Marcus Gee

It’s time for Toronto to think bigger about bikes

The Globe and Mail

A cyclist rides past BIXI bikes in Toronto on Wednesday. BIXI Toronto Inc. borrowed $4.5-million from the city, and has a loan balance of $3.9-million as of Dec. 31, 2012, according to a city report going before the mayor’s executive committee next week. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

For a city with big ambitions, Toronto often thinks awfully small. Consider a couple of examples from the world of bikes.

Major cities around the world are promoting cycling to get people out of their cars and ease the pressure on public transportation. One way is bike-sharing, letting tourists and locals alike get around town on sturdy, practical, borrowed bikes for a modest cost. You can pick up a bike at one station and drop it off at another. Scores of cities from Dublin to Rio have embraced the system.

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Toronto jumped into the game in 2011, but tried to do it on the cheap. It spent nothing on setting up the Bixi bike program and offered no subsidy to operate it. Its only commitment was to extend a loan guarantee of up to $4.8-million to the Montreal-based outfit that runs Bixi.

Now the program is in trouble. Though Bixi has proved quite popular, recording 1.3 million bicycle trips and claiming 4,630 paid subscribers, it has yet to bring in the money it hoped. It is failing to make its loan payments and it owes suppliers about $1-million. City officials say city hall should consider taking over the program.

To critics, that would be throwing good money after bad. Mayor Rob Ford has “absolutely” ruled out subsidizing Bixi. But as a city report suggests, bike-share programs “provide a service similar to public transit.” Just about every transit system in the world needs some kind of subsidy. Most bike-share systems need help, too.

London covered most of the capital costs of its popular Boris bikes network and gives it an annual subsidy, with help from private sponsors such as Barclays Bank. Chicago’s Divvy bike system, due to launch in June, is getting federal grants to start up. New York’s Citi Bike program, to launch this month with 6,000 bikes, has rich backers in Citigroup and MasterCard.

“If the city wants to support a program like this, the lesson is that there has to be a city investment, or you have to have another source of funds,” says Daniel Egan, Toronto’s head of cycling infrastructure.

Whether Toronto runs Bixi itself, partners with a corporate sponsor or brings in a non-profit to operate the system, Bixi needs investment to thrive.

Bike-share programs work best when there are lots of stations. The wildly popular Vélib system in Paris has one every 300 metres – 1,800 in all, holding around 20,000 bikes – so that you can find a bike almost anywhere and, more important, find a place to drop it when you’re done. Bixi has only 80 stations and 1,000 bikes. If you want to go from, say, City Hall to the Ossington strip, you are out of luck. Toronto should step up and give Bixi the boost it needs.

The second example of thinking small concerns a proposed bike station under Nathan Phillips Square. When the city approved a plan to renovate the square, it included 380 bike spaces in the underground parking garage. Cyclists heading downtown would be able park their bikes safe from thieves and the elements. There would even be a few showers so they could freshen up and tools so they could fix their bikes. Users would pay a parking fee to defray costs.

When Mr. Ford imposed a 10-per-cent cut on city departments, the transportation services division dropped the bike garage from its plans. Now a group of city councillors is trying to bring it back. City hall’s government management committee voted to revive the $1.2-million project at a meeting last month.

That makes the mayor sputtering mad. He calls the plan “ludicrous” and promises to try to kill it when it comes to city council. His brother Doug calls it a prime example of “the gravy train.” Both of them persist in saying it is a waste to spend so much on “showers,” making it sound as if the city were planning some kind of spa instead of a functional parking garage.

Building bike garages is a great way to encourage people to commute by bicycle. Chicago has a 300-space station under its grand Millennium Park, complete with bike mechanic, showers and even towel service for paying members. London is planning a number of bike “superhubs,” including one for several thousand bikes at a central railway terminus.

Nathan Phillips Square is a perfect place to put one. It has lots of space in the vast garage underneath. It is near many office buildings packed with commuters. Lots of them would bike to work if they had a place to put their wheels.

The cost to the city – $70,000 in lost revenue for the Toronto Parking Authority from the car-parking spaces it would relinquish – is small in the scheme of things.

When it comes to bikes, as in much else, Toronto needs to start thinking bigger.