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Shallow: Bixi Off on the Wrong Pedal?

July 3, 2011
Image compilation of damaged Bixis.

Can Bixi, the shining bastion of eco-efficient commutership, be saved from becoming a victim program?

Montréal mayor Gérald Tremblay had big plans for Bixi, the Montréal-based bike sharing scheme the city started in May 2009. Based on the 2007 Parisian bike sharing program Vélib, Bixi has expanded to cities including Melbourne, London, Washington D.C, Toronto, and Arlington. According to Tremblay, Bixi is “the envy of the world”.

The project was founded on a partnership between the City of Montreal and Rio Tinto Alcan, the world’s largest aluminum company (who supplies the aluminum that all Bixi bikes are made of). The design of Bixi bicycles is said to be theft-proof, addressing the issue of bicycle theft and vandalism which has plagued Vélib since its inception. Though not unlike Vélib, Bixi has encountered its own set of problems.

While Montréallers seem to have taken to using the Bixi system to compliment public transport, subsidizing the consistent finance losses suffered by the program is far less palatable. Two years after the start of Bixi, Rio Tinto and Bixi tried to force a 37 million dollar loan in order to cover losses suffered by the Montreal Parking Agency, and another 71 million to finance expansion in other cities. In light of the subsidy requests and the program’s 6.9 million dollar deficit after its first year, Mayor Tremblay boldly argued that expansion in other cities was the only way to ensure the long-term success of the program. Off the island, the Bixi system would be sold to private entities and charged royalties.

In response, the city of Montréal’s Auditor Jacques Bergeron initiated an investigation of Bixi in August 2010, the results of which were finally unveiled June 2011. The release of his report was delayed by the ‘city hall spying scandal’, where the Tremblay administration was caught conducting illegal surveillance of Bergeron’s emails (among other councillors). The scandal gravely overshadowed the good environmental intentions touted by the city.

Bergeron’s conclusions were particularly disapproving: slamming the mayor for financial irregularities, a lack of transparency and for the city illegally running a commercial business— regardless of the level of authorization of funding requests from the transport ministry.

What distinguishes Bixi most from Vélib is that it is ‘owned’ and operated by the City of Montréal and not by an external or private operator. Vélib itself is entirely run by French advertising giant JCDecaux, unlike its predecessor program, Vélo’v. Started in Lyon 2005, Vélo’v is run by a joint-effort similar to that of Montreal and Rio Tinto. There it is between the City of Lyon and JCDecaux, and the deal is similar except for the provisions that require that Vélo’v be cost-neutral to the city. In return, exclusive advertising rights on all public transport in Lyon are granted to the advertiser.

In 2010, Bixi began further emulating the French system by converting all of their bikes to support its own advertisement system. The decision was certainly motivated by recurrent losses, but has translated to more losses attributable to vandalism. An anonymous group of culture-jammers opposed to (what they view as) the commercialization of public space has begun defacing the advertisement panels of strews of bike stations. The intention of using Bixi cyclists as lucrative mobile billboards has been inverted, replaced by counter-corporate messages and slashed tires. Costing 2 thousand dollars each to produce, damages to Bixi bikes are much more costly than the cheaper 5 hundred dollar French rental bicycles.

The entire political debacle surrounding Bixi provides a concise illustration of why it is not allowed by Québec law for a municipality to operate a commercial business. Deficits of existing non-commercial businesses translate into municipal deficits, which negatively impact funding for other programs and necessities. Those necessities include Montreal’s desperately neglected roads and overpasses, which would make the city safer for all commuters. Pothole-related damage claims against the city have tripled since the start of 2011, costing Montréallers anywhere from hundreds to thousands in individual pothole related incidents. The city, on the other hand, is very clear that it is not responsible for accidents caused by the condition of its roads. Of the 300 claims made in the previous year, only 53 have resulted in the city actually issuing reimbursements for damages caused by potholes. According to the Canadian Automobile Association, The number of claims officially made is also far below the number of accidents caused, as the criteria for being allowed to stake a claim against the city are deliberately stringent. There are thousands more who have not bothered with trying to deal with the city.

Perhaps if Bixi operations had been directly contracted out to an external advertiser as Vélib had, there wouldn’t have been such public blowback. While the design of Vélib services made them more vulnerable to theft, the losses incurred by Lyon and Paris versus Montreal are incomparable. That’s despite Montreal vandals committing a fraction of the damage French vandals and thieves manage. Left to the JCDecaux to operate, French bike-sharing manages to be profitable, affordable, and reasonably effective.

If Mr. Tremblay is serious about his worldwide ambitions for Bixi, he needs to properly study its predecessors and keep city hands off operating and managing it. He has already admitted that the only way for Montreal’s own system to remain functional is to collect royalties from external systems that are privately operated. He should also admit that it is not up to Montréallers any more than it is up to citizens of other cities to subsidize the political marketing of the administration in power, nor is it up to them to fund the commercialization of public space in other cities.

A second recommendation would be to offer start-up business incentives for more privately operated bike shares, to offset the effect the Bixi monopoly on public space has had on the pre-existing bike shares independently created in Montréal.

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