Special Report: Cycling

Hamilton Lucked Out With Bike-Share

If just one little thing had happened differently with the request for proposals for a Hamilton bike-share, it might have been a disaster.

By Ryan McGreal
Published August 23, 2016

Many people don't know just how amazingly Hamilton lucked out with its bike-share program. If one little thing had happened differently, it might have been a total disaster.

Hamilton Bike Share bike named after raisethehammer.org

Bike-Share History and Bixi

The concept of a modern bike-share system in which members use an ID card to sign out a bike dates to a small program at Portsmouth University in 1996.

The first municipal system came two years later in the French city of Rennes, built in partnership between the city and Clear Channel, an ad company that wanted the bikes and stations for space it could sell to advertisers.

That large-scale model of a member-based system partially funded by ad revenue appealed to JCDecaux, an ad company based in France. In 2005, they launched a system in Lyon with 1,500 bikes.

Two years later, they went massive with a 6,000 bike system in Paris - a number that has since more than tripled as that system has continued to grow and expand.

Velib' station near Gare d'Austerlitz, Paris (RTH file photo)
Velib' station near Gare d'Austerlitz, Paris (RTH file photo)

In 2009, bike-share came to to Canada with Bixi (a portmanteau of bicycle and taxi), a new system created by Public Bike System Company (PBSC), a corporation owned by the municipal government of Montreal.

The publicly-owned company started with a 3,000 bike system in Montreal, but decided they could help defray the cost of that system by selling the same technology to other cities.

Over the next couple of years, the company went on to set up bike-share operations in Toronto, Melbourne, Minneapolis, Washington, Boston, Chicago, London, San Francisco and several other cities.

Toronto Bixi station in 2011 (RTH file photo)
Toronto Bixi station in 2011 (RTH file photo)

In North America, at least, Bixi was the state of the art.

Toward Bike-Share in Hamilton

During this time, Peter Topalovic started seriously thinking he would like to see a bike-share system right here in Hamilton.

Mr. Topalovic is the City's project manager for transportation demand management, which basically means: getting people to drive less. A bike-share system can be an excellent way of getting people to do that, by providing a more convenient, cost-effective alternative for short-distance trips.

So he did his research and developed a proposal that was so easy to swallow, even Hamilton City Council would have a hard time saying no.

Metrolinx, the arms-length organization coordinating regional transit across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), had a "Quick Wins" capital fund that cities could use to make active transportation investments. A grant of $1.6 million was available for Hamilton, but the city had to spend it before the end of 2013 or else we would lose it.

Topalovic determined that $1.6 million from the Metrolinx Quick Wins fund would pay for a Bixi-style bike-share system with 300 bikes at 35 stations between McMaster University and downtown.

After the initial roll-out and a few years of growth, the operational costs could be covered from member subscriptions, ad revenue and title sponsorship.

The proposal landed in front of City Councillors in February 2013, at the end of an epic general issues committee meeting in which Councillors waded through and then voted to approve "Rapid Ready", the city's light rail transit (LRT) plan and provincial funding request.

By the time they got to the bike-share proposal, they were too progress-exhausted to consider it, and they pushed it back to staff to look more closely at the city's potential liability.

The report came back in spring of 2013 with reassurances that the City would not be liable in the case of an injury claim, and Council directed staff to put out a request for proposals (RFP).

Then disaster struck: the bid submitted by PBSC, the Montreal-owned company behind Bixi, was automatically rejected because the application form was not filled in correctly. Bixi was the most widespread system in North America, and losing it from the running meant Hamilton's options might be severely limited.

Bixi Meltdown

That incorrectly-filled form turns out to have been a blessing in disguise.

Bixi was proving to be popular in several cities, but behind the scenes, PBSC was having serious problems. In 2012, the corporation fought with 8D Technologies, a partner company that had developed the software that ran the Bixi system, to take the software development in-house.

That resulted in a lawsuit by 8D Technologies. Making matters worse, the new PBSC software was a long-delayed, bug-ridden fiasco. That, in turn, created big problems for the company's municipal bike-share clients, some of which began withholding payments until the issues were resolved.

The PBSC business model was fundamentally sound, but mismanagement had pushed the company into a cash-flow crisis. That crisis came to a head in 2014 when the company declared bankruptcy with $46 million in debt.

A real estate developer named Bruno Rodi swept in and bought the international division of PBSC, supplying badly-needed capital, adding developers to fix the software, and starting to shift its focus from operations to pure hardware and software sales. (The other part of the company, Montreal's Bixi system, is still publicly owned and is a PBSC customer.)

