Rolling Out: The future of Toronto’s Bixi bikes

While city hall, last month, was dominated by one man’s almost unbelievable personal implosion, the business of Toronto is moving ahead… and it’s doing it on a Bixi.

The future of the embattled bike sharing program has been uncertain, as Bixi Toronto Inc. has been unable to reach its financial goals. The program was launched with the help of a $4.5–million loan, guaranteed by the city, which the company has struggled to make payments on. Many said the scale of the roll-out was too small and centralized to be reliable, or effective. Added to this was the political pressure from bottom-line, or anti-cycling politicians who could not, or refused to see the value in a clean, sustainable, and relatively cheap mode of transportation.

But, it seems, Bixi has been granted a reprieve by council, after a motion passed unanimously to save the program. The vote united councillors of every political stripe, with representation from every geographical corner of the city. The plan is not only to save Bixi, but to look seriously at ways to expand it.

“What you’ve seen today is city council demonstrating its political will to try to do the best that we can to preserve the Bixi program,” Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam told Spacing.

The motion was to receive a report from the General Manager, Transportation Management which recommends the city transfer ownership of the program to the Toronto Parking Authority, pay-off the remainder of Bixi Toronto Inc.’s roughly $3.6–million debt, and seek a new private operator. The report also offers a number of potential funding opportunities, Wong-Tam said, which may explain council’s unequivocal support.

“We have money, and we can secure more money,” Wong-Tam said. “What we don’t have coming out of this right now is a clear strategy on management and expansion.”

In addition to adopting the report’s recommendations, council moved to make the installation of new Bixi stations part of the planning approval process, where suitable for new developments, to examine changing the parking standards for multi-unit residential and commercial developments to include Bixi stations, and encourage councillors to create timetables for Bixi expansion in their ward.

In her own Ward 27, Wong-Tam managed to secure $1–million for Bixi from private developers, as part of a Section 37 agreement. This type of agreement reaps benefits from developers — sometimes monetary, or in the form of a public amenity — in exchange for exceptions to local laws and guidelines concerning density, height, or other considerations. Essentially, councillors can leverage the private sector to help expand Bixi, in a way which is mutually beneficial to both the city, and developers. Both parties avoid a protracted Ontario Municipal Board tussle, and everyone gets a little something.

During the meeting, a man in a Toronto Argonauts jersey, for some reason allowed on the floor of council, rabidly warned of the damage this may cause to developers who are forced to enter into these agreements; however, he left before the vote was held, and was censured by council the next day.

What the Argos fan fails to understand is: generally, developers prefer to reach an agreement with the city to fighting tooth-and-nail at the OMB for minor variances, and the possibility of losing an application makes project investors nervous. Moreover, having a Bixi station at the front steps of a condo building could be an attractive amenity to potential residents.

Reviewing parking standards to include Bixi may also solve a problem many developers face, says Glenn Miller, vice president, education and research, of the Canadian Urban Institute.

“The benefit that the developers are seeing is it reduces the need to spend a lot of money on underground parking that is mandated but — as they have been saying for a long time — isn’t necessary, and is actually an unnecessary financial burden,” says Miller.

In short, there are partnerships available which could ensure Bixi’s future, to the benefit of everyone involved. Private development can go hand-in-hand with the expansion of Toronto’s multi modal transportation network.

A Rocky Start

Why has a bike sharing program, similar to so many others springing-up in major cities all over the world, had such uneasy beginnings in Toronto?

Dani Simons is the director of marketing and external affairs for NYC Bike Share, which operates New York’s Citi Bikes, and says the value of the program was never really in question.

“I don’t think it was a question so much of whether or not there should be bike share for New York, or not,” says Simons. “It was about how it works for New York. I think bike share just works for New York as a transportation option.”

Simons says the city looked at sustainable ways to accommodate the anticipated newcomers in the ever-growing metropolis, and undertook the biggest roll-out of a bike sharing program in North America, with 6,000 bikes, and plans to expand. Bixi, by comparison, has 1,000 bikes.

“In order to make it work: this had to be big. It had to be a transportation option,” says Simons. “It couldn’t just be in one neighbourhood, because that doesn’t get you anywhere, and it wouldn’t be useful that way.”

The original staff recommendation for Bixi’s roll-out was 3,000 bikes, says Cycle Toronto Executive Director Jared Kolb.

“I think the city really limped into it,” says Kolb.

Bixi’s highest usage rates are all along the periphery of its current boarders — very centralized in the downtown core — which, says Kolb, suggests there is high demand for bike share from outside the reach of the current roll-out.

“Our sense of it is that it’s not broad enough, not dense enough to really take off.”

Chicago, the next largest North American city, after Toronto, launched their Divvy bike share program last summer, which now has some 3,000 bikes. Nearby suburbs of Oak Park, and Evanston, Ill., are currently working with the Chicago Department of Transportation to extend the network to their neighbourhoods.

Sean Hertel is an urban planning consultant who has been travelling back and forth between Toronto and Chicago, and says the “entrepreneurial enthusiasm towards urbanism” of the latter may explain the vigour with which the Windy City pursued its own bike share program.

“It just embraces new ideas with a gusto, and it just does it,” Hertel says. “It doesn’t do so with the expectation of 100 per cent success.”

The Next Stage for Bixi

With council’s support, and opportunities for funding to be had, what is the next stage of the journey for the fledgling bike share program?

For Hertel, it’s a question of integrating requirements for various modes of transit, like bike sharing, into our development approval process. Add to that a greater visibility: waking people up to the alternative Bixi provides. “It’s a psychological barrier as much as it is a political one, or a financial one.”

Hertel also says involving the suburbs is crucial. (If the man in the Argos jersey has taught us anything, it is that we ignore our inner suburbs to our mutual peril.)

