Cycling advocates rejoiced in April when the city stepped in to rescue the financially troubled Bixi bike service.
The Toronto Parking Authority (TPA) took over the struggling operation, changed its name to Bike Share Toronto and outsourced management to Portland, Oregon-based Alta Bicycle Share.
But some members report that the transition from Bixi to Bike Share has not been smooth, and the system has deteriorated significantly over the past few months.
It's increasingly hard to find a bike, broken docking stations aren't being repaired, and some of the bikes have even become unsafe, they say.
James Redekop, a software developer, takes the GO train from Scarborough to Union Station and then rides Bike Share to his office at King and Jarvis.
He says that under Bixi he could usually find a place to park his bike at the station nearest his work, but since the takeover he sometimes has to backtrack below St. Lawrence Market to find a free dock. If he can't find one there he ends up back where he started at Union Station. "I've gotten the distinct impression that the implementation has suffered since the handover," he says.
Three weeks ago when Steve Fisher, an arts writer for Torontoist, couldn't find a free dock, he tried calling Bike Share's help line to be directed to an available station. The woman who answered was at a call centre in Idaho. "She sent me to two non-existent locations," he says. " In her system they still showed as operative, but they'd been gone [for a while]." It took him an hour to find a docking station for the bike.
A bank worker named Renval, who asked that his last name not be used, had a terrifying experience on his way to work two weeks ago. First, his Spotcycle app told him there were four bikes available at the station near his house at Niagara and Richmond, but when he got there no bikes were in service. So he walked over to Ossington and Queen, where he found a working bike. Already late, he sped off only to discover the bike's brakes didn't work. He had to stop himself with his feet.
"That was probably one of the scariest moments of my life," he says. Formerly a big supporter of the program, he's considering letting his membership lapse next month.
Scott Hancock, Alta's general manager for Bike Share Toronto, says he's "100 per cent aware" that the system's problems are mounting. He attributes the deterioration to the recent bankruptcy of Bixi's parent company, the Montreal-based Public Bike System Company (PBSC), which was the main source of parts for bike share systems across North America.
PBSC filed for bankruptcy in January, and "the supply of parts to maintain the system disappeared," he says.
Seventy-five of Bike Share Toronto's 1,500 docks and two entire stations are currently out of service and can't be fixed until new parts arrive. "That's 5 per cent of our capacity gone, and that hurts," says Hancock.
Toronto's system isn't the only one affected. This spring the parts shortage caused Washington, DC's Capital Bikeshare to put a planned an expansion on hold.
Alta has tried to find other sources for the parts, but some of the system's components are proprietary and belong to PBSC. In April, a Quebec businessman bought PBSC's international operations, and Hancock is hopeful that "eventually they'll be able to re-establish their supply of parts."
In addition to problems with the docks, many of Bike Share's bicycles are overdue for repairs. They're supposed to undergo a rebuild once every two years to replace vital parts like chains, drivetrains and hubs. But when Alta took over in April, Hancock says only about 20 per cent of the 1,000-bike fleet had been overhauled during the winter. Instead of taking bikes out of service as the busy riding season approached, Alta opted to do basic repairs and defer rebuilds until the fall.
"I'm hoping that for next year the system is completely established," Hancock says.
Marie Casista, the TPA's VP of real estate, development and marketing, describes Bike Share's problems as "growing pains" and predicts that Alta, which operates cycle share programs in seven U.S. cities as well as Melbourne, Australia, will soon sort them out.
"We are quite confident in their ability to manage and to operate the system in the first-class manner that we desire," she says.
So far, it doesn't appear that Bike Share's struggles have affected its membership. According to Hancock, the program now has 3,919 members, up from 3,544 at this time last year. It's logged 276,388 rides since April 1.
But the program has historically struggled to make money; last year Bixi was between $100,000 and $200,000 short of breaking even.
Bike Share supporters have long argued that if it's going to become financially viable, it needs to expand beyond the 80 stations it has downtown and sign up as many as 6,000 members.
Plans to add 22 stations in 2014 were announced last year, but they've since been pushed back to spring 2015.
It could prove difficult to grow the system until existing operations are stabilized.