Bixi Toronto Inches Closer to Reality
Bixi was tentatively approved by City Council in May, but its eventual arrival is still not quite a certainty. The bike share service has strict pre-launch targets to meet before the City will allow it to go forward, and the responsibility for meeting those targets falls partly on the people and businesses of Toronto.
The goal is to have one thousand Bixi bikes on Toronto's streets by next May. The scheme would work a little like Zipcar: users would buy either a yearly, monthly, or daily membership, and would pick up and return the bikes at any of eighty automatic bike stations, located initially only in the downtown core.
There are two things Bixi Toronto needs from the public before the City and the Public Bike System Company—the Montreal corporation that provides Bixi technology to cities around the world—can move forward with their plans to launch the service on May 1: one thousand advance year-long membership pledges from individuals, and three years' worth of annual sponsorship pledges from private organizations, totaling six hundred thousand dollars per year.
City Hall insisted on these launch targets for its own protection. Although PBSC would be supplying and operating Bixi Toronto at no direct cost to the City, the City would still need to assume financial risk in the form of a $4.8 million guarantee on a loan to PBSC, in order to get Bixi off the ground. In time, it's expected that the service will begin paying for itself with user fees and sponsorship money.
If Bixi Toronto is successful, PBSC will pay down the $4.8 million loan and the City of Toronto will pay nothing. But if Bixi struggles and PBSC defaults, Toronto taxpayers will be on the hook for whatever portion of the $4.8 million debt remains unpaid. The sponsorship money and the thousand advance membership pledges are supposed to provide proof, to the City, that Bixi can stand on its own two legs (or wheels, whatever).
Other cities have used different methods of funding their bike share programs. These have ranged from state and federal grants (Minneapolis, Washington, D.C.), to sale of street-advertising rights (Paris, Lyon), and to direct investment from a City transit authority (London).
The closest arrangement, in spirit, to Toronto's is the one behind Bixi Montreal. Montreal was the site of the first ever Bixi system (it opened for business there in spring 2009), and their municipal government paid nothing, officially, for their instance of the program. The reason Montreal was able to manage such a deal for themselves is that Bixi was created at their behest. Montreal's municipal government asked their privately owned parking authority, the Stationnement de Montréal (or SDM), to develop a bike share system from scratch. The SDM then created PBSC as a subsidiary. (Yes, PBSC is a subsidiary of the City of Montreal's private parking authority, which itself is owned and operated by Montreal's Board of Trade.) PBSC, a not-for-profit, developed Bixi, and then, according to the Montreal Gazette, provided it to Montreal using money not from taxpayers but from loans from the SDM. A Montreal city executive committee member has said that PBSC's profits would be used to fund "collective transportation" in Montreal, but the precise terms of a profit-sharing deal between PBSC and Montreal haven't yet been made public.
Bikes and a station from London's new Barclays Cycle Hire program, which uses equipment provided by PBSC. Photo by Charlotte Gilhooly, licensed under Creative Commons.
Some cities supplement their bike share revenues with private sponsorship money, just like Toronto is trying to do.
"There's always a concern until we get there," said Daniel Egan, manager of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure at the City, of Toronto's sponsorship drive. "But we're working hard on it, we've got lots of leads. I can't guarantee anything until we actually get something signed."
Egan told us that the sponsorship total so far stands at $450,000 per year, for the first three years of the program ($150,000 per year short of the City-mandated target). So far, all the money is coming from one company: ING Direct Canada, Bixi's "primary sponsor."
"We're pretty confident we'll get there," Egan said.
As for that other launch target: last Friday the membership pledge count was at 800, according to Bixi Toronto's Facebook page. Each yearlong membership pledge costs $95 up front ($107.35, after tax), and is refundable if Bixi falls short of its launch goals and doesn't materialize. Other cities that use PBSC bikes and stations charge between $50 and $78 annually, making Bixi Toronto slightly expensive by comparison. But supporters point out that, since Bixi Toronto would be available year round, it would actually be cheaper, per month, than the Montreal version, which at $78 per year is only available from May until November.
The City of Toronto has devoted a few staffers to the rollout push. Aside from City managers like Egan, who were instrumental in negotiating with PBSC and selling the plan to City Council, there are also junior staff members who have been busy marketing Bixi to the public. They've been out on Toronto's streets for the past few months, lugging an itinerant Bixi demonstration station to street fairs and the like, so that passers-by can learn about the system and try out the bikes.
