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!