Toronto's Bixi Bike system is in trouble; will New York's Citibike suffer from the same problems?

bixi bike toronto
CC BY 2.0 Roland on Flickr

There is a lot of interest in bike sharing right now, as New York readies for the launch of its new Citibike program. The big question is, have they studied and learned the lessons from other cities that have bike sharing systems, some of which are having serious problems?

In Toronto, the BIXI bike rental program is in trouble; politicians are shocked, shocked to find that it doesn't make enough money from subscriptions and bike rentals to cover its costs and servicing its $4.8 million loan that is guaranteed by the City. The head of the Public Works Committee tells the National Post:

“I think it’s an important lesson in giving loan guarantees, that it can come and bite you in the behind later on,” he said Tuesday, noting one option could be to enlist the private sector to “rescue” the two-year-old BIXI Toronto program.

One would think that with a $ 300 million annual transportation budget that this would be a drop in the bucket, but this is Toronto, where the Mayor calls building bike parking and showers at City Hall "the gravy train. That is reckless spending — to put showers here at City Hall at $1.2 million. It’s disgusting."

The fact of the matter is, the Toronto Bixi system was almost designed to fail. Three years ago I wrote that it was too small to work.

bixi mapBixi/Promo image

According to Google maps, the Bikeshare zone is 2.9 km, about 1.8 miles, from top to bottom, a 38 minute walk. Nobody is going to be using this for a commute. The two north/south subway lines are both within the zone, so nobody is going to take transit into this zone and switch to a bike. They talk about expanding the system, but is there the political will?... The Bixi zone is too small to be really useful, and with these guys running the city it will never get any bigger.

And in fact, that is exactly what has happened. Jareb Kolb of Cycle Toronto claims “the highest rates of use are on the periphery. If you’re going to make a proper investment, you have to have a larger network.” Herb at iBikeTO explains:

Toronto has made no expansion plans since BIXI's launch. The right wing administration is reluctant to support an expansion of BIXI. Denzil Minnan-Wong, the conservative chair of the public works committee, has been a reluctant champion of BIXI by posing for photo-ops when BIXI launched, saying "But now that it's here, you've gotta support it". Minnan-Wong more recently told Torontoist that “You want to get your finances done right. It may be more incremental, but what we want to do is ensure BIXI’s success, and that may require smaller steps than big leaps.” He noted that Montreal's BIXI ran into financial difficulties even with three times the number of bikes. “We don’t have a lot of extra money to put into any projects right now,” he added, citing a transportation department backlog “north of $300 million.”

So you have a right wing, anti bike and bike lane government with no interest in supporting or expanding a bike sharing system.

Could New York be repeating the mistakes of Toronto?

Could the same thing happen in New York? Certainly it appears that none of the candidates to replace Michael Bloomberg are nearly as enthusiastic about bikes or bike lanes. (See their comments here) It is certainly better funded than Toronto's, with $41 million from Citibank over five years. Mastercard kicked in another $6.5 million.

citybike mapCitibike/Screen capture

The Citibike program will cover part of Brooklyn and Manhattan south of 59th Street when it opens. It is a huge area, but if you are a tourist, forget about going to the Metropolitan or the Museum of Natural History. This is supposed to change shortly, the system is supposed to expand; In Toronto, it didn't. Yet is the parts of town that are not a block or two away from subways that need the service most. In a lot of ways, the system needs to be more diffuse.

citibike downtownCitibike downtown/Screen capture

On the other hand, when you get up close, the bike stations are sometimes many blocks apart. Here it suffers from the "last mile" problem; if the bike stand is three long blocks away, why bother? In Toronto, people generally don't. (the reason there are so few bike stations in Soho is explained by Felix Salmon here)

bixi breakdownMcGill study of cycling and transit/Public Domain

Bikeshare programs are wonderful things, and serve an important purpose. But it appears that they have to be big, and dense, if they are going to work. They have to be treated as an integral part of the transportation system and funded like other transportation systems; in a study of Montreal, (PDF here) they found that 33% of the users were diverted from the transit system, which is great in cities where the subways and buses are overcrowded and heavily subsidized. The same study demonstrated "the the need for BIXI stations outside the central neighbourhoods where transit stops cannot always be accessed by foot"- otherwise it is primarily replacing walking, biking on your own bike or taking transit. (Only 2% of Montreal Bixi rentals replace a car trip and only 8% replace a taxi trip).

Keep it small, with too few bikes, too few stations, and too little public funding and commitment, and it will be a real challenge.

Toronto's Bixi Bike system is in trouble; will New York's Citibike suffer from the same problems?
New York looks like it is going big and backed by big bucks, which is exactly what it needs to survive.

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