Close-up image of a row of step-through bicycles shot from about a metre off the ground. We see frames to the left and stems with seats to the right.
Toronto Bike Share bikes at a docking station. Photo: Maarten Van den Heuvel / Unsplash

This is part 1 of a two-part series on bike-share programs. Here, Philip Moscovitch looks at bike-share programs in Nova Scotia and across the country and speaks with cycling advocates what needs to happen in the HRM to make a program work. 

A mandatory helmet law, hilly streets, winter weather, and a lack of bike lanes. All of these have been cited as reasons a bike-share program probably won’t work in Halifax.

But city staff are set to bring a report on bike sharing to council in early 2022. And if councillors vote to implement a program, we could see bike shares on the streets of the city by mid-decade.

In an interview, Halifax active transportation program manager David MacIsaac said there would be “at least a year, and possibly a couple of years’ work that’s required before you would actually see bikes on the ground … There’s quite a few logistics that would have to be figured out before it’s operational.”

Bike-share programs are designed for short trips in urban areas. Typically, users pick up and drop off bikes at a docking station, though there is an increasing number of dockless programs. Some have a base fee and a per-minute charge, while others have a flat fee for trips that usually run 30 to 60 minutes — with an additional time charge for those who go over. Many bike shares also offer daily, weekly, monthly, or annual passes, although these typically limit the length of individual trips so riders don’t just hang onto the bikes.

In Toronto, for instance, a 24-hour pass entitles riders to unlimited trips, but they must each be no more than 30 minutes in length. Going over incurs an additional fee.

Cycling advocates in Halifax have been promoting the idea of a local bike-share program for about a decade.

In 2012, the Dalhousie Gazette ran a story saying the Dal Office of Sustainability was hoping to spur a city-wide bike-share program modelled on Montreal’s Bixi. The story spoke to Dal Bike Centre project manager Scott McPhee:

MacPhee says there is a clear market for a bike share in Halifax — but Nova Scotia’s helmet law and budget constraints are blocking the bike share plan from becoming a reality.

In July 2012, Dalhousie University, Saint Mary’s University, the IWK, and the now-defunct Capital Health released a joint “Bikeways Plan for the Halifax Institutional District.” (The district encompasses lands controlled by Dal, SMU, Capital Health, and the IWK on peninsular Halifax.)

A map of peninsular Halifax, with a roughly cross-shaped area shaded in blue. It runs from the North Common the Saint Mary's Campus and from Dalhousie University in the South End to Cogswell Street in the North.
The Halifax Institutional District.

The report noted that a large number of people who work in the district live within eight kilometres of their workplace. That’s an easily cyclable distance, but very few were actually commuting by bike.

The report suggests a “Bikeways Network” that includes “low stress” bike routes, including connected protected bike lanes. It also includes a brief chapter on bike share that suggests institutions work together, partly in partnership with the municipality, to create a bike-share system for downtown:

The bike-share system could be offered free to students, staff and faculty as a way for institutions to encourage sustainable transportation in the District. Users could access the bikes by swiping Dalcards or other institutional dentification cards. The bikes could also be rented out to non-institutional users through a subscription service similar to the one in Montréal… The bike-share system could be developed in partnership with HRM to share long-term operating and management costs and ensure a coordinated strategy to expand bike-sharing throughout the urban core.

(Montreal’s Bixi, which the report touts as a model, would seek bankruptcy protection two years later, owing $50 million. With some reorganization, the system survived and is now thriving.)

And in 2015, Travis Fong, then a sustainability and political science student at Dal, wrote a report called “Halifax Bike-Share Pre-Feasibility Study” for the Halifax Cycling Coalition.

Fong notes that bike shares encourage spontaneous trips or running errands that would otherwise require many short car trips, but that cities with mandatory helmet laws tend to have lower ridership for their programs. Given the weather in Halifax, he recommends considering a system that runs about two-thirds of the year.

But much has changed since then: New technology that deters theft and damage to bikes, the rise of dockless bikes and other micro-mobility options like scooters, and — perhaps most importantly — the coming of the electric-assist bicycle, or e-bike.

The report coming to council in the new year arose from a motion put forward by Coun. Shawn Cleary at a May 2019 Transportation Standing Committee meeting:

That the Transportation Standing Committee request a staff report on third party docked and dockless bike and scooter share. The report should indicate what by-law changes might be required, and identify any issues surrounding encroachments, etc.

The city surveyed residents and released a “what we heard” report in July 2020. That report found considerably stronger support for shared bikes over e-scooters.

At the start of this year, there were only a handful of bike-share programs in Canada. A Cycling Canada Magazine article from April 2021 noted that at the time only Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, and Hamilton currently have bike-share programs — and Hamilton’s was only saved by a GoFundMe campaign and $100,000 charitable donation after council voted to shut it down.

