I wanted to like you. I really really did.
I’d heard such great things about you in your first two years of operations. How your system was innovative. Green. How it was encouraging more people to cycle, reducing traffic congestion, and promoting healthy habits. How convenient and easy and affordable it was. How nice it was to be able to take a bike whenever you want, without having to worry about getting it home, locking it up, maintaining it, or having it stolen.
I didn’t sign up for the first two years, because I lived walking distance from my office. Now, I’m just far enough to have to take public transit, but I thought that Bixi would be a superb solution for 4 or 5 months of the year. This summer, I decided, was the year I would Bixi.
I had some concerns, to be sure. The ride home from my office includes some relatively steep uphill, and I wasn’t sure how much fun that would be on the clunky, heavy Bixi. I’d heard that it was occasionally hard to find a docking station or a bike. A city built on a hill, like Montreal, is inevitably going to end up with a bunch of bikes at the bottom of the hill — especially when Bixi so conveniently gives you the lazy option of biking down and metroing back up. I was a little nervous about biking in downtown city traffic, after being so out of practice on two wheels. But the network of bicycle paths, well maintained by the city and conveniently linking home to office, encouraged me to give it a try.
A first test
It was early May and after weeks of cold and rainy weather, the sun had finally come out. I left the office on one of those perfect spring days, and I just couldn’t bring myself to face the dark tunnel of the metro when it was so beautiful outside. So, on a whim, I entered my credit card at the Bixi station nearest to my office (in Vieux-Montreal, near Square-Victoria) and paid $5 for a 24-hour membership. I punched in the code, wheeled a bike out of the dock, and off I went.
It was a bit wobbly for the first few minutes, and I found the frame to be a bit big for my height and size, making the handlebars awkwardly far from the seat. Still, I got used to it pretty quickly, figuring out how to use the gear shift and controls and even the built-in bell. Not bad. Just like riding a bike.
The path along the waterfront was great. The uphill along the Berri bike path was a bit of a challenge, and I was huffing and puffing by the time I got to the top of Sherbrooke. Still, that just encouraged me even further; surely, biking that route daily would be a great way to get back into shape. And I couldn’t wait to try it downhill the next morning.
When I got to the Bixi station nearest to my apartment in the Plateau, I was at about 27 minutes out of the free 30 that you get with the one-off membership. (Annual subscribers get 45 minutes for free). Unfortunately, there were no free docks available, but I was able to enter my credit card and obtain credit for an extra 15 minutes. The next station over had free docks, so I headed a couple of blocks away and parked it, no problem. I was high on Bixi at that point, ready to sign up on the spot.
The next morning, however, didn’t go so well.
Before leaving the house, I checked the Bixi website, and saw that all three stations near my apartment were listed as having several bikes available. I set out and walked to the nearest one, entered my credit card to get an unlock code and… nothing. There were bikes there, but the ability to rent one was greyed out on the terminal. I thought it was just me at first, and tried it again, but nothing. Nada. Zip.
So I walked two blocks away to the next station. Once again, there were a half-dozen bikes available, but there didn’t seem to be any way of renting them. Frustrated now, I walked over to a third station, where the exact same thing happened.
I dug out my cell phone and called the customer service number, and was placed on hold for nearly 15 minutes (at 20 cents a minute on my PAYG, I might add). I started walking toward the metro, since I was nearing a half-hour late for work and I couldn’t keep standing around by the bikes like some kind of loser. When I finally got through to an agent, I reported the problem. Apparently there was a system-wide problem where all the stations in Montreal were experiencing technical difficulties that morning, and nobody was able to rent bikes.
The whole system is down, I argued. I can’t use the 24-hour membership that I paid for. Surely I’m entitled to a refund.
We’ll request it, he said. But there’s no telling if you’ll get it or when it will be. And no, I can’t give you any way to follow up on that request.
At this point, the wasted time was far more valuable than the wasted $5. I hung up.
So far, a 50% failure rate wasn’t looking too encouraging, and was making me reconsider the whole endeavour.
Flash forward three weeks. By this point, I’d decided that I would give Bixi another chance. In the last week of May, I signed up for an annual membership online. Come June 1st, I didn’t renew my STM monthly pass, figuring I’d buy individual tickets for those days when I couldn’t Bixi, and rely on biking the rest of the time. I even went out and picked up a snazzy new helmet.
