Vancouver to launch subsidized public bike system for commuters

The program will cost Vancouver taxpayers about $1.9 million a year 

BIXI bikes on Ste-Catherine Street in Montreal.

BIXI bikes on Ste-Catherine Street in Montreal.

Photograph by: Tim Snow , The Gazette

Vancouver will launch a subsidized public bike system for commuters next year for people who don't want to use buses, taxis or their own vehicles.

The program, which will cost Vancouver taxpayers about $1.9 million a year, is being modelled after similar public bike rental programs taking hold in major cities around the world, including Paris, Montreal, London, Washington and Toronto.

On Wednesday Vancouver council was told the city had narrowed down a list of potential operators to a single company, Alta Bicycle Share of Portland, Oregon, which plans to install 1,500 bikes at 125 self-service stations throughout the downtown and along the Broadway corridor. The company will use special gear-driven hard rubber-tired bicycles built by BIXI Public Bicycles System Co. of Quebec. The companies will also have to provide various-sized helmets to meet provincial helmet laws.

The program, which is expected to be launched by the spring of 2013, would allow people to buy daily, weekly, monthly or yearly memberships from Alta. They would then be able to pick up a bike at any of the locations and would be billed based on how long they use it.

Jerry Dobrovolny, Vancouver's director of transportation, said the concept is aimed at commuters who would use the bikes for a few blocks and then return them to any of the stations in the area. "This is to provide another transit option within the city," he said, adding it's aimed at both commuters and tourists.

"The learnings we've had from other cities is that it has transformed some car trips into some cycling, walking and transit trips. We know that it provides opportunity for people who are already in the downtown to get around."

He said Vancouver has opted to use a system operated by a third party such as Alta, similar to models used in Toronto, Paris, Minneapolis and New York. It looked at city-owned programs like those used in Washington, D.C. and Barcelona, Spain, and concluded there were too many financial risks.

Under the proposed model, each of Alta's stations would hold up to 20 bikes at a time and largely be located in public metered parking areas. Dobrovolny said the city is still in negotiations and isn't disclosing the entire subsidy it would have to offer Alta to make the program work, But he said a portion of costs would be in the form of foregone parking meter revenues.

There are no public bike systems in the world that are not subsidized, he said, but operate on the theory that they provide a larger society benefit that compensates for the subsidy.

In Toronto, where the program has been in place since last year, membership rates run from $95 annually or $40 a month down to $5 for a single day. Subscribers then pay $1.50 for the first hour and $4 for up to 90 minutes' use. Dobrovolny said rates for Vancouver have yet to be worked out but that they may be comparable.

Cities that have installed public bike systems have seen an increase in cycling and a decline in automobile use, he said. "We've seen mode shift changes in other cities, both in the form of spur-of-the-moment decisions as well as transformational change in converting car trips to other modes."

The proposed program received an enthusiastic thumbs up from Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, an avid cyclist who said the city needs to offer more public transportation alternatives that will help take cars off streets.

"Obviously there are many good reasons for a public bike system being created. That's why we're seeing hundreds of cities pursue this idea," he said.

The idea has long been championed by bike-friendly politicians, including Robertson and former Non-Partisan Association Coun. Peter Ladner.

But commercial bike rental companies that have built a thriving industry renting bikes to tourists who ride them around Stanley Park say they're worried the public bike system will put them out of business.

"We want to make sure the subsidized public bicycle system doesn't dramatically undercut the private rental industry," said Geoff Sharein, the product manager at Spokes Bicycle Rentals.

He told council that in other cities where a public system had been put in place, the operators had installed stations directly in front of existing rental companies, causing business to decline by as much as 25 per cent.

He suggested the city insist on memberships and rental rates that discourage tourists from using the bikes, especially since they aren't designed for touring. That would also protect the business of the 12 commercial rental bike companies near Stanley Park, he said.

Sharein's concerns touched a nerve with city councillors, who said that while a public bicycle system makes sense, it shouldn't come at the expense of existing small companies.

"I am really pleased they brought their concerns forward. I think there is plenty of room for both of these types of businesses, which are quite distinct," said Coun. Heather Deal. "We need to set up the system in such a way that it is a disincentive to use short-term rentals for a day of sightseeing."

Deal said she's not troubled by the idea of the city subsidizing a public bike system.

"We spend tens of millions of dollars a year on roads. We spend millions of dollars a year on infrastructure which supports a transit system. This is just another part of what we do as a city to support all the modes of transportation need to use."

Dobrovolny said he expects to bring a contract back to council to sign in the fall, with a soft launch of the system in the spring before a full rollout in the summer.


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