Bike Special: Bixi public bikes hit Montreal: Bixi for the better

Bixi for the better

Montreal artist Val Desjardins rocks the Bixi bike scene
Photo: Jocelyn Michel

Montreal's cheap, public bike-lending system will change the way you live

While DIY bike shops and co-ops are enjoying a surge in popularity as more and more people glom on to cycling as a force for social change, plenty of other folks don’t want to be part of the bike revolution, or at least not that one. Some of us want the ease, convenience, exercise, enjoyment and lack of carbon emissions related to relying on bikes as our main form of transport, but don’t want to pay for, own, store, worry about or be responsible for the tool of our emancipation.

Those of us who don’t have the time, mechanical inclination or acumen to learn bicycle repair and prefer a love ‘em and leave ‘em bike relationship want a different revolution. For us, there’s Bixi (the name comes from "bicycle" and "taxi"), Montreal’s new public bike system, and you can’t get much more actively passive than that!

Public bike systems work a bit like a two-wheeled Communauto: You sign up to become a member and receive a keycard that can be swiped at any Bixi bay across the city. In Montreal, membership will cost $5 a day, $28 a month or $78 a year – way cheaper than even a bus pass. When you’re ready to roll, you walk up to a bay, select a bike, swipe your card and go. The first half-hour is free, and you are charged a nominal fee for subsequent time. When you reach your destination, you slide the bike into the bay and leave. Genius, really.

Last year, I subscribed to the Paris bike service, called Vélib’ – the first time I’ve been on a bike in several years – and became a convert. Finally freed from the crowds and pressure of the metro and the slowness of walking, I – along with hundreds of thousands of Parisians who use the service every day – rediscovered the city. Chic office girls and businessmen in Hugo Boss suits commuted through rush-hour traffic alongside packs of teenagers, sightseeing tourists and elderly couples out for afternoon picnics with baguettes and Bordeaux sticking out of their baskets, challenging my previously held view of the Parisian cyclist as a rare, suicidal, urban armor-clad road warrior. More incredibly, Parisian motorists seem to have learned to share the road with cyclists and even respect them.

If this all sounds impossibly idyllic, that’s because it is. And it’s about to happen here – only better. Montreal’s Bixi, which was voted number 19 on Time Magazine’s list of the best inventions of 2008, is what Alain Ayotte, executive vice-president of Stationnement de Montréal (the city subsidiary that has developed and will operate the network), calls a "fourth-generation" public bike system.

"Unlike the third-generation systems you saw in Paris, the Bixi system is completely portable, solar-powered and wireless," says Ayotte, adding that the bike, designed and developed in Montreal by hotshot industrial designer Michel Dallaire, is proprietary hometown technology that will be marketed to cities around the globe. The bike itself is handsome, practical and quite indestructible (when subjected to usual use), with human-powered running lights, a bungee basket, a three-gear system, encased chains and nitrogen-filled tires "for a smoother ride."

Indeed, Hour was invited to preview the Bixi prototype a few weeks ago – I found the ride much like the bike version of driving in your grandpa’s Cadillac: high, slow and smooth.

The system will be launched May 12 in Montreal, when 2,600 bikes in 300 bays throughout the high-density areas of Ville-Marie, Plateau-Mont-Royal and Rosemont/Petite-Patrie will appear seemingly overnight. Bixi planners expect to expand to other parts of the city shortly.

Get ready: The no-maintenance bike revolution starts this week!

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