While BikeShare programs are commonplace in Europe, the idea is a relatively recent one in Canada. The first large-scale system, Bixi, was launched in Montreal in 2009, with systems eventually being launched in cities like Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, and Vancouver. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, BikeShare systems are when a company, either owned by a government or private entity, provide bicycles for short-term use, either for a small fee or sometimes for free. Stations are located next to points of interest or at strategic points within neighbourhoods, allowing people to complete all or parts of their trip using a rented bicycle.
There are several reasons why municipalities across the GTHA are looking at starting or expanding their own BikeShare systems.
- Last Mile: These systems are effective means of dealing with the "last mile" issue that continues to confound transit agencies and governments. By placing stations at strategic points within neighbourhoods and at nearby transit stations, BikeShare can help bridge that gap between the turnstile and your front door.
- Ideal for Short Trips: They are an effective method of eliminating short car or transit trips. With many transit systems featuring flat-rate fares, taking the subway for two or three stops is often seen as a waste of money. And if that trip is being made by car, particularly in an urban area where parking is either scarce or expensive, it can be a similarly poor financial choice. BikeShare provides an cost-effective and timely way of getting from Point A to Point B.
- Peace of Mind: Rental bikes remove the worry about leaving a privately-owned bicycle in a place where it could be damaged or stolen. There were 3,728 bikes reported stolen in Toronto in 2016, with only 1% of those being recovered and returned to the owner. A BikeShare bike is only a user's responsibility from the time it is taken off the station dock to the time it is returned to another station.
However, these systems do face several key issues, which often hinder their ability to attract new users and to expand.
- Barrier to Entry: These services often require potential users to sign up prior to renting a bike, though some systems do have Day Pass options. This presents a barrier to entry, as potential users may not be willing to go through the hassle of creating such a membership.
- Silos: These services are often run by municipalities, meaning that a membership that is valid in one city in the GTHA is not useful in another. For someone who stays strictly in one municipality, this is not an issue. But for someone who commutes across municipal borders or who perhaps wishes to make a day trip to another municipality, this can be a problem.
- Coverage: Because these systems are often either entirely municipally-owned or receive a significant amount of their operating subsidy from the municipality, their ability to raise or request capital to expand their coverage area with new stations is often very limited, even if there is strong demand for such a service. The crux of the issue is that these systems are seen by many not as a key part of a municipal transportation system, but as an optional, 'nice-to-have' accessory service. As a result, they are often funded as such.
So how could Metrolinx figure in all of this? One of Metrolinx's primary goals is to create "an integrated, regional transportation system". 'Integrated' is the key word there, because while advances such as Presto and co-fare agreements have been made on the public transit side of things, the BikeShare landscape very much resembles the old, fractured world of municipal fiefdoms. Having Metrolinx assume control of BikeShare systems across the GTHA would solve many of the issues listed above, and would compound many of the benefits.
- Expandability: Should these BikeShare services be brought under the Metrolinx umbrella, they would have access to a far larger pool of funding for capital expansion than under the existing municipally-funded model. They would no longer be viewed as an accessory service, but as a key component of a regional transportation system, catering to both short distance commuting and to recreational trip patterns.
- Increased GO Focus: While the GTHA's current BikeShare systems are focused primarily on serving urban commute and recreational patterns, one advantage that bringing BikeShare under Metrolinx could offer is a new opportunity to expand this service into a new role - increasing access to GO stations.
Metrolinx-operated BikeShare stations could be installed at key locations within a 1 to 2 km radius of select GO stations, and would provide passengers with active transportation access to those stations. The goal of this service wouldn't be so much to break even, but rather to offer an active transportation alternative to driving to the GO station. When you consider that the average parking space in a GO parking structure costs over $39,000 to build (yes, that's per space), and maintenance costs of $100 per space per year for surface and $200 per space per year in parking structures, the expense of operating a BikeShare system should not be seen as an additional expense, but rather as an alternative expense.
Such a shift would allow Metrolinx to expand into markets which currently do not have BikeShare operations, such as Brampton, Burlington, and Port Credit. In each of these locations, the GO stations are either located within their downtown area or a short cycle away. This geographic convenience could be useful for both daily commuters (those who wish to live in these downtowns but work in a place like Downtown Toronto), and for leisure trips.
- Presto Integration: Should BikeShare Services be uploaded to Metrolinx, Presto could become the defacto method with which people access these services. Whether it be pay-per-use with Presto's existing ePurse, or by purchasing a monthly or yearly pass in the same way that one does today for a transit agency, such a move would allow anyone who currently has a Presto card to access any BikeShare service across the GTHA, significantly lowering the barrier to entry.
Additionally, co-fare arrangements between BikeShare and transit providers could be established, similar to existing co-fare arrangements. For example, if someone taps out a BikeShare bike and then 20 minutes later taps onto a GO Train, the bike rental fee can be either completely or partially deducted from the GO fare. This would provide incentive for people to use this service as a way of getting to the stations, instead of driving.
- Regional Integration: In addition to integrating how people would pay for the service, a key component of a Metrolinx upload would be a harmonization of how people wouldn't pay for it. Specifically, that a pass holder in Hamilton would be able to rent a bike in Toronto using the same monthly/yearly pass, and would be able to access Toronto BikeShare stations in the exact same way that someone who lives in Toronto and purchased a pass there would. Conversely, someone from Toronto would be able to take the GO Train to Hamilton on the weekend and use their pass to rent a bike to cycle the Bruce Trail if they so desired.
The potential for BikeShare as an important component of the regional transportation system is clear. However, as demonstrated above, the current patchwork model is holding BikeShare back from becoming what it could be.
Have an opinion on the future of BikeShare in the GTHA? You can share your thoughts in our forum thread, or by leaving a comment below.