BIXI bikes in Toronto’s Entertainment District. Image via flickr / Numinosity (Gary J Wood)
As 3:15 p.m. rolled around at Tuesday’s Executive Committee meeting, decisions on all five major items on the agenda, including restructuring the city’s relationship with BIXI, had yet to be reached. Meanwhile, the fiscally conservative councilors on the exec had voted in favour of a property tax exemption for TIFF, which, if approved by the province, would cost the city approximately one million dollars in tax revenue. An exemption for a cultural instition like TIFF is not unprecendented, but while the committee, who repeatedly referred to TIFF’s “world-class” status as a key component in making Toronto a “world-class” city, would gladly see this tax exemption allowed, they continue to ignore the fact that to compete with cities like London, New York, and Paris, Toronto needs a significantly improved transit system. An expanded BIXI program could be a key part of such a system, if the city would cough up the funds.
Unfortunately, it’s not looking like they will do so. After hearing from deputants on the matter Tuesday evening, the Executive Committee took the issue behind closed doors to instruct city staff on how to proceed in their negotiations with BIXI. Rumours abound that those instruction were to find a third party to take over BIXI’s operations. As it stands, Deputy City Manager John Livey is due to report back on the matter at the July 3 Executive Committee meeting.
To anyone in attendance on Tuesday, it probably came as no surprise that members of the Executive Committee were not in favour of investing city money into BIXI, as most of them don’t even seem to know anything about the system. Based on questions asked of the deputants, councillors on the committee appeared unsure about BIXI’s scope or its boundaries (despite the fact that many of these details were included in the background files they had been provided with). They also seem to have missed that the original plans for BIXI proposed expansion to a system of 3000 bikes ranging as far north as Dupont, as far west as High Park, and east to Broadview. Under Ford’s cost-cutting tenure, this never happened. On the other hand, the councillors seemed to be quite well-versed in the fact that New York City’s bike-share program, which will launch a planned 10,000 bikes at 6000 station, is privately funded by Citibank and Mastercard.
In Toronto, there are only 1000 bikes at 80 stations with none further north than Bloor, west of Bathurst, or east of Parliament. The current system misses key neighbourhoods like Bloorcourt, the Junction, Cabbagetown, Riverside, Uptown Yonge, the Dupont Strip, Mt Pleasant, and Forest Hill, where BIAs have expressed interest in welcoming expansion.
Over the past week, many have advocated expansion as a way to pull BIXI out of its current financial woes. Those in favour cite Montreal as an example of a thriving system. Until New York’s program is fully implemented, Montreal’s will remain the biggest bike share program in North America with 5120 bikes, 411 stations, and over 35,000 customers. I hate to point out that Montreal’s system is still running a deficit despite it’s size, but if nothing else, it demonstrates how expansion could provide better transit service for Torontonians. According to the McGill Study of 2011, which examined the integration of cycling and transit in the city, 33% of BIXI trips in Montreal were diverted from transit. Jared Kolb, the Executive Director of Cycle Toronto, explained in an e-mail exchange how “applying that same rate to total BIXI Toronto trips (1.3 million), yields 429,000 trips diverted from the TTC.” Though a replica of the McGill study would have to be undertaken in Toronto to produce accurate numbers, Kolb insists that it is an important figure to consider. An expanded BIXI system could be part of the solution to our transit congestion problems, and to that end, it should be subsidized and adopted into the city’s official transit mix.
To date, BIXI has managed to make the payments on its $4.5 million city-backed capital loan, but the debt load has prevented them from expanding or making a profit. City staff has indicated that the system is not breaking even on daily costs, though they are not far from doing so. But why should BIXI have to turn a profit when other transit networks (roads, the TTC) do not?
The city’s own background documents on the project clearly state that “public bicycle or bike-sharing programs provide a service similar to public transit service,” and if the city is looking at BIXI as a key component of its transit plan for the Pan and ParaPan Am Games, it’s about time they started treating it as a key component of our everyday transit plan. We could sure use it. At rush hour, getting from Queen and Bathurst to Bloor and Yonge can take upwards of 40 minutes on the TTC. On a bike that time is cut in half.
Kolb, whose organization represents 2400 cyclists in Toronto, points out that BIXI fills in the gaps in our public transit system, replacing trips that are too close to necessitate transit, but too far to walk. Kolb also notes that BIXI’s highest usage rates are on the edge of the system, proving that there is demand for expansion beyond its current area of operation. Adding a single station would cost approximately $45,000 according to an official from Washington DC’s bike-share program, where government is involved in financing. Compare this to the roughly one million dollars it costs to put a new TTC bus on the road.
While not on the Executive Committee, Councillor Adam Vaughan, whose ward covers much of the downtown area which BIXI services, made a point at Tuesday’s meeting of articulating the lack of BIXI stations attached directly to TTC stations in his ward. This area includes a good chunk of the University subway line and St. George, Spadina, and Bathurst stations. “If we look at [BIXI] as an alternative to cars, it will fail. If we see it as an extension of transit, it will succeed,” he said, insisting that there is even room to expand within the existing boundaries. A map of Montreal’s BIXI system shared with the committee by deputant Hamish Wilson showed a much denser system of stations.
Montreal BIXI Station Map
Toronto BIXI Station Map
While private funding, if that is indeed the route being pursued by the Executive Committee, is certainly better than no system at all, it will likely be much less concerned with serving the public than a government subsidized program would be. And if the city were to take over the program, it could open up the possibility of a shared transit pass that accesses existing transit systems as well as BIXI, like they do in Berlin.
In Hamilton, where Councillors unanimously approved a bike-share program last month, the intention is to see the bikes as one part of the transportation mix, “used for one leg of a longer journey.” Metrolinx will be providing capital funding for 300 bikes and 35 stations via their “Quick Wins” program. At least some amount of government funding has also been implemented in Ottawa and Montreal, where as none has been made in Toronto.
Peter Topalovic, the project manager of transportation demand management for the city of Hamilton has made it clear that their program is not intended to make a profit, rather that they intend for it to be a revenue-neutral system that pays for itself, with any profits going into maintaining and expanding the system.
“I think Hamilton is really poised to make a substantial improvement to its transportation.” He told CBC earlier this month. If only the leaders of city of Toronto were ready to do the same. As with their deferral this week on whether to provide the province with a city recommendation on revenue tools for transit expansion, Ford and his Executive Committee have shown that they would prefer to let someone else come in and take the reigns. If only they would just step aside completely.