In defence of Bixi

A year and a half ago, when the Bixi bicycle rental service was launched in Montreal, I was a bit skeptical of it. I thought it was a good idea, I thought it was useful, but to me the idea of spending $78 a year on a bicycle rental service seemed silly when you could buy a whole (albeit crappy and possibly stolen) bike for just a bit more.

In July, I took advantage of a new discount deal that was just too good to resist: In exchange for signing up for the STM’s Opus à l’année annual pass, I’d get a $59 discount on the price of a yearly Bixi pass. So instead of costing $78, it would cost just $19.

The procedure is a bit awkward to get the discount. First you have to subscribe to the yearly Opus pass, which automatically deducts the cost of a monthly pass from your bank account on the 15th of the month. Once that’s done, you have to email your name and address to the STM, telling them you want the Bixi discount. They give you a discount code, which you enter into the Bixi website when you sign up for a yearly pass. Eventually in the mail you get a new Opus card (you can’t subscribe to the yearly pass on an existing card, but on the other hand they don’t charge you to send another one) and a Bixi key like this one:

Underside of a Bixi key (with personally identifying data smudged out)

Anyway, on July 23, after registering my Bixi key with the system, I walked over to a nearby stand and at 12:23am I rented my first Bixi bike. According to Bixi’s records (they keep a running tab of your use on their website), I’ve used a Bixi 44 times since then for a total of 8 hours.

Though it might be fun to use Bixi as my main form of transportation, I live too far from work to be able to bike all the way there (it takes about 45 minutes to get downtown, while the Bixi starts charging after 30), and the basket is too small for my (admittedly large) backpack and regular grocery run. Still, it’s very useful for shorter trips, particularly those that would be less convenient using public transport either because they would require too many connections or because they’re at a time when buses don’t come as often. I use them regularly after a late night at work as an alternative to one of my two night buses.

Though I’ve become somewhat of a Bixi convert, hooking my bicycle helmet to my backpack when I head downtown, I’m still not sure about the economics. I think $78 is pretty expensive compared to the cost of a used bike, but I highly recommend Bixi at $19 a year (and note that, unlike their current promotion of $30 until the end of the season, the yearly Bixi pass is good for one calendar year, which means I can keep using mine until July 2011, albeit not during the winter when Bixi is not in service). And I’ve gotten a new appreciation of the convenience that Bixi offers. Not only can you pick up and dock the bike almost anywhere, but you don’t have to worry about locking it up, pulling off the seat, lights, front wheel and any other valuables, or dealing with any other elaborate anti-theft measures. All you need is a helmet (and that’s technically optional), and once the bike’s locked up you have no responsibility in the matter.

I bring this all up because of an article in The Gazette last week about a transportation survey conducted by McGill’s transportation research group. The survey, which is available online (PDF) via Andy Riga’s blog is quite long and filled with statistical analysis so dense I gave up on much of it, but one of the interesting points is that Bixi rides aren’t replacing car travel, but walking, public transit and rides on private bicycles.

The study itself – based on an online survey of more than 1,000 people – admits there are two large grains of salt to be taken with the results: a potential for sample bias (many of the respondents were young, single people who are more likely to fill out online surveys about their transportation habits or be friends with people who were publicizing it) and the infancy of the Bixi network might also throw off the data (what neighbourhoods it serves, what kind of people are likely to be early adopters, etc.)

It’s not Bixi vs. cars

Still, the fact that such a small percentage of people who use Bixi would otherwise drive isn’t so much of a surprise. Most people who drive come from far away, and Bixi is installed mostly downtown, in the Plateau and areas adjacent where public transit use is high and car use is low.

The perception that Bixi would somehow significantly reduce car travel is one that is actively pushed by Bixi itself. Its statistics include an estimate of how much greenhouse gas is saved by each ride (notably calculated not by distance travelled, but by how much time the bike is out, even if it’s not in motion). Though it comes with a disclaimer, Bixi is clearly trying to make a point about being good for the environment, and the numbers behind those arguments are sketchy at best.

