It is no surprise that cities with successful bike share systems have noted a marked increase in both shared and private bicycle use after bike share systems launched. Apparently, the high visibility of the shared bikes creates new “norms” and increases the bike culture, which is good for both the health of the community and the climate.
Because they are relatively inexpensive to set up (compared to other mobility investments in roads and transit infrastructure), bike sharing systems make sense. For example, in Minneapolis, a bike share system was set up with 700 bikes and 65 dock stations for only about $3.2 million overall. A study by Transport Canada showed that the average operating cost per user for bike share systems is between C$0.60‐$1.701, and compared to the $4-$7 per trip2 for BC Transit buses it is cheap. That isn’t to say bike sharing is a substitute for existing bus service. Instead, it is more of a complement or a cost-effective public mobility expansion opportunity.
Excited about these findings and with our small town of Whistler embarking on a bike share pilot this summer, I was inspired to better understand the systems from a user perspective. Fortunately, my summer travels took me to Montreal – Bixi Bike Share, Toronto – Bike Share TO and back to Whistler just in time for the launch of the Evo Evolve bike share pilot program.
Use Assessment Framework
In order to compare the three bike share programs, I developed a user assessment framework. The late Steve Jobs inferred time and time again that the user experience must be at the forefront of design. Applying this user centred style of inquiry has shown that in addition to the requirement of a welcoming cycling environment, successful bike share systems have the following design attributes:
- Good equipment
- A quality bike
- Self-sufficient fixed bicycle stations (onsite power, payment kiosks etc.)
- Good access
- Online/App registration
- Easy to get the bikes and start riding them
- Availability where/when needed and indicated in the apps
- Strategic usage fees designed to encourage use and rapid turn over
With these categories in mind, I performed a head-to-head comparison of my experiences with the “City” (BIXI, Bike Share TO) bikeshare system and the EVO Evolve system in Whistler.
Equipment: Winner = Tie (Each system has pluses and minuses)
There is a rich story to tell about the start-up of bike sharing in Canada’s largest cities, but the short of it is that the Montreal and Toronto bike sharing systems are virtually carbon copies with respect to bikes, user apps and infrastructure. This is why these two systems are referred to as the “City” system.
IMAGE: BIXI/Bike Share TO
The bikes are utilitarian with internal chain systems, robust adjustable seat posts, well placed fenders, baskets, signal bell, and lights.
With only three speeds, the City bikes lacked some versatility on the streets of Montreal, but travelling exclusively on the Waterfront in Toronto meant that the three speeds were more than enough. Both City systems also allowed access to pedal assist E-bikes that were also intuitive to use and erased hills easily.
The EVO Evolve bikes in Whistler are exclusively pedal assist e-bikes. These bikes have similar features to the BIXI and Bike Share TO bikes, but offer an advance seat height adjustment system using a dropper post (more common on mountain bikes than city bikes). The height adjustment is not as intuitive as the traditional quick-release system, but for repeat users this isn’t an issue. The tires on the Evo Evolve bikes are relatively narrow compared to the other bikes, making the bike somewhat less stable, especially on dirt or gravel for less experienced cyclists. One of the best features on the Evo Evolve bikes is the handle bar charging port for phones. Since phones are used to operate the bike share apps and mapping, having a charged device is critical. And finally, EVO Evolve bikes provide a bike helmet in order to help users follow the law in BC of wearing a bike helmet.
All three systems had fixed “docking” stations for the bikes and the removal and return of bikes was relatively smooth in both the Toronto/Montreal system with a locking docking station per bike which keeps them organized and “checks them in”. The Evo Evolve system is a bit quicker to drop off bikes as there is not a designating docking station per bike, but rather a general area and guide posts for parking bikes. The flipside of the easy drop off; however, means that bikes can be jumbled together and difficult to remove, especially with the extra weight of the e-bikes.
Apps, Access and Availability: Winner = City (City for the win for the App and Access attributes. Availability is hard to compare given the pilot nature of the Whistler system)
All three bike sharing systems register participants using apps; however, The City systems also had kiosks which allowed for a more manual registration and docking experience while reducing barriers for non-smart phone users and those looking for a single use ride. For EVO Evolve, the only way to access and dock the bikes after use is with a smart phone app which includes a relatively lengthy registration process compared to the City experience. In addition, the EVO Evolve system made me register my driver’s license or other ID with a photo etc.
