Bike Sharing – Coming to a City Near You

By Nils Westling

“The Bixi bikes have given me the opportunity to try cycling for a season, without spending too much money” says Sasha Simmons, a regular user of the public bike sharing system in Montréal, called Bixi. She uses the bikes on a daily basis and finds the system convenient and easy-to-use.

Bixi Bikes, Montreal - Photo by afagen on Flickr

Public bike sharing is an increasingly popular way for cities to promote cycling. The list of cities with bike sharing systems is growing.  Berlin, London, Melbourne, Barcelona and Washington DC are just a few of the cities that have joined Montréal in adopting bike sharing programmes.  The idea isn’t new, but recent improvements in technology –  primarily to protect the bikes from theft and vandalism – have given bike sharing programs a boost in the last few years.

The world’s biggest bike sharing system – Vélib – is in Paris, with more than 20,000 available bicycles throughout the city. France is a world leader in public bike sharing and set up the first successful system in La Rochelle in 1974.  Now most major French cities have bike sharing systems in place.

Vélib' bikes in Paris - Photo by Tami

Perhaps the French influence may be at play in Canada as well.  Montréal boasts the largest bike sharing system nationally with approximately 5000 bikes available throughout the downtown core.

In Vancouver, about four percent of commuting trips are made by bike (City of Vancouver) but this number could be significantly higher. According to a survey carried out by the City of Vancouver (Cycling in Vancouver – Fact sheet march 2011)  31 percent of Vancouverites consider themselves cyclists or potential cyclists. But for potential cyclists to actually start pedaling in Vancouver, a few barriers need to be overcome. Bad weather, the risk of injury and the cost of acquiring and maintaining a bike are among these. While it may be difficult to control the weather, Vancouver is one of the best cities for year-round cycling. Safety however remains a serious problem.  Although there are more bike lanes (and most recently some separated lanes), cycling in Vancouver still feels unsafe for many.  With public bike sharing however, the cost of acquiring a bike and the time and effort needed to maintain it, are almost eliminated. For Sasha Simmons: “The best thing about Bixi is that you don’t have to worry about repairing the bike”,  she says.

Hornby Bike lane in the rain - Photo from the Average Joe's Cycling blog


How does bike sharing work?

  • The users who subscribe to the service get a membership card which is used to unlock a bike.
  • The user is required to provide his/her credit card information, which works like a deposit if the user does not return a bike. For example, the users of Bixi bikes in Montréal pay $78 per year whereas subscription in Paris and Stockholm costs approximately $40 per year (in Stockholm a helmet is included in this price).
  • A computer system keeps track of the time each bike is being used, and the user is required to leave the bike back in any station within a certain amount of time.
  • If the bike is not returned within 24 hours, the bike is considered lost and the user is charged a replacement fee (e.g. $250 in Montréal).

Vélib user paying at a station - Photo by nitot on Flickr

In most cases bike sharing is run by public-private partnership arrangements, and advertising is the main source of revenue. Many cities launch public bike sharing programmes with a subsidy or grant.  The City of Stockholm has recently indicated that its’ bike sharing programme is now fully financed and does not require subsidization from the city.

There are numerous benefits to public bike sharing – most notably reduced vehicle traffic, reductions in green house gas emissions, enhanced transit options, more vibrant street life and improved health for users.  Bike sharing programmes also change people’s behaviours. In Paris, cycling went up 70 percent after the first year of bike sharing .  And as someone who was not a cyclist before Bixi came to Montréal, Sasha Simmons agrees, bike sharing has changed the way she thinks about getting around the city – “I actually like cycling now”.


About Carbon Talks

Shauna Sylvester is the Executive Director of Carbon Talks and a Fellow at the SFU Centre for Dialogue. View all posts by Carbon Talks

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