BIXI and The Montreal Bike Path Explosion

Montreal's new BIXI bike system has been grabbing headlines since its launch last Tuesday. The 3000 bike system is an upgrade of similar bike-public-transit programs, like the ones established in Lyons and Paris . After riding around on a BIXI this weekend, I can say that the bike is great – and the system that manages the fleet is even better.

They look a bit clunky and they've only got three speeds, but they're surprisingly light and agile. If you've got some BMX skills, you can even bunny hop it over a curb or two (although I am not sure the BIXI folks would want me to mention that). There are some elegant design details, like the rear LED lights that built right into the rear stays, and the frame is designed to fit all sizes. Three gears may not seem like much, but they've spaced them right for dealing with Montreal's hills. The only minus is a wimpy rack -- something they apparently scaled down to prevent people from doubling on it.

Renting a bike is dead easy; you swipe your credit card, retrieve a pass code, grab a bike and go. For five dollars, you get a day's worth of short haul bike acccess. More details on fees are up on the BIXI site. What needs to be seen to be believed though, is the coverage of the network they are proposing. Take a look at the map. By the time the full system is up and running, you won't be able to walk more than two or three blocks within almost all of the central portion of the island without passing a station for renting and returning bikes.

Tooling around with the interactive map, you can see that more bikes are clustered around metro stations, and the wider network means that wherever you need to go you'll find a convenient place to park your ride. Using RFID tags and wireless networking, the solar powered base stations update the online map with a real-time feed so that you can see how many bikes or parking slots are available in any given spot. It's all quite slick. If you could use you cellphone to check the availability of local bikes as you got out of the metro, it would be even better. Maybe that's on the way?

The Montreal Bike Path Explosion
But the BIXI is only the tip of the iceberg of what's been going on recently in the Montreal bike scene. It's a flashy tip, it's true. But if you'd introduced BIXI in Montreal ten years ago you would have had a disaster on your hands. Montreal drivers are still famous for breaking every rule in the book. In 2000, Montreal only had 125km of bike paths, most serving scenic routes that were next to useless for commuting. There were no bike paths crossing the downtown core, and only the brave (and the bike couriers) carved through rush hour traffic. Growing up in Montreal, I admit that I loved the challenge of weaving through the cars (and missed it when I moved to Vancouver's peaceful bike paths). But I also had many friends who simply refused to bike in the city.

Since then though (after a change of mayors) Montreal has been making serious investments in bike infrastructure. There are now over 700kms of bike paths, with more coming between now and 2013. Crucially, these are commuter paths – not just leisure routes. The city even keeps some of them ploughed it the winter. BIXI serves an area that has received many of these upgrades in recent years (including a median separated dedicated lane that now crosses the downtown, linking orphaned eastern and western paths.) [see the 2008 Map of Montreal Bike Paths, PDF]

Readers around the web are asking whether a BIXI-like system might work in other big North American cities. What about New York? or Toronto? or Chicago? Most of the attention so far has been focused on the bike itself.
Setting up BIXI cost CDN$15million, that's about as much as building another 150km of bikes paths. If Montreal's system takes off, its going to have at least as much to do with the impressive new cycling infrastructure as with BIXI itself. So if your city is thinking about it, I'd say start with the paths. Bikes are great, but only once you've got a safe place to ride them!


10 Responses to "BIXI and The Montreal Bike Path Explosion"

Zvi Leve (Montreal, QC, Canada) said... 22 May 2009 at 17:19

From the first time I saw the bixi bikes at the no-car day I have been screaming about that rack! Stylish, yes, but functional? Absolutely not! Try placing anything other than a backpack or purse in it. My test case would be an apple, a beverage and a baguette. None of those objects can be securely placed in the racks without other packaging. For that matter, even a bag with a sandwich and things would probably fall out!

Alex Aylett said... 22 May 2009 at 19:55

I totally agree Zvi,
the rack is a big disappointment. It occurred to me that the racks might also be designed to shed garbage that people throw into them. But intentionally designing a rack so that things fall out of it has some obvious drawbacks...

Marie-Hélène Houle (via e-mail) said... 22 May 2009 at 19:59

Bonjour Monsieur Aylett,

Nous développerons effectivement une application pour les iPhones. Nous
n’avons cependant pas encore de date de prévue pour cette application.

Merci de l'intérêt que vous portez à Bixi.

