Bike sharing is a matter of fairness and equity

While bike-sharing programs have flopped in Ottawa over the last decade, the city needs to figure out how to make one work.

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In the wake of recent discussions about how much space is too much space for cycling in this town, I want to talk about sharing. As in, bike sharing.

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Our sad history with same and refusal to try again are puzzling in light of how popular bike-sharing programs are in many cities in North America. That’s another way of saying I refuse to take our city’s no for an answer and I am looking for allies.

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First, we need to stop thinking that this is about cars vs. bikes. It’s not. It’s about encouraging people to stop seeing cycling solely as a recreational activity and embrace it in its utilitarian form, too.

In 2009 BIXI started operating bike-sharing programs in Ottawa-Gatineau (overseen by the National Capital Commission) as well as in Montreal. In our region the program started with 100 bikes and 10 stations. In 2012, 15 stations and 150 bikes were added. In 2014, BIXI’s parent company filed for bankruptcy. Then two very different things happened.

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While the NCC sold the service to CycleHop, a US-based company, Montreal opted to purchase BIXI’s assets and financially support a new not-for-profit entity, BIXI Montréal, to continue operating. Today it offers nearly 10,000 bikes, including many e-bikes, spread across just under 800 stations. According to Wikipedia, BIXI Montréal’s users took 5.8 million trips in 2021. The city’s population that same year was a touch under 1.8 million.

Meanwhile in Ottawa, CycleHop petered out and so did VeloGo, the service that operated between 2015 and 2018. We’ve had nothing since and we refuse to consider trying again.

In cities throughout North American including Detroit, the Motor City itself, the newly-added Terrebonne, Quebec, and my beloved Huntsville, Alabama bike-sharing programs are immensely successful.

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According to a recent article in Bloomberg, bike-share ridership in major U.S. cities has increased 27 per cent since 2019, reaching almost 45 million annual trips.

Bike sharing is a fantastic tool for urban and suburban mobility. It’s quick, convenient and relatively inexpensive. It allows people to bike around without having to invest in their own bicycle. It also makes it easier to go places without having to worry about getting your bike stolen, which happens frequently in our town, no matter how good the lock. And of course by renting an e-bike you avoid struggling up hills or arriving at your destination a sweaty mess during heat waves. It’s a lot cheaper than buying your own electric bicycle.

In a city where transit is not always as reliable as it should be, having many mobility options is a necessity.

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Recreational cycling is awesome. But for many of us in Ottawa, biking is primarily a utilitarian thing, not just a pleasurable one.

We don’t design and maintain roads only for recreational driving because people don’t  just use their cars for Sunday drives. We use cars to get to work, bring the kids to their endless activities that are never close to one another or to the house for reasons nobody can understand, get our monthly dose of six months’ worth of everything at Costco, going out, picking up that brand-new Apple Watch from the store, visiting family, driving the babysitter home or going to the dentist.

We have invested in road infrastructure as well as private cars so we can move around for whatever reasons and regardless of who owns the vehicle in which we sit. Roads are available to cars, Ubers, taxis, buses, trucks, rentals and car-sharing services like Communauto. We make sure there are many options available, at least for the able-bodied among us  — don’t get me started on how terribly we treat residents with mobility challenges in this town.

People who use bicycles, recreationally or otherwise, need to have many options too, including bike sharing. It’s a simple matter of fairness and equity.

Brigitte Pellerin (they/them) is an Ottawa writer.

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