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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Montreal launches bike rental service

CANADA - There's a new bicycle rental service in Montreal, and its known as Bixi.

Just insert your credit card, get a code, choose a bike at its dock, type in the code and, voilà, you're riding.

The first 30 minutes are free. The second 30 minutes cost $1.50, the third $3, the fourth and subsequent 30-minute periods cost $6 each.

With a membership – $28 for a month or $78 for a year (the bicycle riding season is only May through November) – you get a keycard and the process is faster.

Bikes can be dropped off at any station across Montreal (see the map on the right and you can see how convenient that is). If the docks are full, you get an extra 15 minutes free to drop it at the nearest station.

The program is currently in phase 1 and will double the service region in coming years.

Montreal's system is slightly more expensive than those in Europe, because Bixi is city-owned and does not, as in the case of Vélib (a similar program in Paris), rely on an advertising company to operate the system in exchange for ad space.

Bike rental services tend to do poorly in North America, often due to lack of maintenance on the bicycles or outright theft. Because this new system requires a credit card it should cut down on thievery significantly. The city hasn't confirmed whether they are hiring bicycle mechanics to repair the bicycles regularly.

Montreal has a lot of bicycle lanes and is very bicycle friendly (enough to make Torontonians jealous). In recent years Montreal has been dramatically prioritizing bicycles.

"Bixi for me is not just a bicycle," said André Lavallée, the man responsible for the Montreal's transportation plan. "It's like an ambassador for our vision of transport in Montreal, of our values and willingness to change the city." Lavallée is out to "change the mindset" of Montrealers, to reduce city congestion, dependence on cars, and one major way is through the bicycle and he has a lot of support from the people of Montreal.

Montreal's efforts are getting noticed. Toronto's Green Living magazine named Montreal the "most bike-friendly city in the nation." Time Magazine called Bixi one of the 50 best inventions of 2008. The service won an Edison "Gold" award for the best new energy and sustainability product.

Montreal is one of the continent's bike theft capitals, so the new system of using credit cards will be put to the test. Montreal drivers can be relatively aggressive too, but then again so are Montreal cyclists.

Montreal hopes to have 800 kilometres of bike routes by 2013 and believes it will be in an investment "good for our health and good for the environment," says Suzanne Lareau, president of Vélo Québec, which has been promoting cycling for decades.

Montreal hasn't been building many bike paths for the last 20 years and in recent years demand for them has grown so much they don't have much choice any more. Montreal NEEDS more bicycle paths.

Lavallée attributes the change in political attitudes in part to the relentless activism and growing population of cyclists. He also says "it's cultural, because Montreal is in the middle, both European and North American, so it's a different way of life."

The elegantly designed bike path along de Maisonneuve Blvd. through downtown is even plowed in the winter, which some called a waste of money but cyclists say taking the subway/cars/taxis in the winter would be an even bigger waste of money and clog up Montreal's streets during the winter.

Bixi has 3,000 bikes and 300 stations, with each station just a few hundred metres from the next. Lavallée says he is confident Montrealers "will fall in love with it."

Public bike rental systems have become popular in European cities, notably in Paris, where its service, Vélib, has been a huge success and whose bikes are now as familiar a sight on the landscape.

Toronto is hoping for a public bike system of its own and has asked for companies to show their interest in running one. It wouldn't be operational until Spring 2010 at the earliest.

Montreal's program cost $15 million to start up and will be run for non-profit (unlike the Paris program which is privately owned and for profit). In Paris thousands of Vélib bikes have been swiped in the last two years (and thrown in the Seine river out of disgust for the for-profit company). The bicycles unique look guarantees that no one will steal the bikes and try to sell them because everyone will know it was obviously stolen.

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