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A Bixi Bike stand in Ottawa. Photo:<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/jfingas/">Jon Fingas</a>, <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/deed.en">cc, some rights reserved</a>
A Bixi Bike stand in Ottawa. Photo:Jon Fingas, cc, some rights reserved

Ups and downs of Ottawa bike-sharing

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All over Ottawa, you can spot clusters of red bikes parked on street corners. They're known as Bixi bikes; it's a bike-sharing program that's supposed to make it easy for tourists to get around the city. There are 25 bike stations all over the dowtown area. And the same model is used in Washington DC, Boston, Toronto and Montreal. But as reporter Karen Kelly discovered, there are a few challenges to mastering the Bixi bike experience.

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Karen Kelly rides her bike around Ottawa all the time, but decided to test one of Ottawa’s on the street rental bikes. These are called Bixi bikes, and renting one for 24 hours costs $7 plus a $250 deposit.

“I’m hoping to see how easy it is to rent, park and get around downtown on one of these bikes. But first I need to be able to unlock the thing,” said Kelly. The machine wouldn’t accept her credit card. The bike share maintenance man arrived and inspected the payment station, but he couldn’t find anything wrong with it and sent Kelly to the next bike station down the road.

Once Kelly had successfully rented a bike, she headed to her favorite coffee shop in downtown Ottawa. “It’s a smooth ride until I get to a major intersection with several lanes. The bike path ends here, and if you want to keep riding, you have to head into traffic,” said Kelly. “So the first challenge with Biki bikes? If you want to ride to the major sites, you have to be comfortable cycling next to cars.”

According to Kelly, the bike lanes sometimes end suddenly or leave bikers on the sidewalk, where they’re not supposed to ride. The city is adding bike lanes, but local cycling advocate Alex DdeVries said, “Certainly there’s some neighborhoods that you’d want to walk your bike. But, you know, those are  usually the places that are good to enjoy too. Not everywhere is perfectly connected, but I think you can have a good time on your bike.”

Kelly parked her bike at a Bixi station at the market. She said, “The whole idea here is you have to return your bike to a station. That stops the clock from ticking on your rental. Once your trip goes over 30 minutes, you start paying extra.”

This practice confuses some renters, says Kelly. She met two women who were visiting from Quebec City. They were trying to figure out how to rent bikes to go to the Civilization Museum. “We just don’t know if we can just stop the bike at one point and leave it there and then take it back after,” said one of the women. They ultimately gave up.

Kelly put her credit card into the machine and received a new bike. She headed for the National Gallery of Art. Though she reached the gallery, she could not find the docking station for the bike. She said, “When I looked at the map back in the market, I saw a bike station near the gallery. But when I arrived at the museum, I couldn’t seem to find it, even though I live in this area. I biked in front, around the side, and finally spotted it down the street.”

DeVries says that for the system to work properly, the maps have to be easy to read and accessible while people are on the bikes. He said, “Of course, for the maps, you’d hope that there’s a map that would guide people who are new to the city around to the different sites. And there’s no map on the bike and the maps that are by the stands are perhaps accurate, but they’re hard to take with you.  You can’t take them with you, so that makes it a little bit difficult.”

The city of Ottawa offers a fold-out map with bike routes, but the Bixi stations aren’t on it. “It’s one of the wrinkles that still needs to be worked out,” said Kelly. “It’s the second year of the bike-sharing program. The number of bike stations has doubled, the number of users has increased, but the program still doesn’t support itself.”

The Bixi program receives funding from federal and local governments, as well as museums. DeVries predicts that it will take a combination of more bike lanes, stations and riders comfortable in city traffic to make it a success.

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