Bixi Lands Boston, London: Game-Changer for Public Bikes?

bixi
Montreal’s bikesharing system, known as “bixi,” is coming to Boston and London. Photo by amesis.

London and Boston made big announcements this week, both naming Montreal’s Public Bike System – known as Bixi (short for “bicycle taxi”) – as their preferred bike-share provider.  Could Bixi’s foray onto the world scene be a game changer for public-use bicycles?

Beginning in spring 2010, Londoners and Bostonians can sign up for a personal key card ($78/year CND in Montreal) providing 24-hour access to thousands of convenient bicycles for short-term use. Members can hop on bikes at hundreds of stations throughout the city center, and ride them one-way to other stations, with up to 30 minutes for free. The concept, already taking Europe by storm, is clean, affordable, and super convenient.

London plans an impressive 6,000 bicycles at 400 stations. Boston envisions 2,500 bikes at 290 secure racks, before expanding to 5,000 bicycles at 475 locations as the system reaches Cambridge, Brookline, Arlington, and Somerville.

This week’s news signals a major shift for the bike-sharing industry. To date, advertising giants like ClearChannel and JC Decaux have operated the largest systems, mostly in Europe. Public Bike System is the first mobility company, focused on bicycles, to compete and win a major city contract. Make that two.

Why is this important? Public Bike System plans to manage the system locally and responsively, with the goal of making neighborhoods healthier and more sustainable.  Its business is bikes.

I wrote in July about Washington, D.C.’s contrasting experience with the bikes-for-advertising model, in which ClearChannel seems reluctant to expand its 100-cycle SmartBike pilot unless D.C. donates more public ad space to subsidize the program:

ClearChannel’s business is advertising, so its mission compels it to focus on billboards, not bikes. Moreover, because the city owns all the bike-share revenue, while ClearChannel owns all the cost, better service and more business mean LESS profit for the operator.

Bixi promises to fix this conundrum too. The Boston engagement commits Public Bike System to providing its own capital and implementing a system that covers all its costs. If successful, Bixi may become the first large, self-sustaining bike-share system in the world. Financial self-sufficiency could pave the cycle track for hundreds of new cities to bike along.

Public Bicycle System is not the only new mobility company winning new bike-share business. Veloway (by Veolia) operates a small system in London and soon will serve two cities in France plus a university. And B-Cycle (by Humana and Trek) plans to roll out small systems in Denver, Miami Beach, and Honolulu.  Meanwhile, ClearChannel continues to win new business too — with news this week of planned system in Mexico City.

Bixi’s job will not be easy. It will have to balance service quality, societal benefits, and financial pressure, in a new service model with many unknowns.

Will Bixi demonstrate a better service and superior business model, in practice? Or will it prove, as many competitors say, that bike sharing must receive large public subsidy to be truly green, convenient, and affordable? The answer sure will be exciting.

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