Many things surprise me about Bixi, to be totally honest.

I love the concept, and I’ve been watching all the baby steps of bringing Bixi to Ottawa for a couple of years now. My friends have been getting used to the fact that when we’re downtown, I literally do wave at the Bixi stations, enthusiastically. (Yes. I wave at the bikes. Don’t judge.)  I point them out to my friends when people ride by on the distinctive, leggy, solid, red-and-white creatures. Look, I tell them, those are Bixi bikes! I climbed on one – just to feel what it sits like – as it stood in the rack the other day. They’re tall. Stately. If my bike, Mike, is a quarter horse, these things are Tennessee Walkers.

But there really are things that surprise me about Bixi. The mere fact of its existence kind of surprises. As someone who has a bike, I keep thinking, well, if you wanted a bike, wouldn’t you just go get hold of one? As I’ve said before on my blog, bikes are a bit like cats: you could go out and buy one, yeah, you could do that, but a large number of the people I know inherited their cats, or took them in when someone moved, or found them wandering around lost, or knew someone who had kittens and really needed to find homes for them. (Or maybe it’s just me: that’s certainly a parallel of how I got Mike and started cycling.)

So it took a while for me to get my head around a program that lets you borrow a bike to get across town, because I’ve already got one, and because I’m usually going further than just across the downtown core, and because bikes are cheap and plentiful. I know, I know. Bixi is for those who don’t normally ride. Or those who would, but live out of town and don’t have their bikes with them. It’s certainly faster and more convenient than the bus, for short trips around the downtown core at least: you still wouldn’t take a Bixi to get, say, to Britannia Beach from downtown. But I guess I didn’t expect non-riders to embrace it quite as much as they have.

But they clearly have. I was surprised on Race Weekend, while stopped at Colonel By to try and cross the stream of marathoners, to see another little flock of Bixis rolling over Pretoria Bridge- three or four of them. It was a chilly, damp, grey Sunday morning. It was raining, for Pete’s sake. And this group of people were out on Bixis.

I also, not that surprisingly, watch people riding along the sidewalk on them. Riding down the pedestrian zone of Sparks Street right past the ‘walk your bike’ signs. And all of that. But really, I just shake my head and remember that they might not be accustomed to riding, in which case I might actually prefer to have them on the sidewalk than on the street and spooked. We want this to be pleasant for people, right? Plus, having a bunch of people wobbling around on Bixis is a bit like Bike to Work Week – a good cause, for which you pay with a lot of novice/occasional riders out on the streets.And every novice rider is a potential future bike commuter.

Other things that surprise me about Bixi: the activity at the stations. I saw, yesterday, a fascinating animation showing usage at the stations over time. I was amazed at how much use the bikes are getting, and at where the heavy-use stations are. (The two stations in the Market, in particular, which ran out of bikes a couple of times during the span of the animation.) Watching the animation was like getting a little insight into the rhythm of the city: where people are, and where they move to, through the day.

Which then gets me to the other really surprising thing about Bixi. Today, someone posted a picture on Twitter of a truck loading up bikes from one station in Toronto to balance out the bikes at another, and I realized the scale of the infrastructure Bixi must have to have. Somehow I thought most of the obstacles to running something like Bixi would be initial materials – the bikes, the racks, the computerized locks and booking system – and then it would be a matter of someone, or a few someones, maintaining the memberships, tracking credit card transactions, and following up on damage or loss of bikes, that kind of thing. I hadn’t thought that they would also need someone to track usage in real time in order to move bikes around. But because you don’t have to return the bikes to the same station, well, of course they run into ebb and flow of numbers, and have to shuffle bikes around town. Constantly. Amazing. I don’t know if they have trucks like that in operation here in Ottawa, but judging from that animation, if they don’t, they’ll soon need to.

At least, I can hope. I wouldn’t mind having more stations to wave at as I go by.

photo by Brian Pirie


  1. I’d like to see a station at Landsdown and one at Dow’s Lake eventually.  Haven’t tried one since I have my own bike(s) and my commutes are far from any station.  Let’s hope they are successful this summer!

  2. Yes, we have the trucks. I saw some shifting going on the other day. Great idea and they certainly seem to be everywhere right now. And the users usually have a smile on their faces : )

  3. Bixi has to move the bikes around by truck because it is their choice. There are alternatives. Like offering a dollar or two rebate for returning your bike to an empty stand, has proven to work in other bike rentals. Bixi strikes me as a very bureaucratic system, not yet flexible enough to be attractive to a wide population.

  4. A friend of mine recently pointed out that in Montreal the issue is that people ride the bikes *downhill* but not *uphill.* So, they take the bikes out at the top of the hill, cruise down to wherever they’re going, and then get a bus or cab back. Hence all the bikes collecting at the lowest points in the city. Like runoff. I thought that was kind of fascinating.

  5. Eric, the numbers are strong right now for Bixi. They are often running out of bikes at the market locations. Lots of tourists using the station at Elgin for a quick pop down to the canal paths. Maybe it’s the newness thing, but right now it looks like a hit!

  6. Hey Kathryn – 

    Do you have a contact name/number for the Bixi project here in Ottawa?  I want to find out if its possible to hook Bixi into some of the villages within the city who could really use the system (if only as a closed loop).

    Thanks, Andrea

  7. I could add that I even if I own a bike, but I’m a member of Bixi as well. This way, I can save on taxis, subway and do one-way trips (from the car garage for exemple).

    Etienne from Montréal. 

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