I don’t think it’s reasonable to think that in the long run that Bixis will significantly impact car travel in the city. Nor will they significantly impact taxi use (much to the relief of taxi drivers, though they cite anecdotal evidence that Bixis are cutting into their potential fares).

But that doesn’t make Bixi a bad thing. People use it because they think it’s convenient, whether it’s replacing a public transit trip or a short walk. And people are paying for this privilege. Replacing private bicycles with Bixis may seem pointless, but they virtually eliminate the problem of bike theft downtown, which is a major motivator for me.

Less public transit use is a good thing

The survey shows that 33% of Bixi trips replace public transit trips – more than any other alternative mode of transportation. This has an indirect benefit: getting people off the buses and metros during rush hour leaves more room for others, and makes public transit more appealing for those who would otherwise take cars. Overcrowding during rush hour is a major complaint of transit users, and Bixi helps alleviate that.

Of course, that’s not much help during the winter, when most of those walkers, cyclists and Bixi users jump back on the bus.

UPDATE (Sept. 14): Riga has a follow-up blog post with reaction to the story, which also brings up a debate over whether taxis should be included as “cars”.

41 thoughts on “In defence of Bixi

  1. Kate M.

    I’ve been walking and Bixi-ing home from work, but today – a bit tired – I waited for the bus. It took so long that I knew it would be jammed when it showed up. (Ten minutes between buses? This was clocking past a 20-minute wait for the 55 north, at 5 p.m. Ridiculous.) So I gave up and Bixi’d instead.

    I seriously hope the city doesn’t decide it’s all too silly and expensive to maintain. I love Bixi.

    Reply
  2. AlexH

    There are a few things about Bixi that sort of make their “green” arguments less valid. I think the most important is that because many more people ride downhill instead of uphill, and as a result bikes need to be relocated on a regular basis, that the Bixi people run pickup trucks with trailers to move the bikes around. Pickup trucks tend to consumer a lot of gas, especially when the drivers of these trucks leave the engines running as they load an unload bikes, so the AC will stay on in the cab!

    Just as important is the inconvenience factor. More than once, I have been caught in a long lineup of cars on lower Crescent, woindering why traffic was so bad, only to realize that the road is nearly completely blocked by these guys moving bikes around and otherwise maintaining the bixi system. I suspect that the greenhouse gases generated here pretty much offset any benefits generated by the bikes themselves.

    Bixi is a great idea, but the execution in many cases is just not all that good. It is a 6 month a year solution to a 12 month problem.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      I think the most important is that because many more people ride downhill instead of uphill, and as a result bikes need to be relocated on a regular basis, that the Bixi people run pickup trucks with trailers to move the bikes around.

      While this has been shown to be the case in other places, my experience has been that the problem here isn’t that people ride downhill and not uphill, but rather that Bixi travel suffers from the same problem as other modes of transportation: a rush hour. Bixi travel tends to be toward downtown in the morning and away from downtown in the evening. And even though travelling away from downtown usually means uphill, there’s more Bixi usage in the afternoon rush hour (when people aren’t in as much of a rush, they’re more awake, and it’s warmer outside) than the morning.

      The Bixi trucks can carry dozens of bikes at a time, and I think it’s a small price to pay for the service it provides.

      More than once, I have been caught in a long lineup of cars on lower Crescent, woindering why traffic was so bad, only to realize that the road is nearly completely blocked by these guys moving bikes around and otherwise maintaining the bixi system. I suspect that the greenhouse gases generated here pretty much offset any benefits generated by the bikes themselves.

      In my experience, traffic on lower Crescent tends to be caused by people coming out of bars at 3am and trying to get their cars out of those giant parking lots, or holding a cab so their friends can get in. But I digress. I would be surprised to learn that a Bixi truck is responsible for traffic chaos downtown.

      Reply
      1. AlexH

        The Bixi rack on lower Cresent is very poorly positions, very close to the intersection, with cars parked on the other side. The truck tends to just pull up to the rack and stop, leaving often much less than a full lane (and often barely a car width) next to it as they work. This is often the case in the downtown core as well, with the stations on St Catherine street, as the trucks just double park and add to the congestion, without concern.

