Thursday, 4 April 2013

Learning How To Share

One of many near empty racks of the popular Montreal Bixi public-bike share
With Spring returning slowly but surely to much of Canada, I have been hearing a lot of talk about cities like Montreal and Toronto preparing their bike share systems for another successful biking season. Montreal's Bixi bike share, which launched in May of 2009, boasts over 5000 bikes and over 400 stations throughout the city and surrounding areas. It is incredibly popular, so much so that I have read frequently on Twitter of how many of the stations are empty before the end of the morning rush hour. In Toronto, a city currently infamous for its anti-bike mayor, Rob Ford, the Bixi bike share has been running successfully since May 2011, and has over 1000 bikes available for short trips throughout the city.

Bike sharing services have become a fantastic way to promote riding a bike as a means of transportation instead of just recreation. Four summers ago, I visited Paris, France with my family and witnessed a city alive with everyday riders, otherwise known as "citizen cyclists". The Velib bike share, which started in July 2007, has exploded with popularity, and during our visit, everywhere we went in the city we found bike stations with people coming and going with the share bikes for quick trips in their city. It was so exciting to see, even as someone still discovering my passion for two-wheeled travel. I then heard shortly after my trip that there were plans in the works to bring the Bixi bike share to Vancouver and I was ecstatic! A city like Vancouver, that boasts being bike friendly, would truly benefit from this system, and would surely encourage citizens to get out of their cars and onto a bike.

The announcement of the bike share feasibility study in Vancouver was about five years ago, and here we stand, waiting for confirmation of when it's coming. Last summer, the reports were that we would see the Bixi system start in Spring 2013, but due to contract delays, that date seems to be getting further and further into the future. With no ground breaking happening to date, the soonest we would likely se anything resembling a bike share in the city would be Fall 2013 (related link). Anyone who lives in the Pacific Northwest knows that starting anything resembling outdoor activity in the Fall is a bad idea. With most everyday bike riders putting their bikes away as they prepare for the wet winter ahead, it almost goes without saying that the best timing for a bike share launch would be the Spring, when everyone comes out of hibernation ready to ride in the sun.  

One of the biggest hurdles to launching the system is how to overcome BC's mandatory helmet law for all ages. Current legislation makes it so that riding a bicycle without a helmet could earn you the embarrassment of being pulled over by the police and issued a ticket between $37-150. With the whole purpose of a bike share being short, spontaneous trips, it is extremely unlikely that the average person will just happen to be carrying a helmet around "just in case" they want to use the bike share.

The City plans to combat this issue by installing helmet dispensing machines at each station, and is actually one of the main components holding up the launch. While the machines have the best of intentions, there are clearly some concerns with this plan. First, the average person is unlikely to want to use a helmet that has been worn by some random stranger because it's just plain unsanitary. The dispensing machines are supposed to have a sanitization process, but there are questions of the reliability of that process. The second issue is the integrity of the helmets. You may not be away, but essentially once a helmet is so much as dropped on the ground, the integrity of the helmet is compromised. There is no way of guaranteeing that a previous wearer took care of that helmet, and so the efficacy of the helmet will be a constant concern for users.

Two other cities have launched bike shares while maintaining their mandatory helmet laws; Brisbane and Melbourne in Australia. Based on last year's statistics, the Montreal Bixi system saw approximate 18,333 trips per day (Source). Meanwhile, in Melbourne, last year they averaged about 240 trips per day, and the research suggests this is primarily due to the mandatory helmet law (Source). With no politician budging on the helmet issue here in BC, is Vancouver bound to suffer the same fate as Melbourne and see our bike share fail before it even hits the ground?

This summer I am travelling to Montreal and Toronto, two places where the mandatory helmet law does not apply to adults. During my visits, I have every intention of testing out the bike share, and am excited to experience two cities I used to spend so much time in during my younger years on two wheels. The bike share is the perfect way to do this. It is a fantastic program that is accessible to anyone, regardless of income or status, and so is a great way to promote citizen cycling to the masses. I just hope I get to have the same experiences in my own city one day!

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