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CITY FILE | Bikeshare is Transportation

Let's clear something up: "bikeshare" is not a synonym for "bike rental"

By Sean Burak

Most of us know how bicycle rental works. While on holiday, you visit a booth by the beach, pick up a cute cruiser, ride it along the boardwalk and then pedal back to the rental hut. Bikeshare is different; bikeshare is for visitors and locals alike; bikeshare is transportation.

For those who have never used a bikeshare program, the fee structure appears strange. In Toronto, BIXI charges $5 for 24 hours of unlimited access to their bikes. But the initial charge only includes 30 minutes of ride time per trip. If you keep a bike for an hour, you pay an additional $1.50. If you keep it for an hour-and-a-half, you owe another $4. And if you keep it any longer, you are charged a whopping $8 for each additional half hour. Compared to the rental rates for a day of cruisin' in a resort town, these charges appear outrageous.

But this pricing technique is the secret sauce that makes bikeshare work. By encouraging short trips, BIXI ensures that there are always bikes available at stations scattered across the city. There's no risk of people hoarding bikes; when you need one, it's there for you.

The usage patterns are not at all like those of a standard bike rental scheme. A BIXI user will almost never return a bike to the same station from which they picked it up. A typical day in the life of a BIXI subscriber looks more like this:

7:30am — Pick up a bike near home, drop it off near work.

12:30pm — Pick up a new bike near work, ride to market for lunch.

1pm — Pick up a new bike near market, ride back to work.

5pm — Take transit across town to meet friends.

6pm — Pick up a bike, ride to dinner.

8pm — Catch a lift home with a friend.

A properly designed bikeshare program will have depots spaced throughout the city in such a way that you are never more than a block or two from a bike. Most individual sections of a multi-leg journey are well under 30 minutes in length, so it is rare for subscribers to accrue additional usage fees. A bikeshare program is not meant to appeal to those who want to go for a long bike ride. It is designed to become an integral part of a city's transportation system. Cars and transit cover long distances. Walking a few blocks is easy. But bikeshare fills the space between the two, significantly increasing the efficiency with which people can move around the city.

Even those who own a bike can benefit from a bikeshare. For impromptu trips, it's easy to grab a bike from any station, even if you don't have your bike with you. If you take transit on a rainy morning, you can take a bike home if the sky clears. If you happen to be out with a group of people, everyone can cycle to another destination with the help of bikeshare, even if only a few people brought their own bikes. It's the missing ingredient that makes multimodal transportation work.

For tourists, bikeshares make it easy to explore the hidden corners of a city where transit doesn't go — plus the bikes are available 24 hours a day, not just during the business hours of a rental hut. Standard rental services are still great for those who want to spend a day riding recreationally, but for urban exploration, bikeshares are much more flexible.

Citizens and visitors who never use the bikes will realize benefits as well. By providing a viable alternative for short trips, bikeshare systems help to alleviate pressure on our roads. They replace car trips, reduce traffic, free up parking spaces and ease the burden on the transit system for short trips.

And these benefits grow over time, as bikeshare programs have the ability to draw non-cyclists into the world of short-distance urban cycling — and each new cyclist represents additional savings to our road and transit budgets.

In the heart of Toronto there is a small bike shop that serves a huge population of urban cyclists. Curbside Cycle celebrated its 20th birthday in 2011 — the same year that marked the arrival of BIXI. You might expect that a shop which relies on bike sales, service and rentals for its very survival might suffer from the competition of an inexpensive, partially subsidized bicycle program. But general manager Eric Kamphof had ridden similar systems in Paris, Montreal, Brussels and Marseilles, and understood the magic of bikeshare. He was not worried.

"Let's say I haven't ridden a bike since I was a kid, and I'm at a party and have friends who rode their bikes there. I ask them if they're crazy, and they tell me 'It's really easy, you can do it too.' Now I have cycling testimony from people I trust, and I want to give it a try. BIXI is my way of doing that for a few dollars. With minimal effort and no financial risk, I can take a bike out and join them. I find out that cycling in the city isn't dangerous — it's glorious. Bikeshare de-mythologizes urban cycling for non-cyclists."

So how did bikeshare affect Curbside? According to Kamphof, "It never ate into our rental business." And sales? "We're growing and growing and growing...".

In February, Hamilton council voted to defer the bikeshare decision over concerns of liability risks and questions about the feasibility of such a program in a city whose cycling master plan remains largely unimplemented. But many cities run successful bikeshare programs without worry of litigation — a properly managed and insured program would protect the city from these risks. And bikeshares do not necessarily require a pre-built cycling network, since cyclists tend to organically find the most efficient and safest routes through their city. By implementing bikeshare during the developmental stage of our cycling infrastructure, Hamilton could benefit from studying bikeshare usage data before spending money on infrastructure. Public Works would be able to fine-tune the master plan to fit real-world transportation patterns rather than mathematical prediction models.

On March 20, council showed vision by voting in support of bikeshare (with some lingering trepidation, this time over potential future costs). With initial funding provided through Metrolinx, let's encourage our mayor and councillors to overcome their fears and stay the course. Bikeshare will ease congestion and provide incentive for expanding our cycling route network. Future costs should be considered an investment in transit. These will be affordable when compared to our overall roads and transit budgets, and will be outweighed by the benefits. Bikeshare is not about pleasure cruises. Bikeshare is transportation.



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