It was a busy week for cycling news in Vancouver. In addition to the Point Grey-Cornwall Active Transportation Corridor report (and upcoming city council vote), city staff released a report concerning the proposed public bike share (PBS) system.
The staff report outlines the status of establishing a public bike share system in Vancouver. It recommends contracting with Alta Bike Share, Inc., who operates the wildly successful New York City system as well as other systems in North America. Alta would then subcontract Bixi to provide the bicycles and docking stations.
The complete system is planned to include 1500 bikes, and 2850 docks at 125 stations located through the “Metro Core”. Calling the distribution area the “Metro Core” is a little generous (perhaps the Vancouver Core would be more appropriate) as the initial system extents are proposed to be relatively limited. The map below shows the rough extents of the initial system: bounded by Main St to the east, Arbutus St to the west, and 12th Ave to the south.
Pricing for the proposed system is comparable to other systems in North America:
The system is expect to roll out in two phases. The first phase will be limited to a small (as yet unspecified) portion of the downtown core in order to work out bugs in the system. This initial phase will begin in early (winter?) 2014 with the complete roll-out expected for spring (April? May? June?) 2014.
The big unknown with establishing a public bike system in Vancouver is the provincial helmet law. BC’s helmet law requires all bicycle riders, including adults, to wear an approved helmet. As such, the PBS is required to operate within this law. Other jurisdictions that have tried to operate bike share systems with adult helmet laws, notably Brisbane and Melbourne Australia, have failed miserably, and studies have tied those failures directly to the helmet law.
To address the helmet law in BC, Alta has proposed a system which includes a helmet vending machine and a helmet return system. The idea is that those riders that require helmets can rent one at a vending machine — and the plan is to have a vending machine and return system at every single station — and then return it when the bike is returned. Helmets not returned will be considered purchased and will be subject to an additional fee. Instead of the automated systems that had been previously discussed, the current proposal indicates that used helmets will be collected and sent to a processing facility where they will be sanitized and inspected, then returned to the vending machines. Costs for 24 hr rental or fail-to-return purchase are not contained within the staff report.
The staff report details consultations with various groups, including existing bike rental companies. Various measures will be established to ensure the PBS does not compete directly with the bike rental companies including ensuring the pricing structure favours the rental companies for trips in excess of 2 hours, by highlighting the bike rental companies in the wayfinding documentation, and by limiting the distance the PBS stations can be from existing bike rental locations.
The staff report recommends the city spend $6M initially on the system, mainly to establish the infrastructure, including the bikes, stations, and helmet infrastructure. An additional $1M will be required in the first year to cover signage, wayfinding, and staff to establish the system. Ongoing city costs are anticipated to be $500,000 annually. Additional philanthropic donations are expected, as is corporate sponsorship. In fact, a considerable component of the system is corporate sponsorship, but at this stage, those potential sponsors and their contributions have not been established.
Rather brilliantly, the costs to cover the PBS are recommended to come from the city’s Parking Site Reserve. This is a $45M reserve fund established to cover the construction, maintenance, and rehabilitation of city-owned parking facilities. However, given that the city does not plan on creating any additional parking facilities in the near future, city staff expect that this reserve has more than sufficient capacity to fund the required maintenance activities and the PBS for at least the next 10 years.
The city plan leaves the financial risk with the PBS operator, Alta. The city expects not to contribute any more to the plan beyond the $6M initial layout, and the ongoing $500,000 support costs. Alta will be responsible for finding funding for any shortfalls. In addition, in the event the system is profitable (the city report expects the system to break-even in the first year) Alta and the city will split the profits 50/50.
Public bike share systems are something that most major cities worldwide either have already established or are in the process of establishing. The systems in Montreal and Toronto are both very popular, if somewhat financially questionable. The big unknown for a system in Vancouver is the helmet law. During a recent visit to Toronto, I saw people riding the Bixi bikes everywhere. Most Bixi stations had at most a bike or two in them. However, I didn’t see a single Bixi rider wearing a helmet. Ontario doesn’t have a helmet law, and from what I saw in Toronto, helmet use is in the 25% range or less in the downtown core.
The success, or failure of the Vancouver public bike share hinges on the helmet situation. Will Bixi riders use the helmet rentals? Will the prospect of requiring a helmet for casual rides suppress the demand for the PBS? Will the Vancouver Police Department target helmet-less Bixi riders? Will the city be able to convince the province to establish either an exception for the PBS or modify the existing helmet law in some other way? Will the first phase of the program be used to put pressure on the provincial government to modify the helmet law?
City staff will present this report to Vancouver City Council on Tuesday, July 23. You can sign up to speak at this meeting, see the information here. If you can’t make the meeting, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also contact the mayor or councillors directly (see here for contact information).
Last modified: September 5, 2013