        There is no suggestion that they are the only source of traffic chaos, just another added feature.

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      2. wkh

        To be fair, I have seen the Bixi truck monstrosity on Crescent parked there (running, of course) during the *entire time* it took me to order, eat my lunch, pay my bill, and chat with my companions at Dundee’s. This was at least 45 minutes. Blocking traffic. In the middle of the day. What’s really weird is for most of that time, the truck was just *sitting there*. Waiting to be told where to go I guess? Are Bleu Cols driving the trucks?

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  3. TheRealJohnson

    I’m assuming you’re writing this as a result of Bixis coming to Toronto next summer? If not, you should know that the Big Smoke is about halfway to getting our very own Bixis (they require 1000 memberships before they commit fully to coming, currently we’re at about 500). And, thankfully, Bixis are helping fuel some of the debate here about bike lanes leading into a mayoral election.

    As a person who already owns a bike, I’m getting a membership simply to help get them here. I’ll use the membership when I have guests, and I’ll use it to get downtown if I’m going drinking or otherwise leaving my bike for long periods as I too fear bike theft, especially in this the bike theft capital of Canada.

    I think Bixis will most certainly help the environment. I feel like the study by McGill is also inherently flawed because it surveyed only Montrealers. That is, it didn’t include tourists, possibly one of the biggest groups to benefit from Bixi. In Montreal especially Bixis definitely replace cabs. I know tons of people who go to Montreal for a weekend and get around via Bixi the whole time.

    I also feel like the benefit of Bixis are more long term. That is, they will get more people on the road, regardless of where they are coming from, they’ll generate an income and, in theory, that should persuade municipal governments to improve bike lanes, etc (and they’ll have money to do it). This in turn will likely get even more people out on bikes; and hopefully some of them will be ditching their cars.

    Reply
    1. Leslie Alf

      you cannot have a bixi for guests, the bixi must and can only be used by the registered user. I assume that transit goons currently patrolling the public transit system checking tickets (innocent unless proven guilty? you HAVE to show your ticket to them, so none of the laws against self-incrimination seem to apply? lawyers needed here… ok, I digressed a bit) and I assume that the transit goons will soon be checking bixi memberships at stop lights. (also, I don’t think this is about bixi in toronto, which is not (newsflash) the centre of the universe).

      Reply
      1. Fagstein Post author

        I assume that the transit goons will soon be checking bixi memberships at stop lights.

        Why would they? You’re responsible for a Bixi when it’s out. A computer charges you automatically based on usage time. If you choose to give your Bixi to someone else, you’re free to do so, but you’re still responsible for paying for its usage (or replacing it if it’s lost, stolen or damaged).

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        1. TheRealJohnson

          Ticket? I’ll simply give my guests or whomever the tag from my keychain. Like I said, I have a bike. And I seriously doubt anyone will be randomly stopping Bixi riders to ask for ID.

          My assumption re: Toronto was simply that Bixis had been in the news as of late since they are coming here, so I was assuming that was the reason the blog’s author wrote about them.

          Also, I think you must have an outdated Atlas. Toronto most certainly is the centre of the universe ;)

          Reply
  4. Marc-O

    I had the same thought about the Bixi vs Car problem. It’s completely unsurprising that it took the place of public transportation instead of personal car travel. First, it allows the same kind of more-or-less comfortable travel with little place for baggage. And more importantly, the Bixi is available in locations already well served by public transportation (metros and buses) and local services available by foot — also places that make it trickier to live with a car (large density of population, smaller streets, complicated parking rules, etc.). Even if the Bixi was available in the regions farther from downtown, like Ahuntsic, St-Laurent, Anjou, etc. the 30 minute limit makes it impossible to do the trip downtown without having to pay for the excess time usage*.

    I figure, if the real goal is to cut on the number of cars, we’d better try to understand who the car users are, where they come from and why they drive their car downtown (instead of using public transportation). I reckon a good number of them cannot consider the bixi a viable alternative to what they need as a transportation service.

    * Different time limits for different trips could help solve this problem.

