Bike sharing in Calgary may be reality by summer

It costs half the price of a C-Train ticket. It requires an app and two legs to operate. Its carbon footprint is less than zero. It's bike sharing, and as it rolls out across North America, several companies have cast their eyes on launching in Calgary.

All you will need is an app, a membership and a couple bucks

Last September, China-based U-bicycle said Victoria will be the first North American market where it will distribute its dockless bikes. A mobile phone is used to release the bike's locking mechanism. (U-bicycle)

Need a bike? There's a app for that.

Calgary could be on the verge of getting a bike share program. It would work a bit like car sharing. Sign up, find bike, unlock and you're good to go.

The idea was first floated years back, and kind of got the kibosh. But now new technologies and business models mean there could soon be a new way to get around town. 

Tom Thivener, Calgary's active transportation projects co-ordinator, says that while nothing has been signed, it could happen this summer or next, after the city works out some details.

He chatted with David Gray on the Calgary Eyeopener about the idea.

Tom Thivener, the City of Calgary's active transportation planner, says changes in technology means bike sharing may be coming to Calgary as early as this summer. (Stephen Hunt/CBC)

Q: Bike sharing has been around as an idea for a while. What changed?

A: In 2011, 2012, when cycling strategy was just starting to unfold, that was one of the 50 action items that the policy set to work on. But it came with a caveat at the last minute. Council said, 'we're not so sure about this bike share stuff. We don't know if we want to dedicate taxpayer dollars toward a system.'

Usually what's involved is about two or three million dollars of public money to buy the infrastructure — the bicycles and the stations —  that go along [with it]. 

While this is essentially an extension of the public transit system — that last mile of the trip — it was nonetheless viewed with skepticism.

We were given the OK. Like [they said], 'bike share is good for Calgary, just don't pay for it and don't operate it. Let a third party do it.'

At the time, we said, 'well there isn't really anybody doing that kind of business,' so [instead of implementing it], we just focused on building the infrastructure and built the cycle track network a few years ago.

Well lo and behold, now there's a [privately-funded business] model out there that very much mirrors Car2go, and it's starting to take off.

Q: How does it work?

A: These are smart bikes that don't require the stations to lock up to. They work using an app on your smartphone to locate a bike. So you have to be a member, like Car2go. But once you are, you can locate a bike, walk up to the bike and basically unlock it using your smartphone.

Q: How do they keep bikes from getting stolen?

A: The only thing that secures the bike from walking away is a wheel lock on the back that's electronically manipulated. Technically, you could throw it in the river, you could throw it in your truck — not things they advise. But they come with GPS, so that's the security feature for them that they won't lose the bikes. Cities are launching systems that range from 500 bikes to a thousand bikes, to Seattle … a city that now has 9,000 bikes.

Q: Tell me about Seattle.

A: Two years ago, they had the station bay system but it wasn't really working, and council nixed that. They didn't want the overhead, [or] the expense every year. And nobody was really sure if bike share would ever work again, But a year later, they have three or four different companies operating and 9,000 bikes. It's proof that a smart city can operate these smart bike systems very successfully.

Q: Can it work in a winter city?

Canadian winter weather could be a challenge for bike sharing companies interested in expanding to cities like Calgary. (John Rieti/CBC)

A:  Bike share has been tested in winter cities like Minneapolis, Chicago, and Montreal is one of the big ones. In some cities, they park the bikes for winter. In other cities, they let them operate. So they're really trying to determine that sweet spot for them, because if the bikes aren't operational, then obviously they're not getting the revenue. But if they have to put them in a warehouse, then they have to pay for that warehouse — so they're trying to figure out the right balance to make that work.

Q: How much would it cost?

A: Essentially, $1 to 1.50 per half hour trip — half the price of a train trip.

Q: Can it work without city funding?

A:  Yes. [Bike sharing] companies are giving us a call. They range from very small to multi-million to multi-billion dollar companies. They're not asking for anything, just assistance in determining the area they'd operate, some basic input on what the rules of the road would be, and how we can educate users.

Q: What about bike maintenance?

A:  That's essentially the knock compared to the station-based ones that are really maintained, they're built like tanks. These are not really cheap bikes but they're not really great bikes either — because last thing we want is a bunch of 311 calls to the city to go solve somebody else's problem.

Q: Where do we go from here?

A: There's so much demand, there's so many calls coming in, and there's so many companies launching across North America, we really need to set up the protocols right away. Let's regulate. How many bikes can be rolled out at a time? Let's define a pilot period. Let's define what the maintenance protocols would be, what the parameters are. And the other big thing is, where they can park the bikes.

Q: Where do you park the bikes?

A: You could technically just park it on a sidewalk, [but] we don't want them blocking pedestrian access ways, we don't want them in traffic or crazy spots — [and the question is] if it gets placed wrong by the end user, how quickly can they respond to resolve that situation?

Q: What's the timeline for when bike sharing might arrive in Calgary?

A: There are companies that are able to produce and probably roll out this summer. We haven't signed anything yet, so I hesitate to say, but if it's not this summer, [then] next summer.

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as we build the city we want — the city we need. It's the place for possibilities. A marketplace of ideas. So. Have an idea? Email us at

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener