For under the cost of a monthly Metropass, you get hassle-free inner-city riding.
Bixi, a neologism for "bike" plus "taxi." That didn't dawn on me until just last week.[rssbreak]
But after I get a look at the Montreal-made bike-share cruisers set to pop up on city streets next spring, it makes total sense: these are brilliant bridge vehicles for those who like bikes and don't like paying for taxis.
Also increasingly clear - they're going to be huge here. A few hundred people turn out to pledge their support for the program at the Bixi Toronto Bash at the Gladstone Wednesday (July 28). On display outside are some of the 80 docking stations we'll hopefully see a lot of by May 2011.
Luckily, the clouds and rain give way to sunshine just as the room fills - easy to read that as a merciful intervention by the transit gods. It allows the curious and excited folks on hand to get an early feel for the futuristic bike-share system rolling out next year - if the program scores 1,000 signatories by November.
Initial skepticism is understandable. Why wouldn't you just buy a cheap bike and ride it whenever?
If you're reading this while polishing your Litespeed, you're not the person Bixi Toronto is after - although you might not realize how handy a spur-of-the-moment bike can be.
The Toronto Bixi team highlights security (the lockups are secure), maintenance (they do it), convenience and spontaneity as reasons why this program will lure even bike owners.
The spontaneity angle - well, that's for your imagination to work out. Maybe you run into a friend and next thing you know you're riding across town to catch a movie or a live show.
Think about it. Do you like riding in a downpour? Of course not. Most people leave their trusty ride at home when it pours and opt for a dry streetcar. But how many times have you regretted leaving your two wheels behind when it turns nice and sunny later in the day?
Or maybe you're only a temporary or part-time Torontonian, visiting for the summer or taking school courses. Are you going to spend $100 for piece of crap on Craigslist?
And the Bixi price is right: $95 a year, less than the cost of a monthly Metropass, and your membership gives you access to bikes at some 80 locations in the core between Spadina, Bloor, Jarvis and Lake Shore.
While the program's first phase covers a limited operating area, meaning riders have to plan their destinations carefully, and confines bike use to 30 minutes between dockings (without a surcharge), it's a taste of a broader, more useful system to come. The 30-minute limit is imposed, say organizers, to make sure rides are always available.
Daniel Egan, the city's manager of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, stresses that the city isn't fronting any money, just guaranteeing a $4.8 million loan.
But even getting to this seemingly simple stage has been a challenge.
Says Toronto Cyclists Union director Yvonne Bambrick, "We helped to mobilize [support for it] after catching wind of the Bixi program being dead in the water in February."
At that time, the original plan to start with 3,000 bikes and 300 stations stretching from High Park to the Don Valley was in jeopardy. A letter-writing campaign helped get it back on the road.
Bambrick remains optimistic. Montreal's initial rollout was 3,000 bicycles, but demand meant that number quickly jumped to 5,000.
"It's a starting point, and part of the agreement is that we can expand as demand and sponsorship money allow, without coming back to council," she says.
Egan says Montreal's Bixi grew to 26,000 members in one year. Their system only runs for seven months, whereas Toronto's is year-round.
"It's totally doable," he says of the starting target of 1,000 memberships. "We have a strong bike culture. Our biggest challenge, quite frankly, is going to be serving the city with 1,000 bikes. As soon as we put those on the street, there's going to be demand for more."
Egan figures most councillors outside the initial bike-share zone will want to see the elegant stations complementing their neighbourhood streetscape. Councillor Joe Mihevc is queued up to pledge his $95, and his ward isn't even in the service zone.
"I can't wait for them to get to St. Clair," he says to me before chatting up some other pledges. It's not hard to see why he wants them. They're an instant boon to the streetscape, adding sophistication and flair to neighbourhoods itching for 21st-century travel solutions. And they pay for themselves.
The stations themselves are pretty high-tech. They run on solar power and charge your plastic when you buy a monthly or day pass. If you're a yearly member, you use a plastic key to unlock a bike and ride.
Meanwhile, the stations are monitored in real time. "If a bike needs repair, you park it, push the button, and it sends a message to the call centre so they know to send someone to pick up that bike," says Egan. And the bikes have GPS, which helps deter theft.
That's an idea that seems ridiculous anyway, as the bike is so distinct and has everything bolted down. But that GPS is also useful for keeping inventory available to everyone with access to the web. You can check how many bikes are at the station you're heading to.
As for the bike itself, it feels more like a scooter with its step-through frame, chunky, wide handlebars and total internalization of gears, cables and fuss. The general reaction at last week's unveiling was that it feels European, and as bikes go, that's a big compliment.
Europe's been on the bike-sharing route for years. In Paris, a city not known for cycling (Tour de France spectacle excluded), Velib, its version of Bixi, "transformed the way people get around that city," says Egan.
He figures Bixi can do a lot for Toronto, too. "As more and more people use these, there'll be more pressure to improve the facilities [read bike lanes] as well."
Bambrick espouses loftier goals.
"It opens the door for the growth of cycling culture in Toronto and takes it to another level as more and more people get on bikes and realize the importance of quality access to safe passage."