In 2015, Rodi sold the company to Luc Sabbatini, a former sales executive, who took over as CEO, and the company is now profitable again. There are currently 47,000 PBSC bikes and 3,800 stations in operation in 15 cities and two university campuses.

Still, try to imagine the level of angst around the horseshoe at 71 Main Street West if all that was going on while Hamilton prepared to roll out a bike-share under the same system in 2014, while the company was going through bankruptcy. Can you hear the howls of outrage and vitriol from the anti-progressive squelchers and trolls?

Council would have backpedalled from the plan so hard they would have cracked the sound barrier.

Social Bicycles

But by a happy accident, we managed to dodge that whole fiasco. Instead, the winning bid was from a young, small, high-growth company called Social Bicycles (SoBi), a New York-based tech startup dedicated to creating the next generation of bikeshare technology.

Unlike Bixi-style systems, where the technology to run the operation is embedded in expensive docking stations, SoBi bikes themselves include the hardware and software used to manage them - including GPS positioning so that the system always knows where every bike is at any moment. (It's thanks to this feature that I was recently able to analyze bike-share trip data to determine that most bike trips along the Cannon Street cycle track are short-distance and local.)

Because of the lower cost of the SoBi system compared to Bixi, we ended up getting more than twice as many bikes as the original RFP proposed: 750, with 115 stations in a 38 square kilometre area.

Council signed off on the contract in December 2013, and Hamilton Bike Share launched officially on March 15, 2015.

Since then, both membership and daily ridership have been growing by leaps and bounds. This summer it has had around 1,200 trips a day, and it has been used for commuting as well as various other short trips.

I think it's fair to say that the system is already succeeding far beyond even the most optimistic projections of its supporters. Even the detractors - who predicted that no one would use it and it would fail - have fallen silent.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

19 Comments

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted August 23, 2016 at 09:28:43

A happy accident indeed! Skipping the obsolescent third-generation BIXI model and moving straight to the latest fourth-generation technology was fortunate not only for Hamilton but for the entire world.

Until the launch last month of the SoBi system in Portland, Oregon, Hamilton had by far the largest fourth-generation system in the world. Hamilton was the pioneer, launching the pilot project that demonstrated the success of fourth-generation capability to the rest of the world.

This success has resulted in Ottawa converting from BIXI to SoBi and Toronto considering a similar conversion.

I have used both systems, in Hamilton and Toronto, and 4th generation technology is clearly superior. Among other things, the ability to lock up anywhere eliminates the danger of "dock-blocking." Dock blocking happens in a 3rd generation system when the docks are all full at the station when the rider arrives at his destination. In Toronto's 3rd generation system, the user must finish the ride by docking at an open dock at a station. With SoBi, a full station means that one simply locks up anywhere nearby.

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2016-08-23 09:32:22

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By mdrejhon (registered) - website | Posted August 23, 2016 at 13:50:01 in reply to Comment 119815

Great reply, couldn't have said it better myself.

That Toronto newspaper headline, "Why is Hamilton's bike sharing scheme more popular than Toronto's?", just sums it up.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted August 23, 2016 at 11:26:13 in reply to Comment 119815

With SoBi, a full station means that one simply locks up anywhere nearby.

And just to clarify, as long as the bike is locked up in the immediate vicinity of the hub (i.e. within several metres), it falls within the GPS boundaries of the hub and does not incur an out-of-hub charge.

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By DanJelly (registered) | Posted August 23, 2016 at 10:30:59

I hadn't ridden a bike in years until SoBi came along. It works because it's easy, it's affordable and it's available in (the vast majority of) the places I want to go.

When I rode Montreal's Bixi system last year and I had exactly the problem KevinLove mentioned. Because of Bixi's pricing scheme the full hub ended up costing me extra money because as a tourist I didn't immediately know where the next closest hub was. I ended up going over the alloted "free" time. Losing a bit of time and money isn't a big deal when you're on vacation, but if you're commuting you may not have time to go hunting for an open hub. SoBi's big edge is its usability.

Peter Topolovic and his cohorts have done a great job, and I'm stingy with my praise for Council but they deserve a lot of credit. SoBi is one of their best achievements and it should only continue to grow.

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted August 23, 2016 at 11:21:53

B-b-b-but we have an escarpment..... and snow.....and a harbour.....

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By NortheastWind (registered) | Posted August 23, 2016 at 13:15:41

I had know idea about the out of hub feature. I witnessed someone lock a bike to a pole and then hop on a GO bus in front of Jackson Square. To steal a line from the Beatles, she "made the bus in seconds flat". I thought it was more about catching her bus than caring about the bike, when all along the system is designed that way. Interesting! This feature could potentially force changes in hub locations if people consistently leaving bikes out-of-hub at particular places.