“Imagine living in a tower-in-a-park development,” says Hertel. “Imagine what access to a Bixi bicycle could afford you, in terms of mobility.”

“I would like to see it not just as a downtown boutique travel option.”

Both Hertel and Simons also speak to bike sharing as a possible solution to what is sometimes called “the last mile.” This is the leg of a commute which is not served by higher order transit. It is that 30 minute walk from your house to the closest subway station, for instance.

While some riders might use Bixi, if it were available, as the sole mode to get from, say, the suburbs to downtown, perhaps a Point A to Point B model shouldn’t be the focus. Bixi, instead, could help alleviate the “last mile” of a trip, while higher order transit like LRTs or subways can bear the longest stretch of a commute.

For this, Bixi stations on, or near TTC property is key. TTC staff reports have indicated that there is little free space available on their subway station properties, which means the city will have to work with the private sector to ensure Bixi stations are hard-by subway or LRT stations. Proximity to other transit options, Kolb says, is an essential next step for the program.

Safety, as well, is key to Bixi’s success. The same meeting that saw Bixi saved, also green-lit an environmental assessment examining the possibility of bike lanes on busy Bloor St. If potential riders are afraid to cycle in the city, a newly expanded Bixi system is ultimately doomed to fail.

Bike sharing is working in other cities. The level of success has varied, as has the measure for success in a given municipality. It is encouraging to see council speak with one voice, (apologies to the Argos fan), in favour of giving the program another shot, and looking, actively, to foster it, grow it. But there’s still work to be done.

“We have to look at how users come together, and why they want to use the program,” said Wong-Tam.

If we don’t, and Bixi finally rides into the sunset, then, as Miller says, “we end up looking over the fence at other places that have taken some bold steps, and are benefiting from it.”

For Hertel, it means “a new method of accounting” when it comes to Bixi bikes.

“They’re not going to be instantaneously successful, or financially successful, or financially viable,” Hertel says. “But we have to define cost and value differently when we’re building a city.”

photo by Glyn Bowerman

7 comments

  1. Until Toronto builds a network of separate bike lanes I can’t see biking being a viable option. Its just too dangerous for most people

  2. More than willing to use it, but when Bixi takes away all your stations to get new subscriptions, you quickly learn it can’t be used as a daily transportation tool.

    Moved on.

    In my case, to Car2Go.

  3. I love how Mayor Ford has been reduced to simply: “the man in the Argos jersey”. Nicely played.

  4. I think they should adopt a pricing policy similar to Car2Go as well. Low cost to join (I paid $10 one time sign up), and you pay by the minute.

    $100/yr is a barrier to people who don’t know if they’ll use it enough to make sense, and the $5 minimum/day means you won’t do it unless you know you’re going to need to make more than 1 trip, otherwise TTC is cheaper, and I can get 10 minutes driving Car2Go for the same price.

    Give the memberships away for minimal cost and you’ll get people who sign up for the heck of it, and once they’ve signed up, they’ll use it as long as the price is reasonable.

  5. But if you lower the price of membership, the bottom line gets that much harder to meet, meaning whoever the financial backing is, be it the City or some other private interest, is left holding an even bigger bag. Lower prices wouldn’t make sense until the program expands substantially, to say 3000-5000 bikes. More users = lower prices for all.
    I agree prices could and should be lower but we also have to be wise about it. By all accounts, the program has been a success from a users’ standpoint. People are using it, even at the current prices (and without very much of the promised bike lane infrastructure yet in place, which will also help). It just needs to be expanded to cover a much larger area of the city. I think all the interested parties-City, developers, & public-are on the same page about Bixi’s usefulness. And there are some good ideas on the table to grow it. Time to go ahead & actually act on those ideas, sooner rather than later, so that a side goal of lower prices can be achieved.

  6. The guy in the Argo shirt may not seem bright – but he is bang on Section 37. Section 37 is bad way of doing planning. Planning should be done with planning, and not cash payments/payoffs that have nothing to do with the project. Hate that the OMB has so much influence over planning – part of the reason is the “lets make a deal” approach that includes these payments, and undermines planning policy. The OMB has take over making planning decisions, because Council has set zoning levels so they can negotiate free money. I could go on – but I’m not going convince folks like you that free money is bad.

  7. I moved to Toronto about a year ago. I find pleasure riding a bike, whether it’s for commute, for work out, or for recreation. Back home, you ride a bike if you’re on a death wish. Drivers all suffer form road rage. The traffic lights are confused for Xmas lights, car blinkers are used to celebrate your football team’s victory, drivers manage to fit 5 cars in a 3 lane road, and why use your headlights if there are street lights. I cannot understand why people here complain about the roads being unsafe for cyclists. I was so excited when I found out that there is a bike sharing program in Toronto. I use it anytime I can. Toronto is blessed with a relatively flat landscape, so there aren’t many hills to worry about. The cost is extremely cheap if you compare it to owning a bike, not to mention the risk of your bike being stolen. A good bike costs around 400-500$ and would serve for around 5 years, plus around 50$ a year maintenance. That’s 7 years of BIXI membership without the hassle. The two main points that need work are: one the availability of bikes and bike docks. I have to plan every trip ahead of time to know where I can find a bike and where I can return it, and you always get the surprise when you get there and find that there are no more bikes or all the docks are taken. The second point BIXI needs to do is cover a bigger geographic area. Right now the program serves a 3 x 3 KM area limited by Bloor north, Sherbourne from the east and Bathurst from the west. I sense the effort that is being put into understanding how this system can be made better. I have in the past two months received two surveys from BIXI and gladly filled them. I’m sure if everyone puts a little effort in, from individuals to corporations and the city, the program can be one of the more successful than anywhere in the world.

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