A week later and it was June already and my key still hadn’t arrived in the mail. This was compounded by Canada Post’s strike – not Bixi’s fault, of course, but just an added frustration. Still, the weather was nice, and I’d already used far too many individual STM tickets, so I decided to take out another 24-hour membership while I waited for the key to show up.
This time, the problems started almost immediately. The station nearest to my house had 4 bikes (out of 9 spots), but every single one of them was broken – 3 flat tires and one broken chain. I’d been hearing about an increase in defective bikes, speculated to be caused at least partly by vandalism. Apparently the rumours were true. Anyway, I dutifully went to the next station a couple of blocks down and picked up a bike and was off.
My ride to work that morning – all downhill – took exactly 11 minutes. It was fun, coasting downhill in the summer breeze. I could really get used to this as my primary means of commuting, I thought.
Before I’d left the house, I’d checked the site to see if there would be any docks available near my office. There appeared to be a significant number available at the nearby stations, so I figured I’d find one by the time I got there.
Unfortunately. that was not to be. I went to five different Bixi stations to try to park the bike. Each one of them thought it had available docks, but the docks were broken and didn’t recognize the parked Bixi. To make matters worse, the stations – assuming they had available spots – didn’t allow for a time credit for an extra 15 minutes of time. I tried using the tool on the station to find spots at nearby docks, but none were found other than the broken ones. Another hapless Bixi-er who I met at one of the stations had his iPhone app loaded, and was looking for parking. He said it indicated that there were no available docks anywhere in the neighbourhood, or anyplace close by.
Once again, out came the cell phone and I called the customer service line. Once again, I was put on hold for nearly 15 minutes. This may not seem like a lot, but when you’re being charged by the minute for your phone, by Bixi for your overtime, when you’ve already wasted 20 minutes going station to station, and when you’re late for work on top of everything else, it’s a serious hassle.
When the agent came on the line, I explained the issue and he checked the system. He suggested two nearby stations that he said had docks available, but I’d just come from both of them and knew those docks were broken – which I reported as such. His next suggestion was for me to stay with the bike while he called dispatch to send a technician out. But when he put me on hold to check how long that would take, he said that nobody could come anytime soon. Instead, he wanted me to keep the bike – bring it into my office or whatever – and he said that I would be refunded for the extra usage charge later.
Yeah, right. I explained I’d requeted a refund nearly a month earlier for the last time I tried Bixi and had problems. That had never arrived. Why should I trust him? Besides, I had nowhere to store the Bixi. That’s the whole reason I was using Bixi in the first place, so I wouldn’t have to lock it and store it and be responsible for it.
Three strikes, you’re out
I explained that I’d signed up for an annual subscription but the key still hadn’t arrived. Cancel it, I said, Cancel it and refund me my money, as well as today’s money, since after this experience, it’s obvious that Bixi is just more trouble than it’s worth. There’s no way I will be able to rely on it as any kind of daily means of transportation.
As of right now, that refund is still pending. Not to mention, the hapless bike, which I left at the broken dock, and half expect to be charged for, despite clearly letting the agent on the phone know that I’d already spent nearly an hour with him and if he couldn’t offer any kind of solution for me, then it was no longer my responsibility. If they try to charge me for it, I’ll fight it, of course.
Bixi, you were a great idea in theory. But you have too many problems this year. Ridership is up, sure, but you have far too many broken bikes and broken docks. There are no bikes available in the Plateau in the mornings or downtown in the afternoons, and vice-versa for the docking stations. The redistribution of bikes from one station to the next, which from what I understand was relatively efficient last year, seems nonexistent this year. There don’t seem to be enough employees or resources to cope with the multitude of problems. And Bixi is getting into PR problems regarding its financial viability, the ads on the bikes, and its business model.
In short, it’s a great idea that is being poorly executed. And in the meantime, I have unfortunately gone back to public transit. the STM may have frequent metro breakdowns, bus re-routings, and all kinds of other issues, but it now has a claim to fame, too: More reliable than Bixi.
And how sad is that?