Hey there, Bixi Boy, flying through the air so fancy free

I will always be a Bixi Boy.

Like every great idea, Bixi is simple yet ingenious. It is a public bicycle sharing system in which users can take a communal “Bixi” bike from one of hundreds of docking stations (each station containing about a dozen slots for bikes) scattered throughout Montreal’s core, ride it to their destination, and drop off the bike at another docking station. It costs $5 to use the system for a period of 24 hours, $28 for 30 days, or $78 for 1 year. Monthly and annual subscribers are given a special key to unlock bikes from docking stations. The first 30 minutes of each ride is free. If you haven’t docked your bike within those first 30 minutes you are charged a nominal amount ($1.50) for going overtime. However, if you are going a long distance you can ride for 30 minutes and then drop off your bike at a station and take a new one for the next 30 minutes and so on (a practice known as “leap frogging”). And if a docking station is full you can enter the code on your key to gain an additional 15 minutes. It’s basically public transit on bikes. And it’s very popular. Montreal was the first city to launch the project in May 2009 and since then the system has expanded from 3,000 bikes and 300 stations to more than 5,000 bikes and 400 stations.

At first I was wary. The practicality of the whole thing was lost on me.

“Why would people use such a system? Why wouldn’t they just use their own bikes?” I asked, incredulously.

“True. I think you should use your own bike, Will,” replied La Belle Fille.

“I don’t have a bike,” I snapped. “Hmmm, I don’t have a bike…Ok, how much is it?”

The beauty of the Bixi system is that it gives you the freedom of being a bike owner without the responsibility. The best part is when you would like to take your bike somewhere but would prefer to leave it at your destination and use a different form of transportation for your return trip. Want to ride your bike to the Bell Centre downtown (much faster and cheaper than driving and parking), get shitfaced at a Habs game, and then take a cab home? No problem, Bixi it bud! Your Bixi has a flat tire? Who cares – drop it off at the nearest station and take a different one! A car smashed into your Bixi while you were putting on your helmet? Hakuna matata! Shove that mangled Bixi back into the docking station, bid adieu to the driver, and slink off without a care in the world! Bixi means no worries!

Actually, it wasn’t always that way. Although it’s neat to know that I was one of the very first users of this creative initiative which has now expanded to several other cities worldwide, I felt more like a lab rat in a poorly planned experiment when Bixi first launched. I think the creators of Bixi assumed that they would set up the stations, load them up with bikes, and watch the money roll in. Unfortunately, that was not the case at all. Bixi started out as a veritable clusterfuck because they seemed to launch it without really testing it or thinking whatsoever about any potential problems. It’s like serving a new food item at a restaurant without trying it first (“Everyone who has ordered this dish says it tastes like purified monkey anus and they’re getting violently ill. Perhaps we should have thought about using less monkey anus. Or maybe chicken would have been better. Whoops.”).

Their marketing slogan was, “Bixi is rolling it out big time.” It should have been, “Bixi is fucking shit up big time.”

The first major problem was poorly designed docking stations. There was a cheap plastic piece located on each slot where the bike tire is locked in. If this piece of plastic was damaged or removed, the slot of the docking station could not lock a bike, rendering it useless. This wouldn’t be such a problem if people weren’t dicks. But it seems that a contingent of vandals took it upon themselves to destroy as many of these pieces of plastic around the city as possible. If you inspected each station you could see tiny bits of plastic lying on the ground underneath slots where the plastic piece had been shattered as if someone came along with a hammer and literally smashed each exposed slot, presumably while screaming, “Goddamn, Bixi! SMASH! Offering an affordable and convenient form of transportation! SMASH! Helping reduce fuel emissions and greenhouse gases! SMASH! Not negatively affecting my life in any way whatsoever! SMASH!”

As more and more slots were destroyed, there were fewer and fewer places to return your Bixi bike. One day I returned home from work to find that all 12 slots at the docking station next to my apartment were destroyed and I had to seek out five other docking stations before I found a viable spot. It was like a twisted game of musical chairs where there were fewer open spots than actual bicycles.

Eventually they solved that kafuffle by reinforcing each slot with material that was actually stronger than knockoff Lego pieces. However, a logistical oversight related to wonky Bixi-docking station ratios led to even more problems. As more and more Montrealers decided to use the Bixi system to commute downtown everyday, it was no longer viable to simply rely on the natural flow of Bixis from the outskirts to downtown every morning and a complementary reversal at quitting time. By 8:00 AM each morning, there were virtually no bikes left on the outskirts and by 8:30 AM there were no slots left to put them downtown. People were starting to leave for work at 7:00 AM just to get their Bixi fix. Can you imagine – Bixi was making people work longer hours! Something had to be done!

