Sharing Bikes as a Public Good
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Sharing Bikes as a Public Good

Photo by Marc Lostracco from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
When Paris opened the Vélib bike sharing program, it changed the mentality of drivers overnight when they were forced to adjust to an additional 10,000 bikes suddenly sharing the road. Likewise, non-cyclists could now see cycling as safe enough to be a viable mass transit option, and the huge number of available bikes and station-hubs densely dotting the city ensured there would always be a bike nearby. Making cycling safe and convenient, the implementation of large-scale bike sharing in Paris has succeeded where small-scale pilot projects have consistently failed: by converting non-cyclists into riders. That was the major lesson shared last Thursday at a community forum by David Boyce from Veolia Transportation, Herb van den Dool of the Community Bicycle Network, and Alain Ayotte from Stationnement de Montreal (the organization that will be running Montreal’s Bixi public bike system).
With the right number of bikes at start-up—Boyce suggested one thousand as a bare minimum, but the audience thought five thousand was a more attractive number—and a network developed to follow (and expand upon) Toronto’s existing bike infrastructure, a bike sharing system could easily succeed here. Success would breed success with system usage driving further expansion of bike infrastructure and vice versa. But if the city starts too small it’ll be setting itself up for failure, because a small, less efficient network will have difficulty changing the perceptions of the occasional rider or non-cyclist.
Little details, however, go a long way in making skeptics into believers. Integration into existing mass transit options makes it part of a larger system. Real-time availability updates and the ability to reserve a bike online—options Veolia Transportation provides its clients—mean a bike is available where and when you need one. A built-in bike lock means you can make quick stops between hubs. Pricing options—such as the common principle of the first thirty minutes being free, then increasing fares for each subsequent half hour—make it appealing to casual users. A modular system of station-hubs means hubs can be created, reconfigured, or moved in minutes. They can be removed for the winter months or for street maintenance. New stations can be established wherever demand—even the short-term demand of special events—warrants them. Furthermore, movable hubs don’t require the burdensome expense of excavation or electrical hook-up to the city grid, so their added flexibility actually comes at a savings in the cost of a system’s operation.

Photo by Metrix X from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
As Paris has shown, it just takes the political will to ensure a bike sharing system gets a big enough boost at its initial launch to succeed. With a staff from the offices of a couple of city councillors in attendance at the forum, it seems like there’s at least some commitment to the idea at City Hall. Adrian Heaps, the chair of the Toronto Cycling Advisory Committee, is said to be in discussions with Astral Media—which, as a part of the street furniture contract, has right of first refusal to operate a bike share system—and working towards the goal of establishing a system by next year. The city likes the idea of bike sharing; they just don’t like the idea of footing the bill. Boyce noted that for the operation of a system to be outsourced entirely to a company like Veolia Transportation, the initial start-up capital would have to come from another level of government or a corporate grant.
Lack of this sort of external funding, however, was what led to the downfall of the Bike Share program operated by the Community Bicycle Network between 2000 and 2006. As a grassroots initiative, the CBN’s Bike Share certainly had the passionate commitment of its volunteers and a total of over 2000 members (with about 400 active members at any given time). But, as Herb van den Dool shared frankly, with only 150 refurbished bicycles and sixteen station-hubs located at cafés, community centres, and small businesses, the low-tech system was less efficient than a mass transit option. Pick up and drop off times were limited to regular business hours, and stations were not always located close to destinations. Nor could the network be expanded flexibly without negotiating with potential new stations. Finally, the organization learned the hard way that trying to quickly expand the fleet by purchasing low-cost bikes simply increased the long-term associated cost of maintenance. In the end, the hoped-for revenue from advertising on the bikes never developed, and long-term and sustainable funding couldn’t be found.
These are all significant lessons that any future initiative will have to address. Whether a future system is city-run or outsourced to a private company, it should endeavour to emulate the populist personality that the CBN’s iconic yellow bikes provided the community. For $75, anyone could personalize a yellow bike with any name they liked. The benefits of a bike sharing network, after all, don’t simply lie in noise and pollution reduction. Bike sharing creates a positive self-image for a city. The aesthetic design of station-hubs and the presence of the bikes on the streets can enhance the urban landscape. In Montreal, the bikes are being designed from scratch for the city so that the system can become a uniquely recognizable civic symbol, much like our streetcars are for Toronto.
Photo by Jōsé from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Montreal’s system—which will launch a demonstration project with four station-hubs and forty bikes later this month before a full-scale launch in April 2009—provides instructive lessons for Toronto. Stationnement de Montreal, an all-profits-back-to-the-city parking authority, realized that its parking lots already contained the space and technology necessary to run a bike sharing program. With the city’s encouragement (but not its funding), Stationnement de Montreal invested the start-up capital and is pursuing the project as a self-sufficient operation. They expect to run a deficit in the first year and break even in all subsequent years. It’s an ambitious proposal since no system in the world has yet broken even, but Montreal seems well-positioned to be the first. Having studied other systems around the world, Montreal has learned that a network must achieve critical mass from the outset and will launch in the spring with a comprehensive network of 2400 bikes and 300 station-hubs. They’ve also found ways of cutting operating costs, such as the use of modular station-hubs. Perhaps most importantly, by being a pioneer, Montreal has developed a turn-key system (and expertise) that can be profitably exported in part or in whole to other municipalities. That’s just another reason why Toronto shouldn’t want to get left behind. With the city’s existing and reasonably extensive bicycle infrastructure, and a mostly bike-friendly mentality, we should be at the forefront of developing a workable and widely used bike sharing system.