Share the road, and a bike

Would a public bike share program work in Vancouver?

Would a bike share program work in Vancouver?

Through the Greenest City Initiative, the City of Vancouver may introduce a bike share program in the next few years. This will make Vancouver part of a growing group of cities with public bike systems. How is the City of Vancouver approaching the bike share initiative? What are some of the main obstacles and current issues in bike sharing?


Action 25: Public bike sharing system

The Greenest City Initiative was launched by Mayor Gregor Robertson in February 2009. With a goal of making Vancouver “the greenest city in the world by 2020”, the Initiative is based around an Action Team working to complete plans outlined in Vancouver 2020: A Bright Green Future and the Greenest City Quickstart Recommendations. Creating a public bike sharing system has been listed as one of the Priority Actions for 2009-2011 and the City of Vancouver web site says more information will be available in 2010.


What is bike sharing?

Bike sharing, unlike renting, is based on an automated self-serve model and is geared towards short trips. The basic idea is that users can pick up a bike from one docking station and drop it off at another when done. Docking stations are arranged at regular intervals around the city in strategic locations that make for easy use with public transit, working and shopping areas.

The general objectives of a bike share program are to increase mobility options, improve air quality and reduce congestion. It also allows people to try cycling without making a large investment in equipment and encourages active lifestyles.

There are many programs currently in operation. The Bike Share blog has attempted to document these and most recently counted 160 programs globally. While bike sharing was largely a European phenomenon, in recent years programs have been started in North American cities such as Washington D.C. and Montreal. Over the past year, many other major U.S. and Canadian cities have expressed an interest in setting up their own programs.


Montreal’s BIXI program a model for Vancouver

Early actions suggest that the City of Vancouver is considering a bike share set-up similar to Montreal’s BIXI system, which was introduced in Montreal in May 2009. It recently wrapped up its first season and is garnering positive reviews. In fact, it’s being reported as one of the most innovative programs yet.

Public bike share programs in other cities

Flickr / pdbreen

Flickr / Meg Zimbeck

Flickr / jcrakow

Respectively from top: Bike docking stations in Montreal, Paris and Milan

This summer the City of Vancouver partnered with the City of Montreal to organize a short BIXI demonstration in Vancouver. Overall the demo received positive feedback with 80% of people surveyed saying they would use a bike share program in the summer and 70% saying they would use it in the winter.

Designed for short trips, the first 30 minutes of each Montreal BIXI rental is free with the usage fee increasing the longer the bike is borrowed. There are a number of subscription options: 24 hours costs $5, one month costs $28 and a full year totals $78. Bikes can be rented for a maximum of 24 hours at a time.

Montreal’s BIXI program features 3,000 bikes and 300 solar-powered docking stations around the city. Because the stations are wireless they can be re-located by the City once usage patterns become clear.


Ways to finance a bike share program

There are a number of obstacles to an effective bike share program. Not surprisingly, one of the main challenges is financing. A number of private- and public-funded models have been attempted.

The three largest programs (those in Paris, Lyon and Barcelona) are run by advertising companies. Through these arrangements the city grants a long-term contract (usually 10-15 years) to an advertising company which gives them the rights to billboards, outdoor furniture, kiosks and other public areas. In exchange, the company covers the cost of the bike share program. In some cases this has proven problematic. With Paris’ Velib program, the city keeps the revenue from bike share user fees, which has created a “moral hazard” in regard to who is responsible for the upkeep of the program. The advertising company has little incentive to keep the program running smoothly once they’ve secured the contract.

Private companies have also attempted to run bike share programs but most of these have either shut down, or are operating on a small scale, since bike sharing hasn’t proven profitable by itself.

The BIXI program on the other hand has been set up through the municipal parking authority Stationnement de Montreal and relies primarily on user fees as well as some corporate sponsorship. A small amount of advertising space has also been leased, although this provides only 5% of the program’s operating costs. For bike maintenance BIXI relies on a non-profit company which gives young people the opportunity to learn and practice bike tuning skills. Overall the program has been reported as cost-neutral and experts seem to agree this type of private-public partnership combined with user fees is the most promising model.


Measures to prevent vandalism & stealing

Another challenge for bike share programs is preventing vandalism and loss. There have been many innovations in security and tracking since the first programs were introduced, including the incorporation of GPS systems, automated payment kiosks, and real time web and cellular media.

In this area the BIXI program is seen as a leading “fourth generation” system. Bikes have been fitted with RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags for wireless connection and tracking and users are required to give their credit card details in order to borrow a bike. If it goes missing, their card is charged. Further, the bikes use unique parts and enclosed gear systems to discourage parts stealing. So far the program has reported very little vandalism or loss and BIXI representatives have said that the program has been embraced by residents.


Bike sharing and public transit

Ideally a bike share program enhances the existing public transit infrastructure. In the case of Vancouver, with Translink facing financial difficulties, a bike share program could alleviate some of the pressure on the system.

Bike sharing is a concept familiar to Translink. In 2008 the transportation authority commissioned a study to evaluate the feasibility of a bike share system across Metro Vancouver. The study concluded that a public bike system could be beneficial and feasible in parts of the region, such as the City of Vancouver. At this point it’s unclear what role Translink will play in a Vancouver-based program, if any. On the plus side, it seems Translink supports the idea of getting more people on bikes.


Cycling infrastructure is key

According to the City of Vancouver website, more than 300 lane-kilometers of bike network have been created throughout the city. If plans for 2009 were completed, this should now be closer to 400 km. In comparison, Montreal reports more than 560 km of bike path.

Given recent successful bike developments in Vancouver, such as the protected bike lane on the Burrard Street Bridge, perhaps we can be optimistic about the potential for more bike route development. It’s clear that bicycle-only infrastructure protects cyclists and is key to a successful bike share program.


Other issues to consider

In addition to the challenges mentioned above, details about liability, helmet laws, fairly distributed docking stations, the need for bikes equipped to handle Vancouver’s hills and more need to be further explored.


What do you think about a bike share program in Vancouver? What are the main issues and challenges?



Leah Nielson

Leah Nielsen works in Online Communications and Production at Fairware. She also consults with small companies and organizations looking to grow their online presence. She specializes in environmental and social sustainability and operates, a central hub for her work and blog. Off-line she can be found riding her bike and engaging in creative endeavors around Vancouver. Follow her @LeahLink.