Posted by: Mike Rubbo | November 8, 2009

Taking the Bixi Challenge

Montreal 500

Even though I  lived in Montreal for a  good part of my life, indeed from 1965 to  1995,  I never thought of Montreal as  a bike city, I  have to say.

Some friends  rode bikes in summer, Martin, Dorothy and Marie, for instance.

I  took little notice, apart from a few nice glides along the Lachine canal on a Sunday or  two. I cant even remember owning a bike though Katya says I did.

It was in Montreal that our Ellen was born

katya and ellen


Montreal is an apartment city and many of the triplexes have steep exterior stairs.

Getting  a bike up to your apt. especially in  winter when those stars are slippery, is, let’s say,  discouraging.

montreal stairs

I also have to confess that,  though my friend, Martin Duckworth told  me on several occasions about Bicycle Bob, the amazing Bob Silverman, I paid little attention to that interesting character either.

Journalist Josh Freed, in a 2007 article,  called Bicycle Bob the Johnny Appleseed of cycling.

bicyclebob_opt

Yet the  American apple tree planter was less colorfully extreme, I suspect  than Bob Silverman.

For example, in the 1970’s   he and his guerilla band lay down one afternoon  in a Montreal  intersection in rush hour traffic,  covered in ketchup blood,  to protest the mayhem caused by cars on bikes and pedestrians .

On another occasion , Bicycle Bob dressed as Moses,   tried to part the vast  St Lawrence river which runs past the city,  so that cyclists could escape the unfriendly (for bikes)  island on which Montreal sits.

Bob must be getting on now,  but also taking pleasure from what’s happening with  bikes today,  because, I guess, it all starts with him.

I miss Montreal, miss friends, the things I used to do and those I didn’t do also, like ride a bike.

I was busy making movies. It  never occurred to me,   when I writing  the scripts for the family feature films I made with legendary producer, Rock Demers   to make bikes a part of the plot, even though many of our characters did rush about on two wheels when they needed to.

Here are some of the faces from one of the movies which preoccupied me.

tricker gang

It pleases me a lot  that these faces would be well remembered by the  many Quebecers now riding on Bixis, (see below)

They are the  stars of Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveler. In French it was;  Les Adventuriers Du Timbre Perdu, and in both languages, a hit, even without bikes.

I saw no magic in bikes in those days. The young heroes  we  put on the screen,  moved magically around  the world in another way, on postage  stamps, willing prisoners in the little pictures.

stamps 300

Tommy Tricker was our rascal.

Trommy 250

So,  it comes as a great surprise to me that Montreal is now one of the leading bike cities in the world. Indeed, probably the leader in north America though Portland,  Oregon,  has had that title for some time and still holds it in some respects.

Montreal now streaks ahead due to the brilliant street bike rental system it has created with a sit-and-beg type bike called;  the Bixi.

5000 Bixis have  just finished  their  first summer in the city. And,  as if by magic,  these sturdy   but fun bikes,  have rolled Montreal into a new reality.

(I don’t know who took these photos. Hope you don’t mind.)

bixis.gils 300

The stats are impressive. Firstly,  the whole shebang all was put together in record time

There have been approx. 400  pick up and drop off stations around the city. In some places,  they are so numerous,  that you can see one of the solar powered docking stations from another.

bixi station

bixi docking station

Apparently, the planners  knew that  the scheme wouldn’t work unless the  bikes are literally everywhere and getting one,  was  seen as, “no problema “

Bixi now has 8419 members. Those are  the locals who’ve  paid an annual fee and have unlimited access to the bikes.

Visitors swipe a credit card . For them,  the first half hour is free, and many  of the million  borrowings this summer,  were for a half hour or less, and so free. What an encouragement to try using a bike as transport, eh?

The name Bixi comes from putting bike  and taxi together, and indeed, they  are decongesting the city of both taxis and cars.

It’s  impressive that these  Bixis have kept  almost a million  kilos of green house gasses out of the atmosphere, according to their controllers.

This first season saw  approximately 3.5   million kilometers ridden on Bixis.

It’s very weird for me to see these streets I know so well with this curious new public furniture on them.

What does it do to the head, I wonder,  to have a constant visual reminder of this other way of getting around, not only reminder, but easy access as well.

