After months of delays, SoBi Hamilton is rolling out bicycles for its hotly anticipated new bike share program Friday – in the dead of winter.

About 200 bikes will be installed for a “winter season test” throughout the day, while the full fleet of 750 bikes will hit the streets in March for the program’s official launch. 

The first station to get bikes Friday morning was the one outside city hall on Bay Street. 

"It's a long time coming," said Peter Topalovic, the city's project manager of Transportation Demand Management. "It's good to see them all out." 

Topalovic said rolling out some of the bikes in winter will allow SoBi Hamilton to "test the system and ensure it is completely operational for prime cycling season."

'The city is maintaining much of the cycling infrastructure throughout the winter and we want to help people stay active, mobile, and get where they need to go all year long.' - Chelsea Cox, community manager with SoBi Hamilton.

“Other North American cities like Toronto, New York and Chicago also operate their bike share programs throughout the winter with success.”

Friday morning, SoBi fleet technicians Robert Iskula and Jordan Fysh installed the first bikes at locations including the city hall station, Bay Street North and York Boulevard, James Street North and Mulberry Street and McMaster University.

Fysh, 33, was part of early conversations in Hamilton about bringing a bike share program here. He said bike share fills a gap "between the bus stop and your house". 

The $1.6-million 750-bike project was approved in December 2013 and slated to roll out mid-July, but delays with the bike's electronics and certification with Canadian telecommunication carriers slowed things down.

Unlike bike shares in Toronto and Montreal, most of the electronics on these Hamilton bikes are on the bike itself rather than the docking station. That way the company can know through GPS monitoring where the bikes are going and move the docking stations to suit the city’s most-used routes.

Fysh and Iszkula said most local cyclists they know have been understanding about the delays in rollout, but said other bike share programs in other cities have taken even longer as operators figure out the GPS and technological hookups for the bikes.

"Maybe it was an idealistic timeline originally," Fysh said. "Things take time. This city especially knows that projects take longer than they budget for." 

Bike stations can already be seen throughout the city at different locations, after they were installed months ago. The first phase of the program will see 105 SoBi hubs installed across Hamilton’s lower city, from the Dundas in the west to Gage Park in the east, with a few locations on the Mountain.

There is one bonus for anyone who is willing to brave the winter to test the system. Any of the program’s members or anyone who buys a membership during the test phase will get to do so for free for the first couple of months.

Members eager to get started

The membership clock for members won’t start ticking until the official launch date on March 20, 2015. “So members will get 14 months of usage but will only pay for 12 months, and monthly members get two months for the price of one,” said Chelsea Cox, community manager with SoBi Hamilton.

Cox told CBC Hamilton that SoBi has “enthusiastic members” who are eager to use the system as soon as possible, so the company opted to make the bikes available as quick as they could, sub-zero temperatures be damned.

“We are operating a year round system. While we expect lower usage in the winter months, many people cycle year round in Hamilton,” she said. “The city is maintaining much of the cycling infrastructure throughout the winter and we want to help people stay active, mobile, and get where they need to go all year long.

“We can gather great information on winter usage and routes using the smart-bike technology that is on each of the bikes.”

You can see where SoBi bikes will be located on this map:

With files from Kelly Bennett, Jeff Green and Samantha Craggs