Meanwhile, Ottawa, Kitchener, Victoria, and Edmonton once had bike shares, but have since shut them down. Ottawa council reiterated earlier this year that it was not going to get back into bike sharing. Calgary is skipping bikes and has introduced an e-scooter sharing program.

Ben Wedge, a former co-chair of the Halifax Cycling Coalition, said in an interview that BC “has a really cool pilot program” that has led smaller municipalities like Kelowna to start bike-share programs.

Small-scale bike shares

There are a few small-scale bike-share programs already running in the province. The Dal Bike Centre lends bikes to students for up to a week at a time. The service grew out of a 2009 report that found that ” 63% of Dalhousie students were interested in a bike-share program; 43% of students would use a bike-share program for free or for a small fee and 20% would only use the program if it were free.”

The Annapolis Valley Regional Library also lends bikes through its Wolfville, Annapolis Royal, and Berwick branches. (The bikes are all named after authors, and include Chain Austen and Mark Spokely, for Wolfville’s Mark Oakley.) The library’s community engagement coordinator, Angela Reynolds, said in an interview that bikes are available to anyone with a library card, but that “we’ll give a card to anyone if you’ve got ID.”

Woman in a tank top with a tattoo on her bicep.
Angela Reynolds. Photo: Roger Kelly

The library’s website says the organization lends bikes, including e-bikes, for a number of reasons:

The project is designed to promote alternate methods of transportation, to highlight the new Harvest Moon Trailway, and to get people moving. By providing free access to recreational bicycles to those who may not own a bike, or who just need a bike for the day, or who want to explore the area by bike, this project strives to promote cycling, help borrowers develop skills, and become more familiar with cycling in their community.

Reynolds said many of the bikes are borrowed by people who have not cycled in a long time and want to try it out.

“The Wolfville library is right on the Harvest Moon Trail, so you can grab a bike and ride to Grand Pré,” Reynolds said. One of the things we have noticed at all three branches is adults who maybe have not been on a bike for a while and come in because they want to try it again. They may want to take it for half an hour or an hour to see what it’s like. We’ve had people borrow them and just ride around the parking lot, to see if they can still ride.”

Dal Bike Centre manager Derik Sauvé said in an interview that bikes come with a helmet, lock, and lights. Students can “come pick up a a bike, use it as they please for the week, and bring it back.” For many, it’s an opportunity to try out cycling, while others use it as a way to see what biking in Halifax is like. “A lot of people get here their first year, realize how great it is to travel by bike, regret not having brought their bike with them, and the next year bring their bike from home,” he said.

In its annual commuter survey for 2019-2020, the Dalhousie Transportation Collaboratory notes that while 70% of faculty survey respondents own bikes, only 29% of students do. Only 7.6% of students said they could borrow a bike some of the time, while 4.3% reported they could borrow one most of the time.

Sauvé thinks a city-wide bike share “would be really beneficial for students” and that “downtown Halifax and Dartmouth are prime for bike-sharing downtown.”

Building for success

A bike-share program in Halifax could cater to people like those served by the library and the Dal Bike Centre. But it has to be built to succeed.

Saint Mary’s University professor Alec Soucy, who is studying the culture of cycling in Halifax, said in an interview that when it comes to cycling infrastructure, the city tends to “water everything down to the point where it’s not good enough for anything … They do something half-assed, it doesn’t work, and it still pisses off the drivers.”

Experts say making bike share work here means a robust and connected network of bike lanes, a large area of coverage, and a sufficient supply of bikes.

Nicholas Scott, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Simon Fraser University who studies cycling and the relationships between cars and bikes, said by far the most important element of a successful bike share is a proper network of protected bike lanes.

A bus and other vehicles zip by the South Park Street bike lane.
Bike lane on South Park Street in July, 2021. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont

“That is the biggest thing,” Scott said in an interview. “Research for Halifax shows us that the biggest fear is mingling with traffic, with two-tonne glass and metal machines. As soon as you get dedicated separation from car infrastructure, you have a chance to really provide a coherent network to get around. Especially for tourists coming in, who are less familiar with the city and maybe a little bit trepidatious … That’s what I point out in terms of the biggest lessons learned over the last decade or so.”

Just under half of Halifax residents who responded to a 2017 SFU survey on cyclists’ comfort levels said biking in in the city was “somewhat dangerous” or “very dangerous.”

Headshot of a smiling youngish white man earing a jean jacket and slightly leaning against the trunk of a tree.
Simon Fraser University sociology and anthropology professor Nicholas Scott. Photo:

MacIsaac, the city’s active transportation manager, agrees. He said that’s one reason bike share may be more feasible for Halifax now than it would have been a few years ago. After all, it’s only been six years since the introduction of Halifax’s first protected bike lane: an unimpressive 300-metre stretch on Rainnie Drive.

