What can you learn about bicycle sharing and cycling infrastructure over just one weekend?
I was recently in Montreal to attend the Osheaga concert in Parc Jean-Drapeau. We rented a car and drove from Toronto. A collision backed up traffic on the 401, effectively setting us behind by 2 hours. One closed down lane and all forward movement halts.
We checked into our hotel and took the STM (Montreal’s public transport system) to the event. Our transit ride was free when we presented our paid for tickets to Osheaga.
You see, I had no intention of discovering Montreal’s cycling infrastructure or even riding a Bixi bike. I was in town for a concert, I had access to free transit to and from the event, why would I even consider riding a bicycle?
Had this event been held in Toronto, a bicycle would not have presented itself as an option. Our morning plans involved walking to a restaurant for brunch and then hopping on transit to the event. Montreal is a stunningly beautiful city. The hills provide grand views and the unique architecture is certainly worth seeing on foot. As we stepped out of our hotel and began our morning walk we saw a couple people riding Bixis. We soon passed one Bixi station, located in a spot that once provided parking for 3 cars. Next to the station was a bike lane and on the opposite side of the street there was a bike corral for non-Bixi bikes.
We continued our walk, passing another street with a Bixi station, more bike lanes and sharrows. As we walked up avenue du Parc we passed by a completely separated bike path, one with bicycle specific traffic lights, sharrows through road crossings and dotted with several Bixi stations.
I hadn’t planned on biking in Montreal, but cycling soon became an attractive option.
We stopped at a Bixi station to look at the large city map on display and figure out where we were heading. From the distance we’d already walked we discovered we’d be late if we kept on going by foot. And this is when Bixi grabbed us and said, “Here’s the better way.” The map showed us a Bixi station near our destination, the map also indicated that there were bike lanes along the entire route.
While the Bixi system isn’t designed specifically for tourists, it is exceptionally easy to use even if you’re unfamiliar with the city and bike sharing. A quick swipe of my credit card and I had access to two Bixi bicycles for the next 24 hours. A code is provided for you to unlock a bicycle and when you reach your destination you simply return your Bixi to a station and walk away.
Sure, it sounds simple, but this concept is almost completely foreign to North Americans (and elsewhere I imagine) when it comes to personal transportation. We’re familiar with having to return to the same vehicle and to find and pay for parking or locking space. We’re tethered to bicycles and cars, never wanting to stray too far from them as we know we must return to where we left them. Bixi cuts the strings associated with personal vehicles. Bixi is hailing a taxi from anywhere and not worrying about where the cab will go next. Bixi is hopping on transit and not having to care if the train keeps on moving. Bixi is public transit, personalized to you and your destination.
Still on our way to brunch, now on Bixi bikes, we had an idea of where we were going but couldn’t quite remember the French street names. From the map we knew we’d encounter bike lanes, but we didn’t realize what we would encounter.
In Toronto, bike lanes exist, but if you’re standing at an intersection, you probably wouldn’t know it. Bike lanes here often end many metres before intersections and there’s almost no indication that they will start up again on the other side. This isn’t true of all intersections, but the majority of bike routes in Toronto are this way.
You can imagine my surprise when I saw bright yellow sharrows indicating that I should turn left at the approaching intersection to connect to a bike path. You can imagine my surprise when this bike lane was separated from moving traffic by parked cars and bollards. You can imagine my surprise when this bike path became a contra-flow lane on one way streets, when bright yellow sharrows took me around bends and guided me to the next part of the bike route. You can imagine my surprise when I was able to get to my destination on cycling infrastructure without having to cut through parks or find recreational paths.
After brunch we found a different Bixi station from the one we dropped our first bikes off at. A quick credit card swipe and we had 2 new codes to unlock our Bixis. We followed the bike path in the opposite direction aided along by clear markings on the road and signs. I noticed that one separated bike way was only temporary, removed during the snowy months to allow for snow removal. We crossed a rather dramatic section of avenue du Parc with little concern, simply following the traffic lights and sticking to the path.
So thrilled with our morning Bixi experience, we opted to skip the free transit ride to the show and get there by Bixi. We twisted and weaved throughout downtown Montreal, guided by ever present cycling infrastructure including sharrows, on-street bike lanes, separated bike paths and even a few stretches where the sidewalk doubles as a bike lane. We were never left high and dry by a bike lane ending when a street narrowed. We did get sidetracked at one point by a detour, but were able to find our way back to the bike lanes that took us over Jaques Cartier Bridge and to our destination within Parc Jean-Drapeau. At the venue entrance a Bixi station awaited us, attendants on hand to manage the influx of bicycles and keep a few docks open at all times.
We’d take the free transit home from Osheaga but we’d use Bixi again throughout our trip. It was where we were and where we wanted to go. $5 for 24 hour unlimited use (in 30 minute intervals) was less expensive than repeatedly taking transit or taxis. We saw more of the city than we planned. We enjoyed Montreal as tourists, through the aid of Bixi.
This brief experience in a city embracing cycling as a form of transportation and not just recreation has me looking at Toronto’s plans to launch Bixi in May, 2011.
Learning to use Bixi is easy. I saw a few tourists mulling over the bikes at one station. They were adding up prices in their heads. They wanted to take the bikes out for a few hours and were trying to calculate how much it would cost. Having only used the system for a day, my girlfriend and I explained that it would cost them only $5 (plus the $250 deposit placed on your credit card). They simply couldn’t imagine just riding the bike and leaving it, then getting another when they were ready to ride again. We don’t interact this way with personal transportation. Even car sharing requires you return the car where you picked it up.
Bixi works not only in accessibility but also in connection with Montreal’s infrastructure. The planned Phase 1 of Toronto’s Bixi system is in an area devoid of continuous and intuitive cycling way-finding. Certainly, there are some bike lanes already in use downtown Toronto and there are plans to add a few more in the area, too. But as it stands these lanes are a hodge-podge and require you to find the connections between them. For example, if I take the bike lane on Simcoe street from Queen’s Quay and head north to Front, I’m left without any indication of where to go next to keep heading north. If I take the bike lanes along St. George from Bloor and head south I’m abandoned by our current system at Queen Street, a destination for sure, but if I want to go further south I’m on my own.
That said, these are not impossible infrastructure challenges to overcome. Routes can be extended and connected with sharrows and contra-flow lanes that require little more than paint. Bixi has the potential to get many more people using bicycles on Toronto’s streets, but are our streets ready for more everyday people on bikes?
“Bixi bikes are for short hops, not days out.” This was the advice I was given about Montreal‘s hugely popular bike share scheme on my first day in the city. It came from André Giroux, who was clearly keen to make the distinction between this new scheme and his own 16-year-old cycle hire shop, Ça Roule. “Tourists get confused,” he sighed. “They try to take the Bixis on the out-of-town routes for hours on end, then wonder why they get hit by a huge bill.”
Today, those same Montreal-designed public bikes are rolling around London and with them come the same misunderstandings. Some of the UK press is up in arms about £50 charges for 24 hours’ use, but, as Montrealers know, no one is supposed to hang on to one bike for this long. The key to affordable usage is to dock the bike for five minutes between each “free” 30-minute session and – bingo – no extra charges. The daily charge in Montreal is $78 (Canadian dollars), about £50.
With their heavy frames and three-gear system, the bikes should have “short hop” written all over them. Are Londoners already struggling to see beyond the heavy-handed Barclays branding?