Bike sharing in Toronto: a preview for Chicago’s program

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.

Published by

Anne Alt

lifelong Chicago cyclist who has lived in several neighborhoods from one end of the city to the other.

13 thoughts on “Bike sharing in Toronto: a preview for Chicago’s program”

    1. You got it. And that’s consistent with what I’ve seen on many Canadian visits since the early 1980s. The exception would be Montreal, where the driving style seems to take some inspiration from Paris.

  1. I always heard horror story about biking in Toronto, lack of infrastructure, tramway rail and other stuff. It is good to hear another opinion. Porter is definately the best airline to go from Chicago to Toronto, I swear they are always having a 20 to 50% sale.

    1. Horror stories? That doesn’t fit my experiences on any of my Toronto visits. I think the tram tracks make it a bit tricky in some places, but I found them easier to deal with than on-street rails in some other cities. If you’re riding a bike with medium to wide tires, it’s not bad. I even rode through some intersections where tracks for multiple routes crossed. Between the minimal gap and fairly smooth crossings, I had no trouble.

      Those increasingly frequent Porter sales concern me. Air Canada is now competing with them, offering very frequent flights between Montreal and Billy Bishop City Centre Airport. I love Porter’s super friendly service and more comfortable planes, so I really want to see them survive in spite of the Goliath competition.

    2. Cycling is a breeze in Toronto. Anecdotally, it seems there’s higher use there, which helps with acceptance and safety in numbers. Streetcar tracks always make me nervous, especially when wet. But always try and cross them at perpendicularly. On the flip side, unfortunately for Toronto, they have a Mayor hell bent on marginalizing the cyclist minority, while ours is pulling the city in the other direction. Not a jab Toronto, but you guys know how special your mayor is.

      As for Porter, they’ve always been that way since I started flying with them in 2008. At least once per quarter you can count on a sale.

      1. Yes, crossing tracks at a 90 degree is much safer. People I talked to there were NOT fans of Mayor Ford, and they hoped he would be a one-term mayor.

        Porter’s had some sales since the beginning, but they’re more frequent now. Not sure how much of that is Air Canada competition and how much is the economy, but it seems likely that both are factors.

        1. Streetcar tracks in Chicago occasionally rear their ugly heads (although I find them fascinating when you can still see them under the asphalt). But the bike map and other education materials and discussions don’t mention them. It is rare that you’ll need a “skill” to cross a railroad or streetcar track in this city, but it’s something everyone should know. A Chicagoan on Twitter informed me that his partner fell on the tracks on Magnolia Avenue between North Avenue and Blackhawk Street/Elston Avenue.
          Always aim for a 90 degree crossing!

  2. Glad you enjoyed your visit! I use Bixi in Toronto routinely to get between the main transit hub (Union Station) and the office. It cuts almost 20 minutes from my daily commute. The city has a way to go to improve bike friendliness along main routes, but I think it helps to know the smaller side streets as well. Looking forward to visiting Chicago after the bike share roll out! Oh, and Porter is definitely the way to go, and the Bixi station nearby is a big plus 🙂 BTW we envy the fact that Chicago has not one but *two* airports on the CTA network. What a concept!

    1. Very cool. I was encouraging my brother to try Bixi to shorten his commute. I’m curious to see if he tries it. Each time I visit, I explore a bit more. I’m looking forward to checking out more side street routes on my next visit.

      I hope you enjoy riding here in Chicago after we get bike share. I take CTA to Midway or O’Hare nearly every time I fly out of town. I appreciate both of those transit connections, but we didn’t always have them. The blue line connection to O’Hare was opened in 1984. The orange line opened in 1993.

    2. It is kind of awesome that both of our airports (Midway being a major one in its own right) are connected by rail. This is rare, even around the world.
      There’s a discussion in Washington, D.C., right now to decide if the Silver Line should be extended to Dulles airport, and who should pay for it.

  3. Anne, what payment option did you use? I’m in Toronto for the next two months for work, and I’m considering coughing up the $100 for a year subscription- given that longer rides rack up fees pretty quickly, it seems like I’d break even in the first month, if not before. Glad to see this program expanding in Chicago soon!

    1. I would disuade you from even of thinking of using bike share for long rides. It is too expensive. You’d be better to rent a bike from a shop or tourist place. Trust me. TRUST ME!

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