“We need to get more of the protected AAA [all ages and abilities] network in place — I wouldn’t say first, but we need to get more of it in before we focus on the bike-share system,” MacIsaac said. “We are getting closer with that. That’s always been a consistent method: Having the facilities that bike-share users will use is a key factor in the success of any bike-share system. If we are a little behind schedule in terms of the bike-share mobility, that’s one of the reasons.”

Sauvé of the Dal Bike Centre said that protected lanes and a connected network not only make it safer for cyclists, but also easier for them to find their way around the city if they are not regular urban bikers. “The bike network is getting a lot better, so it makes more sense to get around. Once we have a little bit more coherent bike network with proper signage, I think it will be a lot easier for people to just get on a bike and go without having to do a lot of research,” he said.

But protected bike lanes are only one part of the formula for success.

Another key element is having enough bikes, and ensuring they cover a large enough area. Ottawa has seen bike shares come and go. The Ottawa Citizen provides a quick summary:

There was the Capital Bixi Bike program overseen by the National Capital Commission between 2009 and 2013. Then Bixi filed for bankruptcy.

The not-for-profit Right Bike service lasted between 2012 and 2017.

VeloGo was launched in 2015 after CycleHop’s acquisition of Bixi, but the company decided not to deploy in Ottawa in 2019.

“Ottawa had a tiny service area, primarily focused on tourists to get between the museums, Parliament Hill, and hotels. It was not useful for commuting, there were not many stations and not many bikes at each station. It was really really niche,” Wedge, the former Halifax Cycling Coalition co-chair said. Wedge now works as a product manager for Joyride, a company that provides software for e-scooter and bike-share systems. He emphasized that he was “not wearing my Joyride hat” when speaking with the Examiner.

A bearded young white man stands on a rocky beach by the ocean. He is standing astride a bicycle with a helmet hanging from the handlebars. and holding up a black t-shirt with white lettering that says "Ben's Big Bike Trip."
Ben Wedge at Black Rock Beach, in Point Pleasant Park. Photo contributed.

Like Scott, Wedge agrees that “bike lanes are the most important part” of a successful bike-share program. “Make sure there is a safe place to ride and people will ride.” But he also said it’s important to be ambitious and start with a system that’s large enough to be useful, rather than to start small, see how it goes and then build out.

“Go big,” Wedge said. “There’s a network effect. The bigger you make your system, the better it will be, and the most useful to people.”

Docked vs dockless

Most municipal bike-share systems use docks for the bikes. In other words, you pick up a bike from a station, and at the end of your ride return it to another station.

Empty bicycle docking station.
An empty Bixi docking station in Montreal. The bike-share service is not available in winter. Photo: Philip Moscovitch

Since the idea of bike shares is to provide transportation for short trips, some systems require riders to return bikes to docks within a certain time limit. Or they just charge by the minute, which makes short trips reasonable but hanging onto the bikes for the day prohibitively expensive.

But new technology has meant the rise of dockless systems, allowing riders to just leave their bikes when they are done, rather than having to go look for a station. Dockless systems also avoid the significant startup costs of building bike-docking stations throughout the area served by the bike-share program.

Dockless systems got a bad name a few years ago, with the first wave of the e-scooter craze. As I wrote in 2019:

In many cities, the scooters have caused a backlash, with complaints that riders go too fast, dockless scooters are left to pile up and block sidewalks, in addition to being an eyesore, and that they lead to injuries. I’ve watched with interest online as people vehemently express their hatred of these things. (In many cases the injuries to scooter-riders come from being hit by cars or trucks, in which case banning the scooters seems like a bit of victim-blaming. I know, I know, some will argue that the way they ride these victims deserve to be blamed, etc.)

Search news sources for the term e-scooters and you’ll find lots of this kind of language:

“Cities are pushing back and trying to get organized, banding together to form a new coalition to figure out what the hell to do with all these electric doohickeys littered across their streets. (The Verge)”

“It was fun when a few weeks ago three electric scooter-share companies descended onto San Francisco streets (and in other Bay Area cities)… Since, the fun for pedestrians has faded. Maybe because they don’t get to enjoy moving around at 15 mph, but instead are tripping over the casually discarded vehicles. Even for riders the scooter-share concept is falling apart with broken, over-used scooters in what was recently described as a “nightmare” situation. (Mashable)”

Scott said dockless systems are becoming “wildly popular because you’re never going to show up at a station and not find a bike. Or you don’t find there’s no space at a docking station and you can’t park it.”

