Coming soon to a street corner near you: public bike sharing, commonly called PBS. The question is, which system will be chosen? During the summer, that’s what a City of Vancouver–led PBS steering committee will decide. City director of transportation Jerry Dobrovolny told the Georgia Straight that following a motion from council, his department sought expressions of interest from potential operators. “In the last election, Vision Vancouver’s platform promised to instate a bike-share program. Council is responding to that and instructed us to bring recommendations forward this fall.”
The deadline for PBS proposals was June 6. The following day, deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston spoke at length with the Georgia Straight. “Upon my arrival in Vancouver in 2009, I became aware of PBS pretty quickly because council directed staff to get involved,” he said. “It’s a complicated program with multiple ramifications involving the business secretariat and the engineering, law, and procurement departments, among others.” When pressed to disclose how many expressions of interest had been received, Johnston would only say, “More than five and less than 10.”
Although most of the candidates remain unidentified, two are known: Montreal’s BIXI and Vancouver-based Bikeshare B.C. Look no further than Montreal for the model municipal PBS system. Bixis (short for bike taxis) are a 5,050-strong fleet of specialized, one-size-fits-all commuter two-wheelers available for rent at a network of 405 outdoor racks spread throughout Montreal, the epicentre of urban cycling in Canada.
Typically, more than 60,000 cyclists turn out for events such as the Tour de Grand Montréal. Municipally funded BIXI, which made a trial appearance during Vancouver’s bike month in June 2009, is the largest PBS system in North America. So far, the bixi bug has spread to Toronto, Melbourne, and London, whose mayor, Boris Johnson, presented a custom-made tandem bixi to Prince William and Kate Middleton as a wedding gift.
In May, the Georgia Straight had a chance to assess BIXI operations in Montreal, as well as in Toronto days after the system debuted there. Montreal cycle promoter Michel Legault said he believes that BIXI presents both an opportunity for locals and a potential financial blind-side hit for visitors keen to test-drive the trendy concept. “Bixis are intended for short trips, not sightseeing, but that’s not spelled out for tourists,” said Legault, a long-time employee of Montreal’s largest bike shop, í‡a Roule Montréal. “As a result, our bike rentals have dropped by over 25 percent in the past two years. Since the BIXI kiosks only take credit cards and don’t issue receipts, a lot of tourists are surprised to return home and find a larger charge on their monthly statements rather than the $5 which is the implied user fee.”
Legault cautioned that except for quick jaunts, it makes far greater economic sense to invest in a bike shop’s rental package—typically, $25 a day, complete with maps, a helmet, a sturdy lock, a basket, plus helpful directions from staff—than to hire a bare-bones bixi for a comparable length of time.
That same opinion was voiced by Toronto commuter Chiu Chak Lung, who, out of curiosity, was checking out his city’s BIXI system for the first time. “The bikes seem awfully heavy, plus I find the instructions hard to understand,” he said. “It’s confusing as to how much it costs if I keep the bike out longer than the first half-hour.”
Scanning the cryptic directions displayed on the solar-powered kiosk, Chiu quickly understood that a 30-minute rental was $5. Beyond that, it took a group effort to calculate that escalating charges added up to $6.50 for the first hour, $10.50 for the first 90 minutes, and $8 for each subsequent half-hour—an unstated total of $18.50 for the first two hours, a whopping $50.50 for four, plus HST.
On the phone from his downtown Vancouver office, Bikeshare B.C. executive director Keith Ippel agreed that as PBS systems have evolved since a radical Dutch group, the Provos, first introduced an innovative free-bike-share idea in the 1960s, the pricing model has been one of the biggest learning curves.
Ippel told the Georgia Straight the average trip by bike users in most cities and campuses is seven minutes. “We consider a PBS system as the last mile of transit, the final link in getting from A to B, where you get off a bus or SkyTrain and cycle a few blocks to your destination. That’s why TransLink, as well as UBC, have been working with the City of Vancouver to make this happen. It’s definitely not intended to compete with bike-rental shops. We intend to align our proposed service with theirs.”
To that end, Ippel foresees a joint arrangement with existing businesses. “We want to feed users to companies in places like Stanley Park, where tourists then get bikes specifically fitted to their individual size. The Vancouver pricing model will promote short-term use to complement, not compete with, bike shops. For PBS to succeed here, it’s important that we generate a high degree of customer satisfaction from the very first ride. Even though the model we propose would be lighter-weight and have seven gears instead of the standard three offered in cities with level terrain, you’d likely be sore and tired after two hours riding one.”
Bikeshare B.C.’s plan envisages a partnership with locally based Kona, renowned since 1988 as one of the world’s first mountain-bike manufacturers. “Kona was born and bred here,” Ippel said. “They understand Vancouver’s climate and culture. With our ability to cycle year-round, the model we’d introduce would be more robust and significantly lighter than bixis, plus more terrain- and weather-friendly.”
Ippel also noted that the bikes would be assembled locally, creating an estimated 48 new “green” jobs in the first year, then scaling up from there as the system expanded. “One of the key components of our plan is viewing a PBS system as a social enterprise to create jobs with at-risk youth in mind.”
Whichever company wins the bid, a major hurdle will be integrating a helmet component into the system. Since 1995, B.C. cyclists must wear a brain bucket or face a $100 fine. A similar law exists in Melbourne and has proven to be the Achilles’ heel of that city’s PBS, which is performing well below expectations.
Erin O’Melinn, executive director of the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition, told the Georgia Straight her organization views helmet availability as a key component. “We want to see any program involve helmets so cyclists have the option. As it’s fairly unlikely people will carry a helmet around all day, they must be available at the same time as bikes, especially as we believe the primary users of the system will be urban professionals getting to meetings or to join colleagues across town for after-work activities.”
Deputy city manager Johnston agreed that head protection demands “a prerequisite solution” before any PBS system is put in place. Bikeshare B.C.’s Ippel agreed. “Users should wear helmets. The ability to source one needs to be convenient, spontaneous, and priced right.”¦Most cities put the system on the ground and let consumers cope. That’s a recipe for failure.”
But how much will a PBS system cost? Johnston was clear that the City of Vancouver, unlike most other jurisdictions—with the exception of Miami Beach, which inaugurated the world’s first privately funded system last year—does not want to own or operate the scheme. “It’s neither our business nor our strength. We’re enablers. We won’t follow Montreal’s example and underwrite the operation. We don’t want to be in the driver’s seat.”
As for how many bikes would be needed initially, he estimated between 1,000 and 2,000. “Start small to get success sooner is our target, then expand organically to meet demand.”
In Bikeshare B.C.’s estimation, this means an initial capital investment of about $5 million. “It’s not appropriate to ask the city for funding,” Ippel said. “The successful bidder needs a good mix of funding. The best operations, in my opinion, are London, Miami Beach, and Minneapolis, all of which were profitable in their first year.”
One thing is certain: although the public-bike-share concept is still young and caters to a nascent market, the idea is evolving quickly. Johnston said that when staff started research two years ago, there were fewer than 50 systems in place globally. “Now there are more than 280 that we’re aware of.”
For the moment, as you make your way around town this summer, keep an eye out for Johnston on one of his five bikes—“too many for my liking”—Ippel on his cyclo-cross model, and O’Melinn on her trusty Norco commuter hybrid. And whatever you do, hang on to your helmet.