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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!

Go to www.bixi.com for more info and to subscribe

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  • by Eloise Chamberland - May 8, 2009, 9:40 am

    I really think that this is a fabulous idea , it should be in every big cities in the world , what a good concept .
    We need more ideas like this to save our precious earth
    Good work
    Eloise Chamberland

  • by Murray Levine - May 9, 2009, 8:03 am



  • by Miguel Rojas - May 9, 2009, 1:41 pm

    Montreal’s media people are unanimously dithyrambic about Bixi, the share-bike system to be launched by May 12, 2009. Unfortunately to the best of my knowledge nobody, has remarked that Montreal’s Bixi users are going to pay more than anyone on Earth (78 $/year subscription). Velib’s users in France only pay 29 Euros per year (nearly 45 $) for a similar service. Those who use the system in Barcelona pay even less, a mere 24 Euro (37 $). Bixi is no doubt a great project, but why this service is so expensive for would-be users?

  • by Zack Amzallag - May 11, 2009, 1:23 pm

    When I was in Paris September 2007 — I too fell in love with vélib’. I’d herd then that they were thinking about implementing this in Montreal, but I thought — “how would it work?” … You know…what with a 6 month winter and all.

    The vélib’ bike was like a heavy, stable dutch bicyle. I was particularly fond of this type of bike design because you could ride with a straight back. Chest out, shoulders back. I was able to wear fitted blazers on it without being scared of ripping my clothes (think a speed-bike rider crouched forward, or an person riding a mountain bike in the city, half slouching, half leaning forward.. awkward…

    THIS was like riding an urban two-wheel tank with terrific torque. What a pleasure.

    I was in vélib’ heaven.

    Aaaah oui MAIS! After relying on the vélib’ for a week (averaging 2 euros a day!), I began to notice the draw backs. And this might be an issue in montreal as well.

    At certain times during the day, people are all leaving their residential neighborhoods at the same time to go to work neighborhoods. At night, people are all leaving their work neighborhoods to go home. And then from home to the movies, or bars, or gym, or downtown.

    Do you see where I’m going here?

    In Paris when I needed a bike in the 16ème, no problem. But then when I arrived to the 5ème — all the bike bays were full. No where to park it. So I had to search for an open bay for blocks and blocks, or I’d have to tie it up with the attached bike lock and get charged additional euros for every half hour it wasn’t docked.

    Coming back from the bars? All the bikes would be in use, gone! When you did find a bike? Your residential neighborhood’s bike bays would all be full. Same problem!

    Now perhaps Montreal has a better distribution of residents / bar areas (e.g. old montreal, plateau, mile-end)… We’ll see what happens.

    I hope it works out well…

  • by Etienne Caron - May 11, 2009, 6:09 pm

    One solution for the previous commenter’s problem is to use one of those smart-phone based programs that let you see how many bikes are left or parking spots are available. That’s what I started doing in Paris, and the ride to work suddenly became a lot more practical.

    It does mean you need to have a new-fangled phone. But any self respecting plateau dweller probably has one by now ;-)

  • by Denis Barsalo - May 23, 2009, 1:28 pm

    In reply to Miguel who compared Bixi with other share-bike systems around the world, let me point out to you that the other bike systems in Paris and Barcelona are plastered with advertising to help pay for the program. If paying $23 more per year means having an advertising free bike program, then I’m all for it. I bought a year’s membership as soon as I heard about it just to support the program. I have found myself using a Bixi at least once a day since I got my key. And then to realize that this specific share-bike system was designed and built in Montreal is something everyone should take pride in.

  • by Jonathan Feu de Paille - May 29, 2009, 4:31 pm

    BIXI looks to be very nice! You pay $5, but you have the first 30 mns free. Unfortunately, BIXI is a damn trap. I gave it a try and got charged $22.50 for.2H and a half! Quite expensive!Then, I wanted to subscribe to a monthly pass, thinking that in that way I wont be charged for any extra fees, but only $28 for the whole month. Surprise! The $28 gives you only the benefits of having.A key! Except that, you still have to pay the regular fees like anybody.

  • by Kaliopi Iliakis - July 8, 2009, 1:53 am

    In theory this whole bicycle thing is an amazing idea. The problem really is, that the town hasn’t done a whole lot to promote the idea outside the service areas downtown. There’s a lot of people from the West Island and surrounding suburbs that would probably see riding around downtown on a bike as almost a holiday. Why not advertise on trains, buses and other places in these areas that would draw these people ? A fun day of cycling and shopping sounds a whole lot better to me than the “underground city” that the town spends the majority of it’s advertising budget on.

    And it seems, that even if you are aware that this service exists, that it’s real difficult to be able to get information easily without really having to go out of your way to do so. Just having a website, is clearly not enough.

    And from people I know who have used it, it seems that no one is really that clear about what the charges really are – which could be it’s downfall.

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