Bixi, We Hardly Knew Ye

Bike sharing, like car sharing, is a fine civic idea that has yet to prove itself commercially.  It’s such a cheap way of relieving pressure on overloaded roads and transit, who cares whether or not it breaks even financially?  Add in the environmental, health and aesthetic benefits (Bixi riders tend to make less noise and blow less smoke than motor vehicles), and you have to wonder how any City Councillor argues against expansion of the program.

Back in the planning stages, an eminent member of Council, with a seat on the Mayor’s Executive Committee, explained privately that he and other Councillors were uncomfortable about committing Toronto taxpayers’ dollars to a company that was in part owned by the City of Montreal.  So, he voted to cut the system down to size.  No joke, that’s how he justified reducing the scale of the “system.”

Failure of the fledgling “system” didn’t worry him as much as the voter’s perception that Toronto was buying another city’s prescription for bike sharing.  Possibly he didn’t grasp the importance of scale and helped sabotage the system unintentionally.   Either way, it’s another example of failure by half measures.

This half-a**edness is my beef.  My bitter frustrations with the system can tell you:

I’m an all-season, everyday cyclist.  My office and home locations were chosen in part because they were cycling distance from one another.

Two weeks ago, my bike was stolen, and I became Bixi-dependent for a short time.  I chose to keep riding because public transit, in all its forms, cannot get you precisely where you want to go exactly when you want to get there.   And a car downtown, it should go without saying, is a stupid waste of time, money, and oxygen.  Traffic makes timing unpredictable and parking can double the cost and duration of a short trip.

Cycling takes you door to door.  You leave when you’re ready and you arrive when you intend.  Traffic doesn’t slow you down, you just glide past it.  Parking is abundant and free.  It’s by far the better way.

On a long weekend in Montreal a while back, my partner and I roamed extensively over the island, at all hours, using Bixis.  We spent only $60 between us which was a fraction of what cabs or car rentals would have cost.  No other means of transportation could have delivered as much value for our time and money.  It was a true pleasure.

The City of Montreal understood that they were committing to a system when they invested in Bixi.  They understood that they couldn’t buy just a bit of the system and expect it to function properly.  They knew that they were engaging in a business that required scale to achieve efficiencies.  So, Montreal has 5,000 bikes at 411 stations.  Public spaces have been altered to accommodate them.  The result is a much greater level of success and satisfaction than Toronto has achieved.

I don’t want to repeat what everyone knows about the dismal results of Toronto’s effort to emulate Montreal’s accomplishment.  However, it’s worth recognizing the habit of mind that prevents Toronto from succeeding with initiatives like this.

Why did Toronto, with a bigger population, better weather, and greater wealth, settle for a Bixi “system” that is one fifth the size of Montreal’s?  There are only 1,000 bikes and 80 stations in Toronto.  It’s evident that the system is inadequate and inefficient to operate.

I have a Bixi station at the base of my apartment building.  Every bike is gone by 10 o’clock in the morning.  If you were counting on a bike and couldn’t get one, the next nearest station is apt to be empty too, and after that it’s a long walk because Toronto’s “system” doesn’t provide sufficient coverage, especially around the periphery (bounded by Parliament, Bloor, and Bathurst streets).

If you’re lucky enough to find a bike by mid-morning, there’s no guarantee you’ll find a place to park it in the downtown core, where almost everyone is going at that hour.  Last week I searched from King to Queen, from Bay to Yonge, and found a number of stations completely occupied.  With no place to park my Bixi, I was unable to complete my errands.  I circled my destinations until I despaired and rode on toward my office.  In total I wasted more than a half hour looking for a bike at the point of departure and looking for a parking spot at my destination, accomplishing nothing and paying for the privilege.

My office is equidistant from the two nearest Bixi stations.  One is at University Boulevard and the other at Spadina Avenue.  An insufficient number of stations translates into such wide dispersal that the “system” delivers service that roughly approximates the inconvenience and cost of streetcars and buses.  At least with the TTC, you aren’t tantalized by the possibility of arriving where you want to, when you want to.

Again, I have to ask how our City Council, in its collective wisdom, thought it was a good idea to hamstring Toronto’s start-up bike sharing business in this way.  My belief is that too many Councillors rationalize their decisions on political grounds instead of thinking practically about meeting their constituents’ needs.  They commit themselves to lofty goals then fail when they implement by half measures.

Bixi just proves the rule.  We excel at undershooting the mark.  Look at our waterfront for lessons on how to undermine a grand vision.  Remember how atrociously we implemented plans to elevate the quality and variety of street food?  How about transit expansion?  Will our decades of futility on subway expansion end before the Leafs end their Stanley Cup drought?

Montreal, with all of its problems, can build an international brand out of something as ephemeral as stand-up comedy, can reinvent and export the circuses, host world’s fairs and Olympic games, and launch a bike-sharing system that is being adopted or imitated by major cities around the world.  Meanwhile, Toronto can’t make it possible for its citizens to get from point A to point B on a Bixi.

In the end, I can’t fault Bixi for being too small to succeed.  It’s got too few bikes and too few stations spread too thinly over an area that’s too small to be used by the majority of Torontonians.  This should have been evident to every Councillor that voted to implement the system in this hopeless manner.

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