The Challenge of Bixi Thriving in Today’s Toronto

Bixi station at Mount Royal Metro Stop photo by Duncan H

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.

Bixi Sharrows Separated Bike Lanes Montreal

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.

avenue du Parc bike path crossing

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.

Separated Bike Way Montreal

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 in a Business Suit

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?

You can learn more about Bixi in Montreal here. Support the launch of Bixi in Toronto by registering here. Support the growth of cycling infrastructure in Toronto by contacting your city councilor.

All photos by Duncan H.


  1. I was just in Montreal this weekend as well (however without a MC or Visa I was unable to try Bixi) and was *floored* by the amount of infrastructure and its high quality. I rode a bit on it on the way in to the city from Lachine, and between where the Bike Rally ended and where the trucks our bikes were loaded into were parked. Very nice. Wish I could’ve spent more time there. It’s quite a change from what I saw there a few years ago (which gives me hope for quick change here as well given the right political climate) Was it me, or was helmet use *way* lower there as well (a good indication of how people feel about their safety there.)

    So was your trip out there on Wednesday or Thursday? I remember at one point on our ride road safety crew caught up with us at lunch to warn us that an accident had closed the 401 some distance ahead and everyone was likely to be moving to Highway 2 where we spent part of our ride. We never did see the extra traffic, though. Must have cleared before we reached the detour point.

  2. Todd, we were in MTL for Saturday and Sunday, so it would have been a different collision that delayed us.

    It seemed to me that helmet use in MTL was a bit lower than Toronto, but this is purely based on the few areas I went in a rather limited time frame. Though, I did see several people using helmets and BIXI.

    I also wanted to note that Vancouver may be getting a bike share with 2,000 bikes in 2011. BC has a mandatory helmet law, and this seems to be the major hurdle. Personally, there is no way I’d share a helmet and I wouldn’t carry one around with me in the event I may use a bike, that would be like having to carry a seatbelt with you just in case you got in a cab.

  3. Imagine my surprise!
    THAT was a very compelling article.
    Should BIXI take off here (I’m promoting as best I can, despite an underwhelming webpage) – I propose a whole rash of guerilla lane-marking and wayfinding. It would be a real tipping point to have such infrastructure in place, with such ease as you experienced in MTL.

  4. It’s interesting how you mention infrastructure as a hinderance for promoting Bixi in TO. Some people have made the argument that Bixi would actually work as a catalyst to help induce demand for more bike lanes in Toronto, particularly from the new crowd of people using the bikes who don’t normally bike. Others argue that the success of Bixi is dependent on the concept of safety and the available supply of bike lanes/infrastructure provided.

    I’m actually going to Montreal in a few weeks for the sole purpose of learning as much as I can about Bixi. I can’t wait :D

  5. I certainly do hope that new Bixi users help to get better cycling infrastructure downtown.

    Bikeroo: Sounds like you’ll be heading there in September. I think that will be great to see how the system is used during a busier time of year, especially on weekdays. School will be back in and based on the number of Bixi stations around McGill I assume it is popular with students. And it will be good to see how commuters use the system.

    While the Bixi stations have large, clear maps, they currently don’t tell you the next available station should the one you reach be full. If you have an iPhone there seems to be 2 ways (if not more) to find the next available station. One is an application called Bixou that works both online and offline. Second, using the Google Maps app on iPhones point it to and you’ll get real-time station info and the ability to plan routes.

  6. Hi Duncan:

    A nice, thoughtful writeup. Here are my notes on the bikes themselves:

  7. Hi jnyyz, thanks for linking to your review. Anyone who has rolled on a Batavus or similar Dutch-style bicycle will be familiar with how a Bixi rides. I find that the fat tires and weight of the bicycle actually helped make the ride more enjoyable. Montreal’s streets are a mess of potholes and cracks (much like Toronto’s) and the Bixi handled these far better than my skinnier wheeled commuter. I have read that there are 7-speed versions of these bikes, but the ones we rode in Montreal were all 3 speed. The hill up avenue du Parc is about as steep and long as anything in Toronto (nothing even compares in the Phase 1 zone to note) and both my girlfriend and I had no issues getting up the hill. We noticed a few older couples heading up the hills on Bixis, too, also having no troubles at all. So while the bike may be no fun to lift over your head, odds are, you will never have to lift it over your head.

    And yeah, we liked the hanging bells too, although they don’t seem too durable as we encountered a few broken bells on our rides.

  8. Here is a really interesting article about the conflict between a bixi type system in Melbourne and mandatory helmet legislation:

    Vancouver might run up against the same issue.

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