By Micheline Maynard
During my week in Montreal and Toronto, I had my eye out for evidence of bike sharing. I didn’t have to look far in Montreal, which is considered one of the world’s top bike friendly cities. Toronto was a much different story.
I’d booked my Montreal hotel near the Atwater Metro station in Westmount, the traditionally English part of the city, because I wanted to get around with ease. Upon checking in, my hotel clerk handed me a neighborhood map. “Here is the Metro station, you just walk two blocks down the hill,” she explained. “And here are the Bixis.”
In fact, it hadn’t even taken me that long to find them. As soon as my taxi pulled out of Montreal’s central station, I spotted a man on a Bixi waiting at the light.
Over the next few days, I spotted Bixis in all the neighborhoods I visited, at all times of the day, even late in the evening after I was coming back from dinner. People rode Bixis to lunch, and to work, and out for drinks. Late one afternoon, I passed the Atwater Bixi dock and found it held just one bike — all the others were in use.
Ahmed El-Geneidy, associate professor at the School of Urban Planning at McGill University, smiled when I told him that. Montreal, he explained, is the equivalent of a model home for Bixi, the bike sharing company that dominates the world market. It constantly brings visiting civic officials to the city to see bike sharing in action. So, naturally, Bixi docks and bikes are plentiful.
It was not the same in Toronto. In two days of riding public transportation all over the city, I never once spotted a Bixi dock (I had seen one on a previous visit behind the St. Lawrence Market, so I knew they existed). I only spotted one knot of Bixi riders on Sunday afternoon. They actually were stopped on a sidewalk, looking at a map, clearly unfamiliar with Toronto streets.
The only Bixi I found during my stay was a lone Bixi, left on a sidewalk. Either the rider had popped inside somewhere and was super trusting that it would be there upon their return, or they simply abandoned it. (I hope it wasn’t the latter, since the credit card fees for not returning a bike can be steep.)
Toronto’s 1,000 bike Bixi system has long been in financial trouble, and now there also are growing concerns about the health of the Montreal system. The Atlantic Cities noted that the system is $42 million in debt. Montréal’s auditor general, Jacques Bergeron, wrote a letter to the city’s leadership in which he said he had “serious doubts about Bixi’s ability to continue operations,” Atlantic Cities said.
One of the problems with bike sharing systems is that the cost charged to customers simply can’t cover the cost of operating the system, what with repairs, maintenance, transporting bikes around town and the cost of operating the software system. In many cases, cities have to subsidize the programs or simply eat the expense.
There are some fears in Montreal that the city’s 5,100 Bixis, which are stored for the winter, might not reappear in the spring. Before that happens, Bixi might end up selling its international operations, and take other restructuring steps.
Bixi doesn’t seem to be as big a deal in Toronto, although anything that can vent pressure from the city’s crowded transit system is not something to give up without a fight.
But it would be a shame to see those Bixis vanish from the Montreal terrain, where they’re clearly filling a local need as well as providing fun rides for visitors like me. That would be something like tearing down the model home because the units didn’t sell.
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