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Vancouver prepares to backpedal on bike-share plan if Bixi goes under

Rick Murray, president of SandVault Group Global Solutions Corp. in Richmond, B.C. The company designs the technology used in the bike-share docking systems.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

If the company selected to roll out Vancouver's bike-share system can't come through because of problems with its financially troubled bike supplier Bixi, then the city says it will move on to other options.

And, it appears, there are several companies that would happily line up to run Vancouver's entry into the popular new transportation trend.

Many people think Montreal-based company Bixi is synonymous with bike-sharing. There are, however, many bike-share system producers in North America, including a local company that has already created bike-share hardware systems for cities from Oklahoma to Miami Beach, Fla., to Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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"At some point in time, the clock will run out. We'll look for other options and resubmit [the bid] if there seems to be an inability to fulfill our needs," Councillor Raymond Louie said Wednesday, as bad financial news continued to percolate about Bixi this week.

The city got six expressions of interest when it put out a request last year, before saying it would work with Portland's Alta Bicycle Share, which uses Bixi bicycles, to develop a system for Vancouver. Seven months after Vancouver announced Alta would be its contractor, the company has yet to come up with an acceptable business plan or a start date for Vancouver.

Bixi, an operation that emerged a decade ago out of the Montreal parking authority, has produced both bikes and the more complicated bike-docking and payment systems for several major cities. It began partnering with Alta as it expanded into the American market.

But Bixi, which had already received $37-million in loan guarantees from Montreal, asked for bankruptcy protection Monday.

That news blindsided Vancouver city politicians and engineers because Alta didn't give them any indication of how serious the problems were.

The Bixi news has the city's main opposition party, the Non Partisan Association, calling for Vancouver to abandon the idea of bike-sharing altogether.

Councillor George Affleck has consistently opposed the concept, saying it will cost city taxpayers $20-million over the 10 years of the contract.

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A local company, one of five groups sidelined when Vancouver decided to go with Alta, is ready to gear up again for another potential bid.

"I'd be delighted," said Rick Murray, the president of SandVault, a Richmond-based company that was part of a local consortium called Bikeshare B.C. that put in a bid.

Mr. Murray said it would be helpful not to have to compete against a bike-share company that gets massive city subsidies, like Bixi has.

Mr. Murray, who got his start in the business when he developed the first-ever system for credit-card payments in parking lots and began producing bike-share hardware in 2008, said very few bike-share systems break even, let alone make money.

The only profit-making operation he knows of is in Miami Beach, where a private company got SandVault to provide the hardware for the 1,000-bike system that's called Deco Bike.

He said Miami Beach is unique: It has a huge proportion of tourists, who typically are enthusiastic bike-share users. It's a small, concentrated area. And it has such terrible traffic jams that almost any trip by bike is faster than one by car.

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Susan Shaheen, a transportation professor at Berkeley's Institute of Transportation Studies, said she doesn't see the Bixi problems slowing down the huge popularity of bike-share systems in the long term. There are around 500 cities in the world now with bike-share systems, a trend that started when Paris introduced Velib in 2007.

"The business model hasn't been totally worked out yet. But I get the feeling they're getting a sense of where the revenue streams are."

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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