A look inside Hamilton's surprising bike share success story

Nearly a year after the first Sobi Hamilton bikes were rolled out, the system has caught on, with the distinctive blue bikes now a regular sight around town. Here's a look at the riders and rides that have made it a success.

Nearly a year after the first Sobi Hamilton bikes were rolled out, the system has caught on

Owen Anderson has ridden the farthest of any member in Hamilton's bike share, more than 2,100 km. He posed with the bike that's traveled the farthest, No. 093- "Hamilton is beautiful!" (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

A couple of weeks ago, Owen Anderson, 54, went for a 27-kilometre bike ride — on a bike he doesn't own. 

Monumental trips like that help explain how Anderson, who does magic shows for kids for a living, is Hamilton's bike share top user.

As of Sunday, he'd ridden 2154.88 kilometres on the SOBI bike share bikes. He joined in May, so that's about 300 km a month, roughly 10 km a day. 

Sometimes he goes further, like that 27-km ride on the Rail Trail out to Highway 54 and back.

Unlike the majority of riders who use the bikes for commutes and errands, Anderson uses it entirely for recreation and exercise.

A smart phone notification a Sobi rider gets after locking up a bike in a hub. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)
He'll take any bike, but is always tickled to find the bikes named "The magician," and "bunny" parked at a hub. 

Anderson is top user among 7,300 registered riders who have made bike system an unqualified— and to some, a surprising — success in the city.

The sight of the distinctive bikes on city streets has become commonplace around town in less than a year of operation. Even its organizers and a city transport planner admit they hoped, but couldn't say for sure, the system would go as well as it has. 

"We've been really pleased at how well-received it's been," said Chelsea Cox, SOBI's community manager.

The biggest group of people to help the system achieve its success are those who wouldn't previously have called themselves cyclists. 

Some are seniors, some have chronic health issues, some are people who love to walk but find the bikes help them shave 10 minutes off here and there.

Now, the people running the system are looking for ways to grow that success even bigger.

Sobi by the numbers

Before Hamilton's bike share rolled the first bright blue and yellow bikes into hubs around town last January, the whole idea attracted a not-insignificant level of naysaying.

Some of the arguments: The system, delayed by several months, would never catch on. It cost too much ($1.6 million of provincial money earmarked by the city). The only people who'd use it would be bearded hipsters on James Street who have their own bikes, anyway.

But now, nearly a year into it, Sobi Hamilton has caught on in a big way:

Riders: The system has 7,300 active users, 1,200 of whom are members who pay a monthly subscription. They weren't previously "cyclists" — more than 60 per cent of riders say before Sobi, they rode a bike once a month or less.

Distance: Sobi covers a 40-kilometre area from Westdale to Ottawa Street to the escarpment in the south.

Bikes: There are 750 bikes and 115 hubs that riders have used to bike close to 400,000 km total in less than a year.

Ride length: Rides are an average of 19 minutes and 2.16 km.

A heat map shows where riders traveled with Sobi bikes on Dec. 7. (Sobi Hamilton)
: One bike, No. 093, named "Hamilton is beautiful!" has traveled 2802.48 km as of Sunday, the most of any one bike in the system.

Gender: Sobi staff are perhaps proudest of stats showing the riders break down evenly between men and women, which they say is uncommon in other bike shares. 

The system is so popular even the people who run it, who have fancy, trusty bikes of their own, find themselves using it all the time.

"Once you start using it you just realize it's there," said  Cox. 

We've kind of assumed that everyone who wants to ride a bike has that opportunity, but it wasn't true.- Sara Mayo, Social Planning and Research Council

The city used $1.6 million in provincial money to buy the bikes and get the program running, but now it runs on sponsorships and subscriptions. A $25,000 grant from Union gas this year kicked off a subsidized-membership initiative, which distributed 250 memberships to people who might not otherwise have afforded it.

A map of the existing bike share stations, in red circles, and proposed placements in blue to fill in the program's eastern expansion. (City of Hamilton)

One challenge facing the program: The need for more bikes and hubs to make it as convenient across the whole service area as it is in the city's western neighbourhoods. The ideal distance a rider would have to walk to get to a hub is less than 500 metres, and that ratio is larger in Central Hamilton. 

That's why city staff want to add a handful of new hubs and between 75 and 125 new bikes east of Wentworth Street. 

Changing behaviour

A popular place to start is a protected trail like Bayfront Park. 

People who haven't ridden for years drive or walk there, take out a bike and give it a spin. 

"Bike share has been hugely important. It's renewed a lot of people's love affair with the bike that they might have had as a kid but didn't bike for many years," said Sara Mayo, who researches Hamilton cycling for the Social Planning and Research Council. 

"It's amazing that we've kind of assumed that everyone who wants to ride a bike has that opportunity, but it wasn't true," Mayo said.

Barb Richardson, 51, works with adults with special needs and says Sobi has made cycling possible for an activity to do with them. Here she is with Lloyd Adams, who received a subsidized membership through Good Shepherd. (Barb Richardson)
Barb Richardson, 51, has four jobs and lives near Tim Hortons Field. She said Sobi has helped fill in the gaps in her household that has one car — she can get dropped off downtown and bike home whenever she wants. 

The program's eastern expansion from its initial Gage Park boundary has made that possible, Richardson said. 

From downtown, it's a 20-minute bus ride home once she gets on the bus, she said. "But I can ride a bike to the hub in 12 minutes."

A game of convenience

Cycling in general is well-suited for a trip that's too far to walk but too close to drive. But Sobi changes that equation. 

"The difference, really, is that you can make a one-way trip," said Peter Topolovic, who works in the city's transportation department. "That turns out to be a lot more people than you think."

Anderson, the marathon rider, pays for a monthly membership, which gives him an hour of use per day. He sees the constraint as a game to see how far he can get in the hour. 

Like Richardson, he walks out of his way to return bikes that were locked out of the hubs to hubs, collecting credits towards days he does go over the hour limit. 

He's almost collected enough to pay for his next year's membership, which costs $85.

He never expected he'd be the highest user, he said. 

"I just decided to try Sobi and it worked out OK," he said. "It looked kind of cool."