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By mdrejhon (registered) - website | Posted August 23, 2016 at 14:02:36

SoBi has succeeded spectacularly beyond expectations by a wonderful coincidence of many factors.

We also have among one of the world's most inexpensive bikeshare systems from a Pay-Per-Use perspective. Just $3 one-time fee lets you become a member and you can zoom from Gage Park to downtown for less than one dollar ($4/hr is pro-rated by the minute). That's cheaper than the HSR bus! Not to mention, there's more SoBi station density downtown Hamilton than HSR bus stations.

Some additional advantages:

  • Bike rebalance is mostly crowdsourced. Users can return off-station bikes to stations for a bounty/credit. Despite having only one dedicated rebalancing vehicle, our system is more well-rebalanced than Bike Share Toronto's.

  • Full stations aren't an urgent rebalancing emergency, so fewer rebalancing rolls are needed, especially during low usage times (low revenue times).

  • Hamilton's specific stations are designed to accomodate a 2x overflow factor (A 10-rack station accomodates 20 SoBis, before bikes need to park off-station)

  • You can signup by phone and take a bike away on the spot. The system is essentially kioskless. There are some symbollic kiosks for tourists, though a couple aren't working at the moment.

  • My favourite feature. You can check out more than 1 bike at a time with your same SoBi code! (Up to 3 total) This is great for out-of-town guests.

  • The SoBi system is self-sustaining at lower usage levels per bike (about 2 rides per day per bike in fleet) and only requires minor grant touch-ups. It appears it won't be very long before the system is fully self sustaining without need for grants.

  • By being able to self-sustain itself at usage levels of only 2 rides per day per bike, there is far less pressure to rebalance to capture more rides than peak/commute directions per day (e.g. McMaster University tends to fill up with bikes, then empties later as students leave the campus). For many commute pairs, they don't even need to bother rebalancing the bikes at all to milk the bikeshare revenue.

  • In a pinch, SoBi systems can function for several days without a single rebalancing roll -- especially during the winter.

  • For a while, bike rebalancing was done by using only 1 carsharing vehicle, until they got a dedicated vehicle. (In comparision, Bike Share Toronto has a fleet of bike rebalancing vehicles now). Bike rebalancing costs per subscriber ride is extremely low, compared to PBSC / BIXI systems...

  • In downtown Hamilton, you have more SoBi station density than bus stops. So in many cases on a beautiful sunny day, it's more convenient to grab a SoBi for a one-way trip than catch the bus, given how limited the bus service can be sometimes.

The costs are very low to keep operating the existing SoBi system, with the operating costs more easily able to throttle backwards/forwards depending on level of sponsorship/grants. It's easier to throttle-back/cut-back on operating costs with the SoBi-type system (4th generation) than the other BIXI/PBSC type systems (3rd generation).

Given other SoBi systems are either slightly or much more expensive than Hamilton's -- we have the most inexpensive SoBi system in North America -- Eventually, a small fee raise (e.g. $5/hr or $6/hr) may need to occur but hopefully not too soon. Hopefully Hamilton can keep pro-rating (BIKETOWN is minimum $2.50 per ride on Pay-Per-Use, while SoBi Hamilton has no minimum cost. You can ride a short hop between two bikeshare stations for mere pennies on Pay-Per-Use! Some people ride Pay-Per-Use unexpectedly often enough (e.g. say 100 rides in a year, totalling over $100) that they're now upgrading to annual memberships. Still cheaper than 100 bus rides...

The ridership growth is now ensuring the continued existence of bikeshare in Hamilton, even if the grants stop later (e.g. political reasons). So now being over 10,000 active members, we're pretty safe now.

Comment edited by mdrejhon on 2016-08-23 14:51:03

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By Susie (registered) | Posted August 23, 2016 at 17:50:05 in reply to Comment 119824

Having no minimum fee is fantastic and part of the reason why I use it so much. I can get to and from most places for less than a dollar. You wouldn't think twice about just grabbing a bike.

Comment edited by Susie on 2016-08-23 17:51:47

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By mdrejhon (registered) - website | Posted August 23, 2016 at 14:29:20

After recently breaking 10,000 active members, SoBi is now essentially operationally secure -- the current challenge is now to find more capital for expanding SoBi territory.

This is usually via grants, and government funding. Today, I just found out Toronto Bike Share got a $1.25 million federal funding for getting bike share stations at 50 TTC stations.

image

Perhaps an opportunity?

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted August 23, 2016 at 15:28:26 in reply to Comment 119825

Which would be a good reason to expand SoBi and protected bike lanes into East Hamilton before the LRT is built. So that SoBi can act as a feeder to the LRT system.

