The following essay appears in the August 2010 issue of Muse, a Hong Kong arts and culture magazine.
I still remember bicycling up Mount Royal. It was a warm summer night and there were five of us riding through the streets of Montreal, looking for something to do. Somebody suggested heading up the mountain that rises like a crouching giant from the middle of the city. The path uphill was surprisingly level but completely dark. Our eyes rendered useless, we relied on our other senses to guide us forward, listening to the gravel under our tires, the wind in the trees. The air smelled damp and earthy. I looked up at the treetops silhouetted against the bright city sky.
I felt free, which is something I’ll always associate with biking around Montreal. I moved away two years ago; when I returned for the first time last autumn, I found a city filled with new plazas, new buildings and entire neighbourhoods transformed. The greatest change — for me, at least — is Bixi, a new bike-sharing system that was launched last spring. 5,000 bikes have been stationed at 372 spots around the city centre. For a flat fee, you can use the bikes as many times as you want, as long as each trip is under 30 minutes. Bixi, whose name is a portmanteau of “bicycle” and “taxi,” is meant to be used for short trips, like buying groceries, meeting a friend or running errands; all you have to do is swipe your credit card or scan your member’s pass, take a bike and drop it off at another station near your destination.
Cycling is probably the best way to travel around a city, not only because it is faster than public transportation or driving in snarled downtown traffic, but because it is exhilerating. It sharpens your senses and sends adrenaline rushing through your veins. Pedalling down Montreal’s streets, I wasn’t just getting from one place to another, I was connected to the city in a profound, sensual way. I blew through crisp air, red and yellow leaves crackling under my bike’s tires, swerving around the occasional pothole. The scent of wood ovens and Portuguese rotisseries lingered in my nose.
The only problem with cycling is actually owning a bike. They need repairs and, in Montreal especially, they’re frequently stolen. Bixi’s great strength is that it gives you all of the benefits of cycling without any of the obligations. Compared to the sorry secondhand bikes that most Montrealers use to get around, Bixi bikes are like Cadillacs. They’re heavy but stable, and they ride smoothly down the notoriously rough surfaces of Montreal’s streets. There’s a chain guard and fenders to keep muddy street water off your pants. The seats are wide and comfortable, so they don’t hurt your bum, even after a whole day of cycling. A metal basket is fixed to the front of the bikes, with an elastic nylon cord that fastens tightly around your bag, keeping it in place. Best of all, each bike is equipped with a bell that makes a sharp, satisfying sound. Often, while riding down the street, I’d ring my bell for fun, and a fellow Bixi rider would answer in kind.
Bixi has proven to be more popular than anyone expected. Every day, between 7,000 and 12,000 trips are made with Bixi. Although it was targeted by vandals in its early days, it has otherwise been quickly integrated into Montreal’s everyday life. In a way, Bixi has redefined everyone’s mental map of the city. Suddenly, almost everything is a 20-minute bike ride away; there’s no longer any need to worry about whether the bus will get stuck in traffic or how far away something is from the nearest metro station. Journeying around the city becomes an exercise in creativity and improvisation.
On a quiet Sunday evening, my friend Sam and I spent hours on Bixi exploring the Plateau, a large neighbourhood of stone buildings with winding outdoor staircases and crumbling cornices. We would ride around for 15 or 20 minutes before docking our bikes, continuing our exploration by foot and then hopping back on another set of bikes. We chatted as we rode, gossiping about friends and making observations about the streets we passed through. Every few blocks, we passed another Bixi station that bridled with impromptu adventures and unexplored possibilities.
Like any public service, Bixi brings people together, at least in spirit. This is especially important in Montreal, a culturally and linguistically mixed city where different groups of people often seem to live in isolation from one another. Even the famously insular Hassidim — a large group ultra-orthodox Jews that live in a string of neighbourhoods north of Mount Royal — have taken a liking to Bixi. One day, while walking through the leafy streets of Outremont, I passed by two Hassidic teenagers speeding down the street on a pair of Bixi bikes. They were talking excitedly in Yiddish — planning, perhaps, where to go next.
Tags: Bicycles, Bike Parking, Bike Sharing, Bixi, Cycling, Dear Hong Kong, Mile End, Montreal, Park Avenue, Plateau Mont-Royal