Surely bikes, esp. these often derided sit-up bikes,  have made a stratospheric leap in status?

bixi on jean mance

No wonder that over 100 cities around the world have made inquiries, that London already has its 6000 Bixis. Boston is on the brink of getting 3000 , and Melbourne has just signed a contract for 600.

Hm, 600 only?  Didn’t I  read that these schemes won’ t work unless the bikes are everywhere?

Here’s a related movie made by the famous,  Streetsblog, blog It’s a happy birthday to  the mother-ship of bike share schemes,  the Velib system in Paris.

20,000 or is it, 30,000 Velibs are  now on Paris streets.  This film also   argues that you  have to swamp a city with bikes for Bike Share to work.

Otherwise,  it’s a novelty tourists might try out as an  attraction,  but no local would rely on. This  film on Velibs addresses another mystery as well.  How are these bikes paid for?

Why do locals love these systems?  It’s a no brainer,  actually.

Here’s a bike  you don’t have to take care of.   (Bikes do get punctures frequently you know,  and those gears are always out of adjustment, aren’t they? )

Secondly,  you don’t  have to worry about it being stolen, the bike owner’s nightmare. Thirdly,   you don’t have to carry it up all those stairs to your apartment,  nor store it through a  cold winter. It’s  a dream situation .

A dream for vandals and the disaffected too,  apparently,  with 80% of Velibs  already trashed and replaced.

Montreal  has not had that problem… yet.  Montrealers  are  immensely proud of their bikes and the new identity they bring to the city. They hope things  won’t turn destructive  like that, there.

The Bixis cost approx.  $2000 each. That’s  ten million dollars  in bikes on the streets. Wow!

They are managed and paid for by the city,  through Montreal’s parking authority, not by street advertising rights, as in Paris.

Andre Lavalle, the Montreal city politician  behind  the Bixi success,   opined that the city parking people had the infrastructure and know-how  to run this thing.

I should not have been surprised  to hear that Montreal had become bike famous almost overnight  because it’ s a  city famous for its flair. When  they do something,  they do it with style.

I remember Expo ’67, the Worlds Fair which was predicted to be a flop so late it was in the building, and yet it was launched  on time as one of the most thrilling displays of human creativity and good vibes, ever  seen on the planet. That was Montreal at is best. It’s a summer I’ll never forget.  I was working for the NFB, then.

Here’s the US pavilion at the famous fair, a Buckmaster Fuller dome.

Expo Us pavilion

Expo 67 was supposed only to last a summer, but so good was it,  that the summer fair  went on for years after  as Terre des Hommes, with the temporary pavilions  somehow lasting long past their use-by date.

So, Bixi is in that same tradition. It will be a great surprise if it turns out to be a passing fad.

All over the world cities are just getting on with Bike Share, not waiting for foreign experts, not agonizing, just  doing it.

In this video,  Spain, which does  not have  a strong bike culture, we see Bicing taking off in Barcelona.

Note the commentator  reports that in one year,  the number of cyclists has doubled.  Many people are riding for the first time, and the city, hitherto almost without bike paths, is now building 160 kms. of them

He concludes, “we could wait 20 years or do it all in a  shorter time.”


Australian cities wont be able to hold out for long against this seduction,  the benefits are too compelling.

Indeed,  Melbourne and Brisbane have signed small,  cautious contracts, too small to work,  say some experts.

But, as previous posts have pointed out, we are hamstrung by our very atypical helmet laws. You see no helmets in the Paris video, the Bixi material,  nor on the Bicing users in Barcelona.



It  first struck  me how far behind we are, when I took a camera with a friend when cycling around Sydney one beautiful  day,  and saw only 6 other bikes in as many hours. Compare this with the  Barcelona images.


I think bike share will be the truth teller for our helmets laws, a sort of  touchtone.  It may go like this.

I understand that only about 10% of  Montreal rider wear helmets. If it  turns  out that  even with the larger numbers on bikes in Montreal this last  summer, (moreover riders who ere less experienced, plus tourists who didn’t  know the city and it’s  traffic)

If even  with all of that,   the injury rate is  not significantly up on last year,  then it will strongly suggest that our helmet laws,  and  the constant fear-based promotion of helmets,   may have been  bogeyman talk.