In addition to street-side hustling with the demo station (sometimes for twelve hours at a stretch), junior staff have been booking meetings in corporate lunchrooms to pitch the service directly to employees of downtown companies, who potentially have the most to gain from Bixi. (Email the City if you'd like to schedule a presentation at your own company. They prefer groups of ten or more.)
The City and PBSC's publicity efforts also included, in July, a launch party for Bixi. Another party, exclusively for people who have already made membership pledges, is scheduled for October 18. The idea is for each member to bring a plus one, who might be persuaded to sign up as well.
A bike share membership drive is unprecedented in Toronto, and so nobody is sure what the likelihood of meeting the one thousand membership goal might be, or if fall weather will slow the rate of signups. (It hasn't, so far.)
Bikes and a station from Washington, D.C.'s new Capital Bikeshare program, which uses equipment provided by PBSC. Photo by James D. Schwartz, licensed under Creative Commons.
The City and PBSC aren't the only ones pushing memberships. Citizen involvement has also been a help in spreading news of Bixi, and its launch targets. The Toronto Cyclists Union, an advocacy group, has been the engine behind much of this grassroots activity. With no corporate oversight to hold them back, the Union has been free to experiment, within reason, with different ways of getting the message out.
Yvonne Bambrick, the Union's director of communications, has been making press appearances in support of Bixi, in her role as a prominent Toronto cycling advocate. "It's going to improve our city for the better, and hopefully catalyze greater bike infrastructure," Bambrick said of Bixi during a phone interview last week.
A few weeks ago, the Union hosted a meeting in a conference room at its offices at the Centre for Social Innovation, on Spadina Avenue. The purpose of the meeting was to generate ideas for pushing Bixi over the one thousand membership mark. (At the time, there had only been about six hundred membership pledges.) In attendance were a sampling of what one might consider Toronto's cycling luminaries: Bambrick was there, so were bike blogger Herb van den Dool, and Andrea Garcia, the Union's Director of Advocacy and Operations. A few assorted concerned citizens were also there, and so were two of the City staff members involved with conducting on-street Bixi demonstrations. The staff members had come only to listen, and to provide factual information, since playing an active role in the discussion might have contravened the wishes of the City or PBSC.
At issue around the conference table was Bixi Toronto's service area. Stations and bikes will initially be located only between Jarvis Street and Spadina Avenue in the east and west, and Bloor Street and the waterfront in the north and south. This limited coverage might be problematic for users, since Bixi bikes can't be taken for long rides. They need to be returned to stations within half an hour, otherwise users begin to incur penalty charges. The group made a tentative plan to draw up a map showing how Bixi's borders might expand in years following its launch, purely as a visual aid. "The messaging has to be spot-on," said Bambrick. (The Union's position is that even with a relatively small service area, Bixi will still be useful for people who need to run short errands downtown regularly.)
Bike share systems in other cities have had larger rollouts, recently, than the one planned for Bixi Toronto. London's Barclays Cycle Hire program (which uses bikes and stations supplied by PBSC) debuted in July with five thousand bikes and over three hundred stations. Washington, D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare program (also supplied by PBSC), launched in September with 1,100 bikes and 114 stations.
Egan, the Pedestrian and Cycling Infrastructure Manager, told us that surplus revenues from Bixi Toronto member fees would not, by themselves, be enough to fund expansion. The City and PBSC are currently investigating ways of financing more stations and bikes using private or public money, or some combination of the two.
Quick expansion of Bixi coverage isn't unheard of. The Montreal version added equipment in its first year, to meet demand. According to a PBSC spokeswoman, the system there currently has four hundred stations and five thousand bikes―up from three hundred and four thousand, respectively, at the beginning of its first season, last year.
As Bixi Toronto's November 30 deadline draws nearer, nobody is sure what will happen if the launch targets aren't met. At the very least, the service's debut would hang in uncertainty while PBSC and the City renegotiated their deal. Indefinite delays or outright cancellation of Bixi might also be possibilities, especially if the next Council turns out to be less hospitable to cycling infrastructure than the current one.
Over the next two months, it will be up to the people and corporations of Toronto to decide whether or not publicly accessible bike sharing is worth the investment.