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By MattM (registered) | Posted August 24, 2016 at 12:36:55 in reply to Comment 119826

Definitely feel like the next expansion step should be into East Hamilton and possibly the North mountain (Fennell or Mohawk to the Brow between Garth and Upper Ottawa). East Hamilton I think would be the most important expansion, either to Parkdale with denser hub spacing or Centennial with less dense stations past Parkdale. I'd imagine an East Hamilton expansion would require an additional 20 hubs plus 50-75 or so bikes.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted August 24, 2016 at 12:43:01 in reply to Comment 119837

Hamilton Bike Share has applied to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities' Green Municipal Fund for capital to add 75-125 bikes and 5-7 hubs in the east end of the current network, where hubs are sparse. If their grant request is approved, it will require matching municipal funds. This will definitely help fill out the service area, which was extended east beyond what the initial capital allotment of bikes and hubs could really support.

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By HamiltonBrian (registered) | Posted August 23, 2016 at 19:40:09

We just spent time out in Vancouver and Calgary. We ended up renting bikes rather than using the "hub" bikes in Vancouver because of cost. I got to thinking, "it would be amazing if the systems were so integrated that I could be a SoBi member in Hamilton, and I could grab a bike in Vancouver as part of that membership."

Calgary, surprisingly, balked at the bike shares. My cousin said it was fallout from the Bixi meltdown.

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By Mdrejhon (registered) - website | Posted August 23, 2016 at 21:26:15 in reply to Comment 119828

I can use my SoBi membership in both Ottawa (VeloGO) and Buffalo (Reddy Bikes). Same bike, just painted in another color there.

I just log on and add the additional cities to my account, via my phone browser.
Yet another SoBi advantage I forgot to mention too...

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted August 23, 2016 at 21:58:21

Looking forward to getting a phase 2 set up on the Mountain. One of the things we're looking at trying to get rolled out is a station in our neighbourhood hub, to tie in with the bike rental program for kids. It also ties in nicely with Clr. Whitehead's proposal of the brow multi-use path!

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By dlizenriquez (registered) | Posted August 24, 2016 at 13:11:34

Very proud of Hamilton's bike share system, the users, and people who made this happen. Thank you!

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By mdrejhon (registered) - website | Posted August 24, 2016 at 15:07:58

I just noticed a couple of bikes with brand new screens/keypads (But with existing chassis/solar panel). It does seem they replace defective screens and keypads on a per-bike basis.

Keypad reliability has improved on several bikes. Some bikes have difficult-to-type-on keypads (iffy keys) from the first-generation design but I've found a few bikes that are easy to punch code in reliably. I hope those becomes more numerous! :)

Also, more pros of the SoBi technology, I hadn't even included:

-- I wonder if the chainless shaft-drive transmission has shown bike maintenance savings through Canadian winters. I've not found any problems with the shaft drive, except remembering to shift while coasting (stop pedaling for a fraction of a second). How quickly is shaft-drive wearing out in the real world?

-- Over-the-air firmware upgrades for the built-in bike computer. That's how the guest feature arrived (allow same membership code to unlock 3 bikes simultaneously) and how the bike lock alarm arrived (if you forgot to fully lock the electronic U-bar). All the bikes have solar-powered 3G/LTE cellular data (and GPS) because they all need to transmit GPS positions and bike rentals to central server, and automagically, that means over-the-air firmware upgrades are conveniently possible for the bike fleet!

Comment edited by mdrejhon on 2016-08-24 15:20:36

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted August 26, 2016 at 17:03:27

I've not found any problems with the shaft drive, except remembering to shift while coasting (stop pedaling for a fraction of a second)

Huh? All internal gear bikes are like that.

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By mdrejhon (registered) - website | Posted September 01, 2016 at 10:26:21

Breaking news

September 1st, 2016

Bike Share Toronto has a half-price $45 annual membership for Presto Cardholders!

Image

Just bought one -- it's only $45 for unlimited 30-minute bike rentals for 365 days in Toronto! Worth it even if I only ride once a month. The clock resets when you dock, and you can take the bike back out again in a couple of minutes.

This is great for me as a GO commuter to Toronto -- my first mile is served by SoBi Hamilton, and my last mile is servable by Bike Share Toronto.

As an earlier member of Toronto's Bike Share -- their system definitely is not as fun or peace-of-mind as SoBi (due to occasionally full stations, inability to park off-station, which would made those isolated Danforth docks a lot more handy).

But either way -- $45 for a whole year of unlimited bike rentals (up to 30-min ride each, clock resets when you park). All day, all week, all year -- is a great price and an automatic purchase for any SoBi member who's frequently in Toronto.

Comment edited by mdrejhon on 2016-09-01 10:47:30

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