MONTREAL – When the City of Montreal unveiled it’s Bixi bike-share service six years ago, it became a template for similar services all over the world. Bike sharing agencies launched from Melbourne to New York since then that have been popular additions to those cities’ urban landscapes.
But in Montreal, where Bixi originated, the service has been mired in financial difficulties attributed to a lack of transparency and questionable management. The city sank $35 million of taxpayers’ money into Bixi last year; money that it has essentially written off.
Now that Bixi has spun-off its international arm and emerged from bankruptcy protection under the management of a non-profit, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre is hinting that 2014 could be a make-or-break season for Bixi.
“My duty as a public figure is to make sure that I manage taxpayer money. I’m not here to be popular,” he said. Making reference to the new managers of Bixi, he added, “they’re not here to pull the plug. They’re here to make sure there’s a transition. Or if it’s not possible, we would have done everything to make it happen.”
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On the Island of Montreal, there are now 460 stations handling more than 5,000 bikes. There are about 35,000 seasonal subscribers annually — the service usually begins in April and ends in October. But membership seems to have stagnated, and the mayor made it clear that Montrealers who want to keep the service viable should vote with their pocketbooks.
“I just know I’ve been using Bixi for years, and I just hope they find a way of keeping it,” said one Montrealer, who said she subscribed so that she could get exercise during her noontime lunch break.
One problem Bixi’s new managers will have to confront is an identity crisis. It isn’t really set up as a bike rental service, it is mostly designed with commuters in mind who are taking quick trips down the street. Yet many riders report that they use Bixi for unexpected trips they need to take that might not be part of a usual itinerary.
Coderre said the city will watch what happens this year before deciding what the future will hold for Bixi.
“If you truly believe in Bixi, you’ve got to show me that love,” he said.