Marie-Hélène Houle
Agente / Agent

pedalMONTREAL said... 22 September 2009 at 11:08

For an interactive map of the bike path network in Montreal and the surrounding areas check out Location of BIXI stations is also included.

andrew said... 6 December 2009 at 23:05

or check out the "Montreal Bike Map" iPhone application

Alex Aylett said... 6 December 2009 at 23:22

Thanks for the link Andrew, I'm glad to see that they followed through on their plans to do an iPhone ap.

But don't you think they should create a text message based one as well? It would reach a lot more people.

You text in the number of your closest BIXI stand, it texts you back the availability at that rack and 4 other racks nearby.

Simple -- and no need to pay for a data plan.

Murray said... 10 September 2010 at 11:12

On Sept 9, a Montreal Gazette article, re a survey done by McGill's Urban Planning Dept. showed that 86% of the Bixi rides simply replace other green forms of transport.

Unfortunately, the benefits provided by Bixi have been grossly overstated. The Bixi organization simply provided figures that would show them in a much better light.

STM Chairman and Bixi's main promoter is Michel Labrecque. Labrecque is the founder and past-president of Velo Quebec. He was appointed Chairman by Mayor Gerald Tremblay last Nov. On the last election day Tremblay's party used Velo QC headquarters as a call centre and Projet Montreal lodged a complaint re the potential conflict of interest.
In 2010, Montreal taxpayers and the STM are giving $972,000 in $$ and tangible support to Velo Quebec.

According to long time municipal politician; "Labrecque is Mayor Tremblay's prodigal son and Tremblay is grooming Labrecque to be his successor."

Zvi Leve (Montreal, QC, Canada) said... 10 September 2010 at 11:29


It is not so simple to evaluate Bixi's impact on travel behaviour. It is very much a 'transformative technology' in the sense that it is not only replacing certain trips, it is literally changing the way that people travel (for example how they access the metro) and their travel patters (where they choose to go).

For sure Bixi exists thanks to the 'Quebec business model': strong government support for local companies in their efforts to carve out a market for themselves. These private companies then go on to profit from the sale of their technologies outside of Quebec. One can certainly argue themerits' of such an approach, but it does create local jobs.

Murray said... 10 September 2010 at 14:11

Hi Zvi,

Montreal is the continuing self aggrandizement and not showing the reality.

Two weeks ago the Gazette pointed out that Bixi had lost around $34 million for the year. Then Stationement Montreal, that runs Bixi, and is also in the hole for around the same amount and tells the media that they always figured that it would take three years for Bixi to show an $8 million profit.

Add on the $34 million that it may cost Montreal for its water meter fiasco + there is over $100 million that the taxpayers may have to wave goodbye to.

On top of that there may be other problems to face that Stationement Montreal may not have taken into account like disappearing and destroyed bikes.

How long will it take before the bikes will be built in China, and all of the workers are laid off? We can not compete favourably with China so the Bixi bike company will be history likely before Gerald Tremblay finishes his term.

Don't get me wrong. I love the idea of bikes as a means of transportation and welcome additional bike paths, but unfortunately in my opinion,Michel Labrecque has a very long history of not being objective, and Mayor Tremblay seemingly feels that Labreque can do no wrong.

Alex Aylett said... 12 September 2010 at 22:33

Thanks Murray, that's an interesting survey - I'd missed that article in the Gazette and I'm glad you posted a link to it.

I'm going to avoid wading into the politics that you've mentioned (although there are always politics around projects of this size and they are important) to just look at the results of the study.

A few things jump out at me:
-As interesting as the survey is we can do better. BIXI has en excellent data collection system that would allow for a much more precise estimate of the way the system is being used and the percentage of people who combine it with other modes of transportation.

I've been waiting to see some good analysis of that data since BIXI started and I hope we don't have to wait much longer. BIXI should really follow the example of cities like Vancouver and implement an open data policy that allows public access to their data so anyone can mash it up as they please. Think what a team of transportation researchers could do with that!

- Is 10% really that insignificant? I would argue that it's not. Shifting people from cars to bikes is difficult, especially given that many BIXI riders may not own cars, or not use them for driving to the area serviced by BIXI.

- I'd love to see what the results of the survey would have been if it had been conducted during the school year. Running it over the summer excludes what could be a significant part of the pool of users.

- Finally, the survey's is about much more than BIXI. Their key conclusion that more work needs to be done to provide services outside central areas is key - and really more noteworthy that the issues around BIXI replacing other modes of transit. In this case good cycle paths and well designed on-site parking at transit stations may be a more cost effective way to integrate cycling and transit.

According to the survey, that is where the biggest opportunities are for getting people out of their cars are onto a mixed modes of transit.


This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.