All the apps provided good information about locations and the number of bikes available, though the City app provided a bit more detailed information on the number of bikes and to my surprise was also integrated with Google Maps, allowing me to plot my journey between locations and bike stations.
IMAGE: google map integration
Given the relatively milder weather in Toronto (compared to Montreal), the 1 bike per 400 people system operates year-round 24/7. The Montreal system with 1 bike per 200 people concentrates service for seven months of the year from mid-April to mid-November. Being a pilot, the EVO Evolve system in Whistler doesn’t have an end date, but the 1 bike per 450 resident/visitors system will likely not operate throughout the winter given the limitations of EVO bikes narrow bike tires in Whistler’s snowy winters.
I didn’t have a problem with the City systems accessing bikes where I needed to due to the sheer number of stations in the downtown area, which were strategically located within close proximity to housing and popular work/leisure and shopping destinations for both visitors and residents.
Image: BIXI all the stations.
For Whistler residents, the number of EVO Evolve stations in Whistler are far from adequate, which makes for a less desirable bike access experience. To be fair, the Whistler system was strategically set up as a pilot to reduce the visitor vehicle traffic to area parks while providing some access for local commuting. Yet given the plethora of community benefits of bike share systems, I was left wondering why the scope of the Whistler pilot was so narrowly focussed on just visitors.
Usage fees: Winner = City (City for the win for the daily, monthly and annual pass options)
In order to generate the most benefits from bike sharing systems, strategically designed user fees should encourage frequent loyal use and rapid turnover of bikes so that bikes are continually providing mobility benefits.
Encouraging rapid turnover of bikes is generally achieved by charging a fee per minute of use right at the time the bike is released to use or after a pre-designated time (generally 30-45 mins or so). The City systems generally offered up to 30 mins of use for the first payment (single, day-use pass etc.) and then began to charge a per minute fee unless the bike was returned. Like the Evo Evolve system the City systems charged a per minute fee right from the start. I can certainly attest to the fact that this fee structure made me pay attention to the length of time I used the bikes in all situations. Since my use was more leisurely while visiting Montreal and Toronto I was somewhat less concerned about the length of use compared to riding in Whistler.
What really set the City systems apart from the EVO Evolve system however is the ability for day ($7 in Toronto) or monthly pass options ($18 in Montreal), which allows unlimited 30min rides and either free or significantly reduced rates for e-bike per minute fees. For example, members in Montreal pay $.12 per e-bike minute compared to $.30 per e-bike minute for a single time user.
Image: BIXI membership
The Whistler system doesn’t yet offer these attractive fee structures to encourage daily use which means the program may only attract carefree spending visitors or a local resident looking for a novel experience. Hardly a sustainable business model, especially when it is trying to compete with driving, free or low-cost bus rides or Uber like services.
The EVO Evolve pricing model is unlikely to generate many benefits for the community. On the other hand, a system that serves a much smaller population than comparable City systems may not be economically viable without a higher cost system. Covering costs is certainly one of the challenges of bike sharing systems in smaller communities and it will be interesting to see what the Evo Evolve Whistler pilot program report and recommendations say about it. Stay tuned!
Next steps small communities
So, there you have it. On the important bike share user design characteristics of equipment, access and user fees, the City systems, BIXI and Bike Share TO, score better than the Evo Evolve pilot in Whistler. You might say that the limited access and higher costs are a factor of a pilot, or just the reality that smaller communities face as they seek out novel ways of getting people out of cars. Regardless of which challenges they face, smaller communities should look to university campuses (UBC, Emory University) and the mountain resort community of Aspen, Co (We-cycle) where experience shows that a viable, user-centric bike share model is possible. Even small rural communities in Canada have had some success with low cost, grassroots, non-digital systems. For communities wanting to pick apart the costs and benefits of bike sharing, the City of Hamilton offers up a thorough review and business case in considering these systems.
For more insights and actions on how to reduce GHG travel emissions reach out to Dan Wilson dwilsonatwhistlercentre.ca.