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Why Bailing Out BIXI is a Smart Investment
Justin Robertson: "The City of Toronto needs to get on board. And pronto."

Photo via flickr / Metrix X

Toronto has transitioned into a city of sharers. We share cars. We share kitchens. We share houses and couches. So when the BIXI bike sharing program was instituted in May 2011, it made perfect sense: It fit with Toronto’s growing and evolving communal mentality. Fast forward two years and BIXI faces the chopping block. The bike share network is almost certain to cash in its chips if the City of Toronto won’t throw out a lifeline. Earlier this week a city report revealed BIXI can’t afford their day-to-day operation costs and have asked for a loan restructure. Mayor Rob Ford said he is not willing to provide any financial support toward BIXI bikes and won’t spare a thought to expand the network. Later this month there will be an executive committee meeting to discuss exactly how and if the loan restructure will play out. Haven’t we been here before?

Late last year local cycling advocates and enthusiasts were trying the save the bike lanes of Jarvis Street. Now, here we are again, trying to keep a bike share program, which, on the surface, hasn’t been taken seriously enough. We are in a time where most North American cities are figuring out best practice for bike share programs. Momentum Magazine, a cycling-commuter publication, predicted 2013 as being the year for the “bike share” in North America. It claimed we should see more than 20,000 new bikes on the road. New York is launching their brand new bike sharing program, CitiBike, next month. This issue has again enraged Toronto cycling advocates, who are urging the city to bail out the program.

BIXI deserves to be given a fighting chance to thrive before being cast out to sea. But in order for this to happen, the City of Toronto needs to get on board. And pronto.

If you take a look at Montreal, in 2011 their municipality bailed out their BIXI program with $108 million to cover debt and growth. They spent money to fix it during a time where it was struggling financially. And now? It’s entering its fifth season and showing signs of growth. BIXI has been given little room to grow in Toronto. The city has a puny fleet of 1,000 bikes and 80 stations, compared to other BIXI cities such as London [UK] (more than 9,000 bikes and 687 stations) and Montreal (5,120 bikes, 411 stations). For a city that harbours more than one million bike commuters, it’s a pittance; there should be more faith shown in our cycling community, with more stations and bikes.

Also, the city is currently covered in bike lane projects. They are in it up to their necks. The city’s official bike plan focuses on expansion. Take a look at their vision: “To shift gears towards a more bicycle friendly city.” Losing BIXI would be the opposite of creating a bike friendly city. And when the city first launched the program it said it wanted to encourage cycling and increase bike trips in the downtown core. What they should have said was, increase trips downtown only — and nowhere else. How do you expect growth when you’re focusing on a pinhole portion of the city? 

Cycling advocate Jared Kolb says perhaps we should think of BIXI as transit, as opposed to a pastime or leisure activity. With the TTC choked to capacity, a comprehensive bike share program can alleviate crowding on transit vehicles by giving short and medium distance commuters another option. One rider commented, BIXI bikes actually make the diagonal trips through the city much faster. It’s worth noting too, BIXI’s recent push for their new occasional five dollar membership. Even with a restricted fleet and city stations, they’ve still worked to make bike sharing as accessible as possible, and with web accessibility, maps and apps, you can’t say they haven’t tried to make it work. 

An extensive 156-page bike-sharing report released last year, one that included Toronto’s BIXI bikes, looked at user relationships and the functionality of operations throughout North America. It found that more than 75 per cent of operators interviewed received start up or operational funding. It also made the point: the idea of bike sharing is not a new concept. It’s been around for decades. In 1994, Portland became the first city to implement the Yellow Bike Project, a free service which ended in 2001. Since then, the bike share concept has been adopted by cities in 40 countires looking for alternate modes of transport.

The good news is: there’s hope for BIXI. It has support.

Councillor Mike Layton wants expansion. As too, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong who is also open to idea of private funding.  The Toronto Star outlined a few ways BIXI could be funded as well. What’s most encouraging, since the launch Toronto boasts 4,630 paid subscribers and more than 1.3 million cycling trips. That’s a good start. The options here are endless, but it’s how we invest from here onward that will determine the future of BIXI.  It seems like the time is right to springboard into expansion.


Justin Robertson is a freelance journalist from Toronto. His work has appeared in The Walrus, National Post and Toronto Standard. Follow Justin on Twitter @justinjourno

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