Montréal’s BIXI Bike Share

Montréal launches North America’s first large-scale bike sharing system.

By Adam Popper

Montréal likes to think of itself as the most European city in North America. So it is fitting that after 30+ years of hosting a vibrant bike culture, Montréal would launch North America’s first large-scale bike sharing system. Building on Paris’ success with Vélib’, the first of Montréal’s 3,000 public bikes hit the streets in May 2009. BIXI combines the freedom and desirability of cycling with the convenience of taxis.

Although it is available to tourists for $5 per day, this system is aimed at promoting bicycling for local residents. Michel Philibert, BIXI’s spokesperson, says the system has been put in place “to favour active transportation, in hopes to have fewer cars and more physical activity.” BIXI is intended as a complement to the public transportation system and is teaming up with public transit service providers and the non-profit car-sharing service Communauto to offer rebates for combined use.

BIXI has emulated Paris’ Velib’ and Barcelona’s Bici recipe for success. All three focus on providing easy-to-use bikes available 24/7, offer the first 30 minutes free, and have added unique parts to the bikes to prevent theft. Yet BIXI has also taken the design and implementation model to the next level. BIXI is not operated by an outdoor advertising firm – who operate most of Europe’s systems in exchange for exclusive street advertising rights – but by Montréal’s parking authority.

The BIXI model means that streets are less commercialized, but user fees play a larger role in funding the experiment. A season’s pass costs $78, and a month’s subscription is $28. Although pricier than its European cousins, it’s still cheaper than having a bike stolen, or even a season’s worth of maintenance and replacement parts.

Although the cycling season never ends for some, snow up to your knees is Montréal’s primary cycling obstacle. To face this challenge, the BIXI season runs from May to November. BIXI has implemented, Philibert says, “a system that is easily installable, transportable, and removable. The stations are solar powered and wireless.”

The bike design has also been heralded. BIXI was rated one of TIME Magazine’s Best 50 Inventions of 2008. Its design features a carrying rack, lights powered by the bike’s movement, and a comfortable, adjustable seat. The thick tires add weight, but prevent damage and make the system more dependable.

Another important ingredient to this model’s success is the visibility of the shared bikes. Not only are they located near places of interest and along existing bike routes (never more than 300 metres apart), but real-time info about bike availability and station location is easily accessible on the web.

I test rode BIXI and found it heavy yet easy to ride. It handled smoothly and easily adjusted to my body. With its three internal gears, it will manage Montréal’s hilly terrain but it’s not a mountain climber. Most impressive is the button on each bike that sends a wireless signal to the mobile repair fleet when a bike is not working.

Philibert is optimistic and believes this is the model for North America’s cities. “We are interested in sharing our expertise with other cities. We have already displayed the system in Boston, New York, and Toronto. Other cities want to know how to favour active transportation.”

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