Bixi Wraps Up An Excellent Year: But What's Behind the Numbers?

[In the spirit of ushering out the old and showing in the new, this week I'm going to be putting up short posts on interesting stories that got lost in the shuffle during the end of 2010.] 

Bixi wrapped up an excellent year in 2010. Shortly after the last snow covered bikes were corralled into storage at the end of November a string of excellent numbers was announced:
30,000 members, 3.3million trips, $1million in profits, loan repayments to begin 3 years ahead of schedule, 7 new systems installed in major cities around the world, and $104million in loan guarantees from the municipality to help speed it's international expansion.

You can get a full breakdown of those numbers, as well as the way that BIXI (a private non-profit) works with the city of Montreal in this detailed piece by Gazette transportation reporter Andy Riga.  There is no doubt, the numbers look great.  But it's worth asking if they are measuring the right thing - are they telling us anything about BIXI's longterm future, or its impact on urban mobility?

Here are three things that are being left out:

- Transportation Remixed:  People talk about "transportation cocktails."  The term is a bit too Tom Cruise for my liking, but the idea is important. Coming up with convenient ways for people to mix different modes of transportation can help get us out of our cars, reduce congestion, and make public transit accessible in difficult to serve areas (like low density residential areas).  The question is, is BIXI helping?  Is it acting as a bridge to get people from, say, commuter trains to work?  Or from their homes to the metro?

The answer is "It doesn't look like it.  But we aren't sure."  You can see more on this here.  But the short story is that more work needs to be done to weave BIXI into the way people use other forms of transportation, and BIXI itself needs to open up its rich collection of user data so that Planners and Researchers can help figure out how that could happen.

- Money Talks: If you are interested in BIXI more generally - not just BIXI when it is at home in Montreal - then the financing of the system is crucial.  Montreal's system is largely subsidized by the sale of the BIXI system in other cities around the world.  That's great. But what about London, say, or Minneapolis?

Public transportation generally is not a money making venture. It's a cost justified by the fact that it makes our cities livable, accessible, less polluted, and generally more enjoyable places.  How does money spent on BIXI stack up against money spent on more bike paths?  Or on increased bus service? A well planned public bike system has the ability to truly expand the reach and quality of public transportation.  We've got to see it that way, and make sure we are really getting our money's worth.

-- Show Me The Data!: One of the secrets to BIXI's success is an elegant system of real time data collection. Currently though, that data is not being made public. That is a huge loss. BIXI should follow the lead of cities like Vancouver and New York in embracing the Open Data movement. Crowd-sourcing apps for mobile devices has become part of our everyday lives.  I can't think of any easier way for BIXI to expand its effectiveness and its appeal than to let people remix its data.  Could there maybe be a BIXI apps competition on the horizon for 2011?  I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Comments

3 Responses to "Bixi Wraps Up An Excellent Year: But What's Behind the Numbers?"

i said... 10 May 2011 at 08:31

But Andy Riga's article is not very positive about Bixi. He mentions the $7 million loss in Montreal in 2010, the layoffs, and their request for remarkable $104 million loan guarantee. Yikes!

Riga's subtitle reads:
"Auditor general probing company's finances."

As for the early loan payments, if I read Andy correctly, he says:

"(it) has suspended payments on its loan of more than $30 million until it secures the city loan and credit-line guarantees. The company's Montreal operations posted a deficit of about $7 million last year."

Maybe this blog author is viewing the Bixi program through rose-colored glasses?

Alex Aylett said... 15 May 2011 at 22:37

Hi 'I',
Since I wrote this post last January, more information has come out about BIXI's finances. (The original article the I sited seems to have been taken off-line).

Given BIXI's unusual form of non-profit status, and it's mixed local and international revenue, you can tell very different stories about it's finances depending on what you focus on. For example, the $7m deficit Riga mentions in his new article (http://bit.ly/kn41ux) is for local operations, but if you include international revenue it turned a $1m profit.

The majority of the financing in question is to back BIXI's expansion in other cities. The system has been very successful so far, and the argument is that this capital will help ensure BIXI is firmly established and profitable in the long term. The question that people are asking is: "Is it the role of a city to be backing this kind of expansion."

The $37m that the city is lending BIXI specifically for its local operations will follow a circuitous route from BIXI to the Parking agency, and then back to the city again. Each time being used to pay off debts that one owes the other. La Presse summarizes:
"Cette somme va suivre un chemin complexe. La Ville va prêter ces 37 millions à la Société de vélo en libre-service (SVLS), qui exploite BIXI. La SVLS utilisera cet argent pour payer sa dette à la Société en commandite Stationnement de Montréal, qui gérait BIXI jusqu'à maintenant.

Puis Stationnement de Montréal va renvoyer la somme à la Ville: il s'agit là des redevances qui devaient lui être payées, notamment pour l'utilisation des places de stationnement dans les rues."

I think there are really three sets of interesting questions about BIXI right now:

- It is hugely popular. But is it living up to its potential to be a really transformative influence on how people move through the city (something I discuss in this post).

- Why has it taken so long for us to get the full story on its finances? Should we expect it to turn a profit? Especially given that public transportation rarely generates a financial surplus, but has many other benefits.

- Is it the city's role to finance and nurture these types of cutting edge innovative companies? How is the money the city spends on BIXI different from the money it spends on projects like the "Quartier International" or the "Quartier des Spectacles" all of which aim at some level to build Montreal's brand and encourage people and businesses to establish themselves here?

Anonymous said... 19 December 2011 at 16:46

Is there any news on the possible acquisition of the international sales division by Alta Bike Share of Portland? Are they still mandated to sell the international division/is there any talk of when that sale may occur?

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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.