Bixi Gets Saved Again | Print Version
by Larry Deck*
Le Québécois Libre, December 15, 2014, No 327

A few weeks ago, as the employees of Montreal’s bike-sharing program put the sturdy bicycles in storage for another winter, the city’s mayor was inviting citizens’ input on the future of the money-losing venture, and speculation swirled over whether the city would finally pull the plug on Bixi.

A massive $108-million bailout in loans and loan guarantees approved by the city in 2011 had not been enough to rescue the troubled company and in August, a judge formalized the transfer of the Public Bike System’s assets to a new, city-owned non-profit, Bixi Montreal. Taxpayers took possession of 5,120 bicycles and 461 automated rental stations without any further discussion.

But when it was announced that continuing to operate the service until 2019 would cost the city another $3 million per year, even former supporters could have been forgiven for balking. In 2011, I said Bixi was “too cool to fail,” but I thought I might be proven wrong.

I should have had more faith. Leadership demands fortitude, so on November 24, Mayor Denis Coderre announced that the city was renewing the contract.

The Montreal Gazette cheered the decision, dismissing the concerns of naysayers. If the city were to discontinue the bike-sharing service, one editorialist wrote, “the almost $40 million Montreal has pumped into the venture in loans and other bailouts would [be] money down the drain, and those clunky grey bikes and hulking stands would be left to gather cobwebs.”

Whether this fine example of the “sunk costs” fallacy was one of Coderre’s reasons for keeping the grey-coloured white elephant in the city’s enormous menagerie, no one can say. The reasons he expressed were… typically compelling:

“Bixi is part of the signature of Montreal,” said the mayor. “Our engagement today supports the non-profit organization, because it represents part of our efforts to position Montreal as a leader in public and alternative modes of transit, for the benefit of all Montrealers.”

In any case, he added, the costs would only amount to 77 cents per citizen per year. Also, there will be more transparency in Bixi’s operations, something which has been promised on other occasions.

Does Bixi benefit all Montrealers? Not really. In October, the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University published a detailed report on bike-sharing programs across North America, including Bixi, which clearly demonstrated that the programs cater disproportionately to the rich.

Why is that? The report identifies two major reasons: Fewer bike stations are located in low-income neighbourhoods, and the systems typically require a credit card for rentals.

Supporters tend not to emphasize this aspect of the operation, preferring to focus on its ecological benefits.

Bixi Montreal is currently looking into the feasibility of accepting Opus metro-pass cards (no doubt at a major cost for retrofitting the 461 stations), but Bixi will probably remain a curiosity for low-income Montrealers, who will continue to pay for it regardless.

The same study does indicate that users of bike-sharing programs report driving less, which is no doubt a good outcome, but one that might be arrived at more cheaply at this point by simply buying every citizen who wants one his or her own bicycle.

Years ago, a friend remarked that Bixi was misnamed. The word was supposedly formed by combining BIcycle with taXI. The other way of combining them is more reflective of what they actually are: taxcycles.

* Larry Deck is a librarian who lives in Montreal.