How Bike-Sharing Changes the City

Bixi bikes

Photo by cagliostro

The launch of Bixi, Montreal’s new bike-sharing system, has been nothing short of spectacular. Despite early problems — faulty lock mechanisms have led to the theft of dozens of bikes — it has been more successful than anyone imagined. In fact, Montrealers have taken so well to Bixi that Stationnement de Montréal, the municipal agency that runs the system, has decided to bump up an expansion that wasn’t planned until next year. Next month, an additional 2,000 bikes will be added at 100 new stations in Villeray, Little Burgundy and Côte des Neiges.

Just as the public has quickly taken to Bixi, the bike-sharing service has already engrained itself in the city. “Bixi has truly changed the urban landscape here,” notes On Two Wheels, the Gazette’s cycling blog. “There is a new, yet already familiar ‘blink’ on the bike paths; downtown it seems like every third bike is a Bixi. This program is clearly doing some heavy lifting toward getting more people using bikes that might not have otherwise.”

To wit: “Many in the Hasidic Jewish community around Outremont seem to have taken a liking; other friends whose bikes are poorly maintained have been happily using Bixi bikes simply because they are well-built.” I have a hard time imagining Hasidim trading their Chevy minivans for bicycles, but if that’s the case, it’s a pretty strong testament to the attraction of bike-sharing.

Bikes have always been an important means of transportation in Montreal’s central neighbourhoods, but the recent surge of investment in bicycle infrastructure seems to have done a lot to establish it as a viable alternative to cars and even (for better or for worse) public transit. Bixi has accelerated the process already begun by the de Maisonneuve bike path, sharrows, reverse-direction bike lanes and new bicycle parking zones.

Paris’ Vélib’ is often described as having “re-energized” the city (though one questions whether Paris ever lacked energy in the first place) and this is a common point of praise for bike-sharing systems worldwide. It isn’t so hard to believe, since bike-sharing puts bicycles within easy reach of even the most unlikely users, and bikes have the opposite effect of cars, which is to say they tame and humanize city streets.

But Bixi, Vélib’ and many of their ilk can have a negative impact, too. They’re ad-supported, after all, and contribute to the clutter of corporate messages that have invaded city streets, something the illustration below tries its best to convey. The entire Vélib’ system was nearly undermined when the ad agency that runs it began spreading misinformation about theft and vandalism in order to gain an edge in a contract dispute. Does the public good outweigh private profit? That’s an old debate, of course, but still a relevant one.

Bike-sharing advertising

Illustration by Meg Hunt

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday July 22 2009at 09:07 am , filed under Canada, Europe, Public Space, Transportation and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

4 Responses to “How Bike-Sharing Changes the City”

  • Zvi says:

    I was initially skeptical (I own two bikes already and felt that the pricing structure was too high), but I am a proselytizing convert now. Bixi has completely revolutionized the way that people get around the city. My range of options is just so much larger when I consider bixing versus walking. Want a coffee – hop on a bixi. Forgot some cheese – another bixi.

    The only problem is that sadly the system has become almost completely dysfunctional due to all of the broken stations and missing bikes. I can now spend thirty minutes looking for an available bike, and I might end up having to go back almost to the starting point of my trip to find a functioning docking station to return it! Not good. In fact, after using bixis a few times a day, I am now down to a few times a week, and I am back to walking places.

  • Sam Imberman says:

    I only hope that Bixi isn’t just cannibalizing public transit users.

    My fear is that a decline in bus ridership will lead to even lower bus frequencies – and compared to many cities, we already seem to not run very many buses.

  • While living briefly in the Hochelaga/Montgomery area, I experienced Bixi at its worst. The stations in the extreme east of the catchment area were almost always full when I needed to dock a bike, or broken due to vandalism. It was completely unreliable and utterly frustrating.

    I’m back in the Plateau and generally love the system once again. I feel like in the past few weeks there has been an increased effort on the part of the management to rotate bicycles more frequently, fix bikes as needed, and repair the damaged stations.

    I can’t understand why there has not been more of an effort to reduce vandalism. I would expect to see a sign warning of fines for vandalizing, but I haven’t seen anything like that yet. Seeing so many plastic docking slots busted up is infuriating.

  • C. Szabla says:

    Predictably, Velib’ has finally been consumed by the tragedy of the commons:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/31/world/europe/31bikes.html