A plan for a bicycle-sharing system in Hamilton just rolled a bit closer to reality.

Councillors voted unanimously to approve a bike share program in the city Wednesday afternoon. Now, the project will move towards the Request for Proposal (RFP) stage so that prospective operators can make a pitch to the city.

"This is great — I didn't expect it to go like this, but it is great to see," said Al Mithani, a cycling and bikeshare advocate who presented at council Wednesday.

"I would love to see a bikeshare program here within a year," Mithani told CBC Hamilton. "I would just like to see it come out as soon as possible so that we can see results."

A bikeshare program — like the Bixi Bikes used in Toronto — would allow Hamiltonians to quickly rent bikes from turnstile locations throughout the city and use them as needed.

According to Peter Topalovic, head of mobility programs and special projects with the city, a bikeshare program with 35 locations and 300 bikes (along with staff and maintenance) would cost $1.6 million – or the price of two buses.

Funds for the program would come through Metrolinx’s "Quick Wins" program, and would not cost the city directly.

Even councillors who had previously balked at the liability, equity and optics of the project — such as Ward 8 Coun. Terry Whitehead and Ward 6 Coun. Tom Jackson — were on board with the project this time around. Coun. Jackson said he is taking "a leap of faith" by backing the project.

"I'm still one of the skeptics from a commuter lane standpoint, but let's see," Jackson said, adding that he would like city staff to report back on the project each year after it is implemented.

At Wednesday's meeting, Coun. Whitehead repeatedly stated that he thought Hamilton's existing public transit system is lacking, and questioned whether or not funds should be allocated there first before implementing a brand new system like bike share.

Whitehead also said he recently met with councillors from Montreal and Toronto (cities that already have bike share programs) and they cautioned him that bikeshare systems can be expensive even after the initial costs are covered.

"Be careful on the budget line, because they will be back," Whitehead said.

Unexpected costs

That has been the case in Montreal. In 2011, the city of Montreal approved a $108-million bailout package for the Bixi bikesharing program. The city-controlled Public Bike System Company (PBSC) that runs Bixi said it needed more money to continue its expansion into other centres.

"Montrealers and the self-serve bicycle system benefit of the fact that we export bicycles outside of the country," PBSC president Roger Plamondon said at the time. "It is urgent that we have the financial leverage to continue our operations."

In fiscal 2012, PBSC expected revenue of $91 million and profit nearing $11 million. According to a Radio-Canada report, revenues are more likely to have reached $49.6 million and the profits are projected to tank, with the company losing $2.8 million.

When contacted by CBC Hamilton, PBSC communications coordinator Marie-Hélène Houle said the company would not comment on how the Bixi system has worked in other cities because the matter was still before Hamilton City Council.

Economic and fiscal benefits

City staff did present a report to council on bikeshare programs in other centres to shed some light on how ownership, infrastructure and business models work in other places. Eleven cities were listed, including Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

Bixi Bikes is involved in all those places, albeit in different ways:

  • Toronto: Bixi owns the equipment, and the business model is for profit, owned and operated. Funding sources include a capital loan, Telus/Dejardins sponsorship and user fees.
  • Ottawa: The National Capital Commission (NCC) owns the equipment, and the business model falls under its jurisdiction as well. Funding sources include the NCC, municipal capital funding, sponsorships and user fees.
  • Montreal: The City of Montreal owns the equipment and controls the business model. Funding sources include municipal tax dollars, a Telus/Dejardins sponsorship and user fees.

According to the report, Toronto "has similar cycling infrastructure" to Hamilton and results from that city's program can be used to make a comparison as to how the program could run here. According to the report:

  • Less than one per cent of all stations and bikes in Toronto and Montreal end up vandalized
  • Under 15 per cent of all users report that they used a bike or walked to work before using Bixi
  • Thirty to 50 per cent of users reported being transit users
  • Thirty-five to 50 per cent of people did not bike, walk or take transit for their daily commute before using Bixi

The report also said that there were economic and tourism benefits for each city due to the implementation of a bikeshare program.

Some Toronto councillors had worried that the city could end up on the hook for liability issues connected to a bikeshare program, but according to the report, that hasn't been the case. "Investigation into the risk of using a third party operator for a bikeshare system has demonstrated that there is minimal risk or similar risk to that of other municipal infrastructure," the report reads.

CBC Hamilton reporter Adam Carter's live coverage of the meeting: