Today BIXI celebrates its one millionth ride in Toronto. What's next for the successful bike-sharing program?
BIXI Toronto, the city’s fledgling bike-lending program, is due for an upgrade. Since it came online last May, BIXI Toronto has amassed over 5,000 members; today it celebrates its one millionth ride. But even before the program launched, many residents have been calling for more bikes and more stations, covering a larger swath of Toronto.
City staff now say a report outlining the next phase of expansion won’t be ready until early 2013—councillors have been hoping to see one for at least a year—and while few details on the funding structure and scope of the next phase of expansion are available, councillors, cycling advocates, and riders agree: BIXI should grow.
In a phone interview, Toronto transportation manager Daniel Egan hailed BIXI’s initial offering of 1,000 bikes and 80 stations as “incredibly successful for a small program.” He said the challenge now is to support expansion using creative funding tools, as BIXI receives no funding from the City beyond staff support. “We’re looking actively at several options and business cases,” Egan says, including corporate sponsorships and community benefits leveraged from new property developments. The staff report will flesh out details on funding models and an expansion strategy, and include specific recommendations to city council for next steps.
Egan is also eager to take advantage of “exponential growth” as the system expands out from the downtown core, multiplying its appeal with each new station. “The system is not serving to its full potential,” he adds, “we know that the riders are out there.”
Jared Kolb of Cycle Toronto agrees. “It’s a good start, but it’s not enough,” he told us. He points out that the City’s initial plan for BIXI was to have stations as far west as Keele Street, as far north as Dupont Street, and as far east as Broadview Avenue. Due to funding constraints, that plan was scaled back to the boundaries of Bathurst, Bloor, and Jarvis streets. To make the case for geographic expansion, Kolb cites City data that shows “the highest rates of use are on the periphery. If you’re going to make a proper investment, you have to have a larger network.”
Kolb notes with a chuckle that he’s seen BIXI bikes as far west as the Humber River. “Many riders, especially tourists, don’t realize they’re nowhere near a station out there,” he noted. Some of Cycle Toronto’s members have told him their first experience with riding in Toronto is by using BIXI. “Some people don’t need to have a bike,” he added.
Councillor Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina) has been working with local developers to leverage community benefits (also known as section 37 provisions) from height and density increases to the many condos being constructed along King Street West. In one instance, a developer wanted a commercial parking lot on a property near Bathurst Street. Layton asked that the developer include a BIXI station, a move that he describes as “adding value” as well as enhancing the overall network. The result is a prospective new station that is close enough to an existing one (stations must be added within a few hundred metres of existing infrastructure) to be approved quickly.
Layton hopes this kind of development levy can be one model for successful expansion, noting that “development is what’s bringing the added pressure on the transportation system, so I think there’s a real connection there.”
Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) is also optimistic about BIXI’s future, and wants to see the system grow responsibly within its means. “You want to get your finances done right,” said Minnan-Wong, who chairs the City’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee. “It may be more incremental, but what we want to do is ensure BIXI’s success, and that may require smaller steps than big leaps.” He notes that Montreal, which started with three times the number of bikes as Toronto, ran into financial difficulties. “We don’t have a lot of extra money to put into any projects right now,” he added, citing a transportation department backlog “north of $300 million.”
Although the City doesn’t directly fund BIXI, it did guarantee a $4.8 million loan for BIXI’s initial investment. Layton expressed his hope that a deeper partnership, and perhaps even shared ownership, is a future possibility. Since BIXI represents a service rather than a capital investment, it could disappear as quickly as it arose if its owner and operator, the Public Bike System Company, runs into financial trouble. “We would want some assurance that the company isn’t just going to fold up and take our community benefit,” Layton said.