On a recent visit to Toronto, I decided to try Bixi bike sharing as a way of exploring the city, getting a taste of the Toronto cycling experience and trying bike sharing, in anticipation of Chicago’s planned launch of a similar system.
Each day, my ride was waiting outside my door.
York station, at York and Queens Quay West.
When I entered my code on the dock keypad, the yellow light flashed, then the green light was accompanied by a bike bell sound.
Members insert their key fob. Lights indicate the bike’s unlocking/locking status.
The Bixi bike is a sturdy utilitarian model, comparable to a Dutch city bike. Its heavy steel frame and fat tires absorb a good amount of vibration and shock. Its front basket has a built-in bungee cord to keep things in place. A hub dynamo powers LED blinky headlights on the front of the basket and tail lights on the rear stays. They worked quite reliably when the bikes were moving, but I found myself wishing that the tail lights were a little brighter. I supplemented mine with an additional red blinky that I brought from home.
White LED lights at the front.
Red LED lights at back, and internal geared hub.
The bikes have a 3-speed grip shift with an internally geared hub – smart protection against the weather. Three speeds are more than adequate for Toronto’s flat topography. The full chain guard protects pants against getting caught in the chain or accidentally greased. Full fenders with a skirt guard on the rear fender help ensure a stripe-free ride in wet weather.
Each bike has reference markings on the seatpost, making adjustment quick and easy when picking up a new bike. The frame size and extra long seatpost accommodate a wide range of rider sizes. I need a taller bike/seat height than most people, and the seatpost offers at least 2 inches of additional height beyond my correct setting.
Seat post markings let you quickly adjust any bike share bike to fit you.
Most of my riding was on major streets within a few miles of downtown: Queens Quay, Spadina, Jarvis, King, Queen, etc. Compared to Chicago, very few streets in or near downtown have bike lanes. In spite of that lack, my rides were nearly 100% pleasant and easy, even in downtown traffic. The vast majority of drivers gave me plenty of space, didn’t honk and didn’t tailgate.
On this visit and previous ones, Toronto culture has struck me as more polite than Chicago. This politeness extends to driving. I don’t know how much education and enforcement factor into Toronto’s safer conditions, but culture and familiarity with bike traffic certainly seem to help. Drivers see cyclists everywhere. Infrastructure is similar to what we have in Chicago.
The speed humps I encountered on neighborhood streets were much gentler than Chicago’s version.
One of the few problematic locations I found was this highway interchange. On Spadina just north of this spot, there is a wide sidewalk with many destinations and pedestrians. There is no sign warning in advance that the interchange has no accommodation for pedestrians and cyclists. Many people get trapped at that sweeping speed-oriented curve, waiting for long enough break in traffic or a critical mass of pedestrians and cyclists. An unhelpful sign on the other side of the ramp says there’s no crossing at this spot and suggests that pedestrians cross the highway interchange on the east side of Spadina. There’s no good way to get there without doubling back at least 1/4 mile, and the crossing on the east side isn’t much better. Every city has its urban planning mistakes.
Some of the most popular cycling streets matched or exceeded the bike density of Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago. I saw bikes on every street, including many Bixi bikes.
People cycling on Queens Quay.
I ended my Toronto visit by riding to Billy Bishop City Centre airport, similar in scale and proximity to downtown to our former Meigs Field, with service by Porter, a friendly Toronto-based airline. I enjoyed a painless 8 minute bike ride, 1 block walk and 5 minute ferry ride to the airport from where I was staying – a pretty sweet deal. I highly recommend it as a much more pleasant alternative to flying one of the big airlines into Pearson – comparable to O’Hare in location and size, but without an affordable train option into downtown.
A bike sharing station at the City Centre airport.
Would I change anything from the Bixi Toronto model? Only a few things. The built-in bungee cords on the basket are very useful, but the basket is too small to carry much, limiting the bike’s shopping capacity unless you supplement with a backpack. The B-Cycle bike’s larger basket is much more practical than Bixi’s small one. I wouldn’t have minded more responsive brakes. The brakes on all the bikes I rode were slow to respond compared to my bikes at home. I wondered if this was a deliberate design choice to prevent accidents from sudden braking, rather than wear and tear on the well-used bikes. Overall, I found the Bixi bikes very comfortable and suitable for their intended use: short transportation rides.
Spacing of stations was generally good, although I wouldn’t have minded seeing a few more stations on some of the streets most heavily traveled by bikes, such as Queens Quay, College Ave. and Queen St., and in the middle of downtown.
I found Bixi’s station kiosk fairly user friendly. The “how to” video on B-Cycle’s web site is a good one, slightly more effective than Bixi’s “how to” text. Helpful hints next to each hand grip are smart additions.
A button to alert staff that this bike has problems.
Helpful reminder messages.
I look forward to having a large scale bike share program here in Chicago soon. It has great potential for giving commuters another option, especially those whose workplaces are not within easy walking distance of the endpoint of their transit trip (either Metra or Chicago Transit Authority), or for those who have commute distances of 2-5 miles. It would be handy for errands or other short trips. A bike sharing program with a large number of bikes and locations will be a big step forward for sustainable transportation in Chicago.
Note: Software issues are affecting the launch of a new bike sharing program in Chattanooga, TN, that uses the same equipment planned for ours. A pending lawsuit by another software vendor may affect existing Bixi operations. Other issues are detailed in a post about last week’s MBAC meeting.
Grid Chicago is a blog about sustainable transportation matters, projects and culture in Chicago and Illinois, by John Greenfield and Steven Vance since June 2011.
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