On the other, hand, you can wind up with situations where “they’re everywhere. For awhile Seattle had three dockless companies competing, and they were everywhere. It was crazy. They were on the ferry. They were in the harbour.”

But this is a problem solvable by regulations and technology. Geo-fencing can prevent bikes from being used outside certain areas, for instance. And since these systems require a smartphone to use, there can be a requirement to photograph where a deactivated bike has been left.

Wedge said, “There’s a lot of debate out there between docked and dockless systems. With dockless systems, it’s important to think about where [bike] parking will occur. The cities that are doing it well will define certain parameters.”

Planners talk about sidewalks as having five zones. One of them is the furnishing zone, which San Francisco’s guide to designing better streets defines as, “The portion of the sidewalk used for street trees, landscaping, transit stops, street lights, and site furnishings.” In other words, not the throughway zone, where pedestrians walk. Unlike piles of scooters left blocking sidewalks, bikes parked in the furnishing zone don’t impede pedestrians, Scott noted.

But what about hills and helmets?

Two other hurdles may also turn out to be less of an issue than they were in the past. First: geography. Halifax is a hilly city. Active transportation planners try to create routes that will minimize steep climbs, and much of peninsular Halifax is on a relatively flat plateau, but many riders will still face challenging climbs.

Enter the electric assist bike, commonly known as an e-bike. These are bicycles that also have a battery-powered motor that can kick in to help the rider. The Wolfville library has several e-bikes in its fleet, and Reynolds said, “People love them.” She added, “They are so much fun to ride. If you’re like me and not a super-biker, you don’t do it all the time, getting up those hills is not easy. But with these bikes, you just go!”

New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie described his first experience of riding an e-bike across Charlottesville on the War on Cars podcast:

And it was just sort of one of the smoothest, best rides of my life, right? Like, it was an easy ride. I got home in, like, 25 minutes. It was very quick. And I was like, holy crap, I can basically traverse town in — and when you think about it, not that much longer than it takes to get around town on a car.

Wedge said, “The sky’s the limit” with e-bikes in terms of making it possible for a lot more people to take a lot more trips. Because the motor stops when the bike reaches a certain speed — typically 25 km/h — and because e-bikes are generally heavier and more stable, they make a great option for people travelling longer distances or those who are not as comfortable on a bike.

And this brings us to helmets. In Quebec, helmets are mandatory for adults and for riders of e-bikes. The Toronto Bike Share user agreement states that users must wear a helmet, but many riders don’t, and police seem indifferent — unless they are out doing targeted enforcement of cyclists.

The low ridership and ultimate failure of Melbourne’s bike-share program has been widely attributed to a mandatory helmet law. But Scott said blaming helmets is a “red flag” that doesn’t take into account the city’s poor cycling infrastructure and lack of consultation on issues such as placement of bike parking stations.

Wedge said, “It’s true that most places without a helmet requirement have more rides.”

And having to carry a helmet with you in case you might want to rent a bike undermines the spontaneity that underpins many bike-share trips. But that problem disappears if you can just rent helmets along with the bikes, as the Dal Bike Centre and the Annapolis Valley Regional Library do.

British Columbia has a mandatory helmet law, but it doesn’t seem to be hurting Mobi, Vancouver’s bike-share system. Mobi launched in 2016 with 240 bikes, and today has more than 1,750 bikes at nearly 200 stations. Helmets were a problem for the first few years of Mobi’s operation. Riders would come to rent bikes and find helmets damaged or missing. Then, in 2019, the service introduced new inexpensive minimalist helmets that could easily be locked to bikes.

A black foam helmet attached to a bicycle with a cable.
Mobi share bike, with locked helmet. Photo:

MacIsaac said the consultants’ report coming to council next year recognizes that the helmet law represents a “risk” to the success of bike share in Halifax.

While he notes that helmets can prevent serious head injury, Scott said the injury rate for bike-share riders is very low, and the key to lowering it further is not through helmet laws but safe infrastructure:

Helmets did not sink the Mobi program, despite fears in the beginning. Probably best practice is to make them super-easy to get, free, and then instead of actively policing people’s helmet use, you give them spaces where they’re not going to die. The safest thing for cycling is to be protected from traffic or if they’re mingling with traffic that at be at 30 km/h. That’s the way to prevent people from getting fatal injuries.

Part 2 of this series will look at equity and accessibility, and whether micro-mobility programs like bike and scooter sharing actually get people out of cars.

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Philip Moscovitch is a freelance writer, audio producer, fiction writer, and editor of Write Magazine.

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  1. We absolutely need a bike share program as well as a intelligently thought out bicycle transportation system that is connected and separate from pedestrians. Keep up the news items concerning this emerging trend.