We shall see

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Responses

  1. Interesting videos.

    It’s great to see how those bixis have increased cycling use in such a short time. It’s quite a spectacular increase actually, with all sorts of benefits from better health to fewer traffic jams as well as cheaper transport.

    Keep on the good work Mike.

  2. You lived in MTL til 1995?? I was there 1993 – 1996 studying at Concordia!

    I lived in the Village for a while, rue Logan, near Pont Papineau then shifted to a friends place in NDG, near rue Sherbrooke.

    I used to live in Vancouver before I moved to Montreal, and I biked alot in Vancouver. I had a Schwinn bike. I was so proud of that bike and the freedom it gave me. I was fortunate that Vancouver had alot of bike paths e.g. along West 10th (Broadway), and over Cambie Street Bridge.

    When I moved to MTL I biked there til it got cold – so I biked til end of September, and started again in May. STCUM had montly passes so I had to time my bike riding period with the monthly passes and the weather. Generally it worked out fine.

    I used to ride down Sherbrooke to NDG, and over to ST Helen’s Island (there’s a neat bike path around that island), and over to Vieux Port – up the Lachine Canals. I rode everywhere – up to the markets at Jean Talon, all over the Plateau, everywhere… but not out West or East Island. East was full of scary francophones. The West was simply too far.

    I wore a helmet, religiously, in Montreal. There was simply no way I was going to put myself at risk. The one time was a taxi driver that cut me off dangerously along rue St Denis – I banged on his trunk – he took to forcing me into a furniture delivery truck. I went to Concordia, called the cops, who very nicely came, and held up rush hour traffic while I explained to them what had happened. I was sooooo mad and I’ve never trusted taxi drivers since.

    Yes, Montreal was fabulous, cheap beer, cheap clothes, cheap food, and lots of students – and everyone was poor so the creativity was astounding. Je le manque.

    • Hi Chris, thanks for the marvellous like memories of MTL. We may have crossed paths. I have a dear friend, Martin Duckworth who is still teaching at Concordia, documentary making.

      I miss the place too and am so glad they have got Bixi going. Helmets do a sense of security and some actual security, though the protection is overrated. My main worry is that the compulsory helmet laws you and we have, are going to stop Bike Share coming which it a really civilizing power for urban cycling. Mike

  3. For myself, cycling has many emotions attached. I hadn’t heard of the Bixis until I read about them here; and when I think of going for a bicycle ride, I don’t think of anything modern and fancy. I think of the hunk of metal with two wheels that I spotted at a second-hand store one saturday afternoon, not so long ago. It was old and rusty, but I knew with a little love and care it could be my ticket to freedom. And I didn’t have to swipe a credit card for it…for $5 I wheeled it home, and it became a father and daughter project for my dad and I. We spent hours on that thing….scrubbing it down, painting it, making it mine and bringing it to life. How awesome it was when it was done! The rusty brown tarnish had given way to a shiny new coat of sky-blue, and there was even a basket on the handlebars!

    When I think of bicyling, its not a trendy, metropolitan sport for the hip and healthy. Its the feeling I felt when the blue bicycle was complete, and I hopped on it for the first time. When I rode it down the driveway, and down the street to my friend’s house. Just like Tommy Tricker and his friends would pal around downtown, my friends and I would take turns riding my “new” bike all over the place.

    I’m older now, and my height forced me to give up the blue bicycle for a taller, store-bought one. Fortunately, the feelings of pride and the fond memories of spending quality time with my dad are treasures that I’ll never outgrow.

    Mike, thanks so much for Tommy Tricker And The Stamp Traveler! I’d love to see you make another childrens movie, but this time about bicycles!

  4. Hi Mike,
    I loved the magic of Tommy Tricker and stamp travel but I guess what came close for me was riding my bike as a kid. I was self taught and remember giving myself lots of encouragement! It was amazing the first time I cycled! Then I took to the road with friends and we went out into the countryside or I made trips by myself. This was a new way of making a journey and always exciting!

    • Hi Lena, thanks so much for remembering those first moments on a bike. I remember mine too and can see the dirt road on which I first balanced. I wasn’t actually completely on the bike, but with my left foot on the pedal, I was scooting down a gradual hill. I’d love to make another kids film now and bring bike magic into it. I guess you don’t live in Montreal or you would gave mentioned the Bixis. Do you have a bike share scheme where you are?


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