One morning I grabbed the last remaining Bixi at the station closest to my apartment (a stone’s throw away from my front door). I rode it to the station nearest my office and found that all the slots were full. No problem – I’ll just go to the next one, I thought to myself. Downtown there are tons of stations. Many are not much more than a block apart. Well, I rode around to no less than 20 stations and there was not one slot available. I must have looked like a crazy person that day because I was erratically cycling around downtown cursing up a storm. At one point I came across another disgruntled Bixi rider at a full station. He scanned the occupied slots and heaved an irritated sigh. The deranged look in his eyes said it all. “I’m never using this fucking bullshit ever again,” he asserted. There was a strange and disturbing calm to his tone that suggested he was on the brink of committing Bixi hara-kiri which I imagine would entail him lifting the Bixi bike over his head, hurling it into the middle of traffic, and walking away. Luckily, I hadn’t gone that far over the edge. I silently rode away, determined to find my slot. Eventually, I found it – about two blocks from my apartment and starting point, a mere two hours after my original trip began. Shit. And I still had to walk all the way to work. What a pointless exercise.

So once again, Bixi riders were thrown into a frustrating game of musical Bixi, aimlessly wandering the streets of downtown Montreal trying to find a place to park or trying to find a bike to ride. It took a while but the Bixi people finally realized that they had to be proactive by continually shifting bikes from high-demand areas to low-demand areas at key times throughout the day using flatbed trucks. They also expanded the size of many docking stations which further eliminated supply and demand issues.

With the major problems ironed out, the introduction of Bixi systems should go much smoother in other cities. However, you can bet Chuck in Boston is oblivious to the fact that he’s readily able to find a docking station in front of his local clam chowder join because a city full of short-tempered Quebecois went through some infuriating Bixi growing pains.

By now, I’ve fully embraced my Bixi identity. I love the Bixi bike. It’s so bad.

During the winter months I couldn’t wait for the spring reopening of the Bixi stations. Each Bixi commute turns my 30-minute slog to work into a 10-minute pleasure ride. Oh the wind in my face! The exhilaration of zipping by idle cars stuck in traffic as I hug the curb along Des Pins, hoping not to get doored during my descent down the hill. What a rush! And I’ll never forget the time I had the opportunity to ride the mythical 8-speed Bixi – a suped-up version of the standard 3-speed model that had achieved legendary status in Bixi circles. I didn’t believe it actually existed until seeing it with my own two eyes – much like when I saw Sasquatch for the first time.

I’m also fond of the unique brother/sisterhood among Bixi users. When we see the distinct form of another Bixi bike approaching on a narrow street, we exchange knowing nods as we pass. Cordial banter is known to break out at docking stations as one Bixi rider drops off a bike and another takes one out.

“How’s she running?” an approaching user might ask someone in the midst of slotting up their bike.

“Oh, she’s a real beaut! Grips are intact. Brakes are responsive. Bell sound is crisp without being obnoxious. 3rd gear is a bit like quicksand but 2nd will knock your socks off. Go easy on her.”

It’s also not uncommon to hear bystanders shout out, “Bixi!” when you pass them on the street, particularly during weekend evenings when drunkards congregate on Plateau stoops and balconies. There’s something about the Bixi that intrigues, that inspires. Everyone loves Bixi.

I took my first Bixi ride in May of 2009. That makes 14 months as a Bixi Boy (minus 5 restless winter months when the system is inactive). On the Bixi website you can log in and look at your account info. It keeps track of all sorts of stats related to your Bixi usage. Here’s a summary of my Bixi career:
Number of trips: 329
Usage time: 47 hours
Distance traveled: 564 km
Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions: 141 kg
Gas saved: 39 L

Last Friday, I took my final Bixi voyage when I pedaled home from work. I cherished those final few strides as I coasted towards the docking station and gently glided into the slot where my Bixi locked into place, thus officially ending my Bixi adventure. When my bike locked, I heard the familiar “bee-boop” and watched as the green light above the docking slot flashed, indicating another successful trip. Typically I’d take the bee-boop and green light to mean, “Great work, Will! You’ve done it again! Can’t wait for your next Bixi trip!” But today it meant something entirely different. Today, it was as though Bixi was saying, “Bee-boooooooop. Awwww, Willy. This can’t be over! We were so good together. Please, don’t leave!”

But unfortunately, I must leave. I’m eastward bound – moving to Halifax. I only have two weeks left in Montreal. My Bixi subscription ended on the last day of July so it was my final Bixi journey.

I suppose it wasn’t just the end of Bixi that I was mourning when my bike locked into place. In actuality, that “bee-boop” signaled the end of an era – the end of Will in Montreal. I wasn’t just grieving the loss of Bixi, I was grieving the loss of an entire city.

And that’s what made that final moment on the Bixi bike so difficult. The moment overwhelmed me. Let’s face it – the moment was so much bigger than me. So I took my time. I sat on that Bixi bike, nestled in its locking station and I wept. I wept like an adolescent boy whose favourite My Little Pony was being taken away. Forty-seven minutes later, when I pulled myself together (and a nice young lady kindly asked if I was actually using the last bike in the docking station), I finally dismounted the Bixi and shuffled off to my apartment.

It’s hard to let go. But in my heart, I will always be a Bixi boy.


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