    Reply
    1. wkh

      A good start would be making metro stations accessible for when you have carts (for groceries) or strollers, etc. Plus not many families relish the idea of paying $2.75 per adult and two child fares to go downtown to a movie when they can all just drive in one vehicle.

      Reply
  5. Taxi Montreal

    Hi Guys im driving a taxi in montreal since 10 years and let me tell you that im so afraid of hitting one of those Bixi’s,
    this comment is just a simple remind for all bixi users in montreal, watch Taxi Drivers when they turn and also the big trucks.

    Reply
    1. Bixi Montreal

      Hi Guy im driving a bixi in Montreal since 10 months and let me tell you that im so afraid of getting hit by one of those cab drivers,
      this comment is just a simple remind for all of you cab drivers in montreal, obey the rules to give bicyclists their right of way when you turn, and also the pedestrians.

      Reply
      1. Taxi Montreal

        I wish all BIXI users would have a brain just like you,
        strets of montreal are a work field for taxi drivers, what if i pull you mouse cable everytime your try to click on something on your computer (example if you were working in a office).
        will that piss you off??.
        im cool on the road but someothers are not

        best regards

        Reply
  6. Yiyi Liu

    I subscribed one-year Bixi service in July. I really liked it. I loved riding bike to work, to lunch, and to home daily – until I was hit by a car two weeks ago.

    Fortunately, I was not injured.

    The truth is, as a bike rider, even I am 100% careful, I can not garantee car driviers are always careful. So I quit Bixi immediately.

    Soon, we will see more reports of Bixi-related accidents or even death in media. Eventually, we will ask ourself if it’s safe to implement a Bixi system in North America.

    Reply
    1. John in Montreal

      While I’m sorry to hear that you were hit by a car, Bixi itself is not to blame for this. It could have happened to any bicycle. Extending your logic to its conclusion all bicycles should be banned from the roads (which is clearly not going to happen).

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    2. Jim J.

      I can not garantee car driviers are always careful. So I quit Bixi immediately

      Well, I certainly hope that you are never hit by a vehicle while you are walking across the street. Because, you know, you’d probably also have to immediately quit walking outdoors.

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  7. wkh

    The bike rental stations by my house and in the old port are none to happy with Bixi. It’s doing nothing but taking their revenue and giving it to the city. An entirely unnecessary and useless service, although “neat” and “nifty.”

    Reply
    1. Jim J.

      Your statement neatly ignores the fact, of course, that a couple of bike rental shops in the Old Port don’t (and couldn’t) provide anywhere near the number of bicycles that would be needed to provide a comparable level of service to as many people and over the same geographical area as Bixi.

      It’s analogous to saying the STM and AMT are unnecessary and useless because they harm the taxi industry, and take money away from the taxi companies and hand it over to the public sector.

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      1. wkh

        I guess my point is it was pretty cheap for bixi to be installed in some cases *right next to* local bike rental businesses. There’s something wrong when you see bixis all up and down the Lachine canal. You know those are tourists (what local would ride a bixi there?!) and that’s money local independent businesses are missing.

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        1. Jim J.

          it was pretty cheap for bixi to be installed in some cases *right next to* local bike rental businesses

          Well, would one block away have been OK? Two blocks? How about three blocks? Please quantify how far away a docking station would have to be placed in order to deem it acceptable.

          Either (a) you place Bixi stations somewhere in the Old Port area – and, in my opinion, these bike rental shop owners would have complained, regardless of the distance from their shop; or (b) you make the Old Port an entirely Bixi-free zone, which pretty much isn’t compatible with the whole free-for-the-first-30-minutes scheme.

          I perceive that the natural extension of your argument appears to be that you shouldn’t have any Bixi stations in an area that might conceivably encroach upon these rental shops’ heretofore exclusive territory. Taking this to the next logical step, this means that Bixi users (whether locals or tourists) could’t bring a Bixi into the Old Port from any other area since, according to what I believe your desire is, there wouldn’t be any docking stations.

          Reply
  8. Maria Gatti

    There is no helmet obligation whatsoever with Bixi, and most users don’t wear them. The design itself makes for safe cycling – it is upright, slow and ponderous, sort of like a Dutch bicycle.

