myself when I tried to take a Bixi bike out again. My credit card was refused, and when my friend called Bixi they said the bike hadn’t been returned. When I checked my credit card statement days later I found I had been billed $40. Someone had used the bike for three hours after I had, and the charge was billed to my account. It was the most expensive bike ride of my life.

Ayotte says glitches like this are unavoidable with a new system like Bixi, and they are correcting problems as they appear.

Back home
Cleaner air, less traffic, more parking space, and less dependence on fossil fuels all come from encouraging people to use a bike and not a car. It’s still a relatively new idea, but Bixi and bike sharing programs like it would provide more access to bicycles for those who want to take advantage of the city’s new bike infrastructure. Sure, Bixi has problems, and Ayotte admits some cities aren’t suited to bike sharing, but he says St. John’s has the density and will soon have the bike infrastructure to support bike sharing.

“Knowing St. John’s, I would say it would welcome a bike sharing system quite easily,” he says.

What do you think? Have your say online at thescope.ca

Photos by Elling Lien.

2 comments

  1. Jordan · November 4, 2010

    “Knowing St. John’s, I would say it would welcome a bike sharing system quite easily,” he says.

    St. John’s would welcome a bike sharing system quite easily? St. John’s? Welcome bikes? Haha, I guess the guy hasn’t biked around the city and met the wonderful drivers then. Trying to bike around STJ being honked at, swore at, yelled at, cut off, etc etc isn’t exactly the most pleasant experience.

    I’m hoping the St. John’s bike plan gets more drivers informed that bikes on the road have the same rights as them and gives us more room with bike lanes and the such, but I’m not holding my breath for much of an improvement…and people say I’m a pessimist. ;)

  2. 4jlk1 · November 4, 2010

    I think that this is a fantastic idea! What I found hilarious is the mentioned comment that commuter cyclists might refuse to commute in St. John’s due to feeling unsafe. I just moved here from Kingston, Ontario, and it blows my mind how courteous your drivers are! Being a town over-run by students, I would go so far as to nominate Kingston for jay walking capital of Canada… it is a constant game of pedestrian versus vehicle, and both groups are irritated by the other. Taxis and buses even speed up to scare people who appear to be considering a wrongly placed step off the sidewalk… okay I may be exagerating. The point is, upon arriving in St. John’s I was shocked and inspired by the observation that cars stop for pedestrians (or at least slow down and attempt not to clip their jay walking toes or backpacks).
    As an aside, another mind blowing revelation… the sounds of car horns here tend to mean ‘go ahead!’ or ‘thanks for letting me in!’ rather than an array of curse words and slanders, intensity of frustration expressed by varying lengths and numbers of horn pulses as in Ontario. Good on ya St. John’s!
    In my opinion, St. John’s cyclists likely have one up on Ontario and Quebec cyclists… I think the city could handle a program like this, no problem.