From her mouth to Montreal’s ears: In 2008, the city’s parking authority made a $15-million investment to, well, reinvent the wheel. They established the Public Bike System Company (PBS), which developed a custom bicycle – created by award-winning designer Michel Dallaire. “We worked very hard to develop a bike designed specially for bike sharing systems,” said PBS’s communications director, Michel Philibert. “This bike is very functional, very secure – and very cool ... Today, we have more than 14,000 of these bikes around the world.” The city later severed its ties with PBS and the formerly government-run organization went private.
In April 2009, a nonprofit BIXI program in Montreal, launched by PBS, put 2,400 of those award-winning bikes and 300 sleek, solar-powered kiosks on the streets. Members signed up so quickly – 6,300 annual subscribers, 47,000 users and 225,000 BIXI trips in less than two months – the system expanded to 5,000 bikes almost immediately. Philibert wasn’t surprised. After all, bike-sharing is not just practical and ecological. “Bike sharing is very cheap; cheaper than a bus ticket,” he said. “And in Montreal, you are always within five minutes walking of a bike share station, so it’s very convenient.”
America Takes a Piece of the Pie
On the other side of the border, entrepreneurs and government officials were coming up with an American model. Trek bicycles, Humana healthcare and Crispin Porter + Bogusky teamed up to create B-Cycle, a company based in Wisconsin that created bikes and stations that boast the same cool factor and efficiency as BIXI. “Our approach has been to develop a product that’s very, very flexible,” said Lee Jones, B-Cycle’s sales manager. “Our stations are like building blocks in an Erector set.” Instead of weeks of labor, a new solar-powered station can pop up in a matter of hours and be configured to fit into even small architectural nooks and crannies. The bikes are high-tech, too. Each has what Jones calls a bike computer that tracks riders’ mileage, calories burned and even pounds of carbon dioxide saved. “And we provide Kryptonite cable locks, too, so you can duck into a shop to grab a coffee or a book between stations,” he added.
In April 2010, Denver got rolling with 43 stations and 400 bikes. A few months later, Minneapolis followed suit with Nice Ride, another nonprofit model that drew on federal funding and private dollars to put a 700-bike BIXI system on the street. Despite shutting down for the winter, both systems won widespread support in their first year.
Progress wasn’t confined to big systems in big cities, either. An all-volunteer nonprofit in Des Moines, Iowa, stitched together $120,000 in city, county and private funding to install a modest 18-bike B-Cycle system with kiosks in the downtown district in September 2010. Carl Voss, a leader of the Des Moines Bicycle Collective and founder of the bike share, said the bikes have become a new means of connecting to downtown amenities, such as the new $40 million sculpture park and Iowa Cubs ball park.
“The bikes are very visible,” he said. “I constantly get emails from friends who say: ‘I just saw three bikes on Court Avenue!’ or ‘I just saw two couples on bikes at Grays Lake!’ People are noticing them. That’s a great sign.”
Worth the Investment?
As recently as last year, bike shares were viewed by North American cities as a daunting risk for several reasons.
They’re not cheap – the average cost per bike ranges from $3,000–5,000. In fact, in May 2011, the tremendous start-up costs forced BIXI to ask for – and receive – a $108-million loan from the city of Montreal to keep the popular system afloat while they built up their ridership and the infrastructure necessary to recoup their initial expenses and take the company to the point where it could break even.
Mandatory helmet laws can confound bike share companies because of the complexities inherent to providing helmet rentals: hygiene, proper sizing and making sure the safety rating of a borrowed helmet hasn’t been compromised. In Mexico City, the government repealed its helmet law before ECOBICI bike share opened in 2010. Plans are now in place to triple the number of ECOBICI bikes by the end of 2011. In Melbourne, Australia, even helmet vending machines haven’t resolved that city’s low ridership for its BIXI system.
Stocking issues – transit patterns can cause an excess of bikes in some areas and shortage in others, requiring auto intervention. “We’re very aware of the contradiction of advocating carbon-free transportation – and then using trucks to move the bikes around,” said Parry Burnap of Denver’s B-Cycle. “This year, we’re not intervening as quickly, hoping they’ll balance themselves out.”