    I think bixis will eventually have a very positive environmental impact, simply because they contribute to a critical mass of cyclists – which is by far the most important safety factor for us.

    Reply
  9. Alanah

    I’m not much of a bixi user (they don’t have any in my neighbourhood) but I also want to defend bixi. I wrote to the gazette in response to that article but they didn’t publish it so, if you’ll permit, i’ll paste it here:

    With the launch of Bixi, the City of Montreal has become literally invested in cycling. Over a hundred kilometers of bike paths and lanes have been added to the network in 2 years and, even more importantly, the new bikeways guide cyclists through tricky intersections and construction sites that they were once left to navigate on their own.

    BIXI’s creators should not be making false claims about emissions reductions, but BIXI’s effect on our environment goes beyond reducing GHGs. Bixi and the associated infrastructure has given visibility to cyclists and gone a long way towards legitimizing cycling as a viable mode of transportation. When the city explicitly prioritizes transit and cycling over personal vehicles, that has a long-term impact on how new developments are built and where people chose to buy or rent homes.

    Bixi in a vacuum may not be very green, but Bixi in the city helps set the stage for a more sustainable urban form in the long term.

    Reply
    1. Maria Gatti

      Alanah, that was a lovely comment. The Gazette does seem in the habit of publishing all the anti-bicycle screeds they receive. I’ve never used bixi and probably never will, but I’m very glad it exists.

      Reply
  10. Denis

    I don’t understand the logic of buying a year of STM’s OPUS in order to save on the cost of BIXI. I bought a BIXI pass at full price, with a promotion of 6 bus tickets and I saved 6 months of bus passes. I uses the bus sometimes so it costs me about $20 a month of tickets. And the bike is much more convenient than the bus. It is faster and more reliable.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      I don’t understand the logic of buying a year of STM’s OPUS in order to save on the cost of BIXI.

      I’m an all-year transit user, so I’m buying the passes anyway. Because I live too far to travel home by Bixi alone, I still use public transit in the summer.

      Reply
      1. wkh

        Many cyclists would raise an eyebrow at your contention you live too far ;-) Kate and Olly’s dad rides that far recreationally after work each day. Up and down Oka hills.

        Reply
  11. liz

    Couldn’t you return the BIXI before you reach the 30-minute mark, then take another one, and re-start the clock, as it were???

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Couldn’t you return the BIXI before you reach the 30-minute mark, then take another one, and re-start the clock, as it were???

      I could, but I’d have to wait five minutes between the time I dock the first bike and the time I take out the other one. Besides, Bixi is kind of a heavy bike for such a long trip.

      Reply
  12. Mikayla

    The bixi promotion is admittedly tempting, but these things are still not as convenient as they should be. If I want to save myself money, and bixi (i love coined verbs) from say… berri or from the plateau back to my neck of the woods, I still have to cab from atwater to claremont, or walk. Which at the hours I often return home is not exactly recommended. I am curious as to why Cartierville deserves a bixi stand and NDG doesnt.

    http://montreal.bixi.com/stations
    I don’t get it. I really don’t. With the high concentration of students in this area, everyone would benefit.

    Reply
  13. beeg

    Mikayla,

    Bixi cannot properly expand into NDG unless the new stations can adequately connect to the existing network, meaning it would need to set up a number of stations in Westmount as well. Westmount Mayor Peter Trent, acting as the villain here, is blocking Bixi’s efforts.

    Reply
    1. Mikayla

      Typical. Must be like how I live on Claremont with a Westmount postal code but I still am not allowed to have a free membership at the Westmount library. If I receive that rag the Westmount Independent in my mailbox, as well as the Luxury Report, I should damn well be allowed to get a membership at a library that’s a four minute walk away from my apartment.
      /rant

      Reply
      1. Becks

        hold it Mikayla…Claremount is definately in Westmount so you should be able to get a membership at the library no problem…whats the deal?

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          Below Sherbrooke St., only the east side of Claremont is in Westmount. The west side is in N.D.G. This has caused all sorts of ridiculousness, like only allowing people to be parked on one side of the street.

          Reply

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