SoBi: Hamilton’s route to bike share success

This post originally appeared on Spur.

By simple virtue of there being may cities in the world, most innovative transportation and urban planning ideas will not be new to Calgary. We can, and we should, learn from other cities around the world. While it is easy to insist that “Calgary is not Amsterdam”, or “Calgary is different”, the fact is that most cities face the same challenges of geometry and mobility. Solutions that work in other cities have promise in ours.

Bike share systems are one of those innovative ideas that have been around for a while, and have worked in many other cities. For example, Paris’ bike share system Vélib’ has been active for almost 10 years now.

With the recent approval of a permanent cycle track network in the centre city, Calgary and its councilors are waking up to the notion that cycling is a legitimate, safe, useful, and efficient (both in energy and space) mode of transportation. As has been the case in many other countries in the world cycling is no longer seen simply as a form of recreation.

Paris’ Bike System with traditional lock stations [Wikipedia]

In Hamilton, they’ve figured this out already. Having visited a couple of times this past year, Hamilton has given me an interesting look into the challenges faced by Canadian cities with far less money than Calgary. It has also shown me that despite their relative economic disadvantage, cities like Hamilton can still improve the lives of their citizens with progressive transportation ideas. Today, I want to share one solution Hamilton has that Calgary needs: SoBi Bike Sharing.

The concept is simple. Each SoBi bicycle has a computer-controlled lock on the back which allows you to log-in and rent the bicycle. You can bike it around the city before leaving it again inside the “Home Area” (much like Car2Go) at a station, or anywhere else for a small additional fee. Members who return bikes to the designated stations get a small credit.

The beauty of this particular system comes from the individual, solar-powered computers that travel with you on the bikes. Unlike Paris and many other bike share systems, this allows the not-for-profit operator to know where bikes are anywhere in the city, including ones that aren’t returned to stations.

A SoBi bike in Hamilton. Note the on-board computer and lock system. [Wikipedia]

This provides a distinct advantage: Once the fleet of bikes are deployed, stations are very cheap and easy to move. If the operators see a need for a station somewhere they can add it easily, or remove unused stations without inconveniencing people too severely. This flexibility is key to making the service as useful as possible.

The technology is there, and the infrastructure in Calgary has started to make cycling a true transportation option in the denser part of the city where it does best. It’s time to re-visit cycle sharing in Calgary.

I say re-visit because in 2012 the city looked into the idea of a bike share system in downtown Calgary. They commissioned a report from an independent consultant who looked at different methods of funding and operation, and they reached the following conclusion:

The report concluded the business model that requires the least amount of public funding and has the lowest financial risk, is one owned and operated by a private enterprise or non-profit, which is preferred. Council has endorsed this business model but wants to focus first on improving bike infrastructure in the City Centre first.

In 2012, this was a sensible conclusion. After all, a bike share system can only be as good as the biking infrastructure around it. SoBi meets the “preferred” criteria, being a non-profit. All that was required from Hamilton was a $1.6 Million capital investment – the operation of the SoBi system is designed to cost the city nothing in operational costs. The bikes bikes can also be sponsored, which helps keep the cost to individual users low: For $85 a year you can ride the bike up to 60 minutes every day, enough for a couple of quick one-way trips. With the cycle tracks in place the entire centre city can be traversed in 30 minutes without much difficulty.

A bike share system would be a quick, cheap win for the city, and a way to capitalize on the positive momentum of the cycle tracks. It would increase the mobility of Calgarians and pave the way for bringing more innovative transportation ideas into our city. Possibly most importantly, it would show that the city acknowledges that cycling is a legitimate mode of transportation.

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