An ode to Bixi

Bixi bike stand in Toronto, Canada, Photo by
Bixi bike stand in Toronto, Canada, Photo by

What’s a Bixi? The brand of city rental bikes hitting North America at the moment and so far on our trip, my favourite way of exploring urban places. We’ve been travelling up the east coast of the US (New York, Boston, Maine) and into Canada (Quebec City, Montreal, Toronto) making our way to BC from where we’ll start our real bike trip – from Victoria down to California and beyond. For that trip we’ll be cranking our Surly Long Haul Truckers but meanwhile to save lugging them across the rest of North America, in cities we’ve been using the Bixi to fix that biking itch.

Having recently read an article on how these bikes might not be around for much longer, I feel the urge to write an ode to ye ol’ Bixi and air some of my personal insights to American city biking over the past month mainly to encourage others to give it a go.

Bixi is a pretty cool system (like Boris Bikes in London) – you basically pay either an annual subscription if you are local or a daily or hourly rate if you are passing through or just need a bike for a day. For us that has meant paying about $4 US a day and having to check them in every 30 minutes to avoid paying the extra hourly fees thereafter. Renting bikes from a shop for a day will set you back between $20-$30 depending on the deal you can get, so Bixis are a lot more affordable.

Helpful for Bixi planning is the Smartphone App that tells you exactly where the bike portals are, how many bikes are available, and importantly, whether the stand is already full (a challenge sometimes for two bikers). No other public transportation allows you to choose the exact point you want to go and to navigate your own route there above ground – all the rest rely on a predetermined line, which is not always where you want to be heading. Not to mention that you are being active in the fresh air without smelly commuters around you and you’re also above ground and burning your own energy rather than fossil fuels.

Here are my ratings on the Bixis so far:

New York is fantastic, with bike lanes and bikers everywhere, it’s just that the Bixis don’t run all the way up Manhatten yet, despite being on nearly every street corner in parts of Brooklyn and lower Manhatten. So it depends on your radius in NYC, but definitely worth it – especially to bike over Brooklyn Bridge and cruise past China town.

Boston is a beautiful city, with many refurbished brick factories now housing art and shop spaces and a fabulous waterfront. While there are some demarcated bike lanes on streets, the water front is still poorly designed with the focus being a pedestrian walkway, so there are a few too many steps and stop starts on an otherwise lovely and somewhat historic water front ride (so, ignore those duck boats – get a Bixi!).

Montreal, for biking, seems to be the best Canadian city we’ve visited. Bike lanes are clearly marked and plentiful, especially along the waterfront and through the central city. Bixi bikes are in all central locations – summertime city cruising at its best!

Toronto should take a maple leaf out of that book, because sadly it is the city with the worst city biking rating from me in this bunch. Ch’rona (as it is pronounced by the locals) is not planned as a bike city, despite the epic number of summertime bikers, hipsters cranking fixies, and hard core commuters braving it out there on the busy streets. The current city political situation with controversial Mayor Ford means the city bike planning is not likely to improve in the short term. While bike lanes are scant, once we figured out the main biking streets, it was not so bad to navigate around, safety aside.

Canadian drivers are as gas guzzling, big vehicle buffs as their US counterparts and while most young people in the city prefer their bikes to their cars in summertime, in cities like Toronto they are braving poorly marked or absent bike lanes amidst heavy commuter traffic that is prolific in the city centre.  As an aside, despite this, we managed to love Toronto and breathe a sigh of relief on the back streets around Kensington Markets and up and around the Don Valley. But she’s not for the faint hearted and I can see why most Bixi bikers in the city are locals and not tourists.

Research has shown that if you build bike lanes the cyclists will come. So, if you put in Bixis as a transport option for your city you really should have bike lanes to support them. People without a bike are hardly likely to decide to start riding if there is no infrastructure to take the ride. The difference is clear, like in Toronto v Montreal for example. It also indicates that you are serious about sustainable transport in the city and will in itself lead to a more long-term biking system supported by locals and tourists alike.

So, before the city officials knock it and cut the Bixi bikes back based on the arguments that it is not economically viable and that people are not using them, they should assess whether it was too premature to put in a city bike system without lanes and safety measures to start with. More holistic and sustainable city planning is needed in these big sky scraper infested car zones, that’s for sure.

Regardless of the politics, city bikes are great fun, affordable, healthy and the best way to see a city.  So I vote to keep them, hope for better infrastructure, increased coverage of city bikes and hope that the combination encourages other cities to follow suit.

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