Earlier this month Montreal inaugurated its Bixi bike-sharing program. I had heard about other similar programs, like Vélib in Paris, launched in 2007, and have long been curious about how such systems work. So, when I visited Montreal for a few days over Memorial Day weekend, a friend and I decided to combine some architectural sight-seeing with a Bixi test drive.

Basically, bike-sharing programs offer short-term bicycle rentals, generally from unattended locations. The creators of Montreal’s program envision their system as a complement to the city’s public transportation network and hope it will provide an alternative to transport by car for both residents and tourists. Bixi (the name comes from a contraction of “bicycle” and “taxi”) offers 3,000 bikes distributed among 300 stations. It is considerably smaller than Paris’s 20,000-bike system, but is the most extensive to be launched in North America so far.

Users can chose to join Bixi for 78 Canadian dollars per year or 28 per month. For visitors, the 24-hour access option, at 5 Canadian dollars, probably makes the most sense. After that, riders are charged per half hour of use, with each successive 30 minute period becoming more expensive: the first 30 minutes is free, the second is 1.50 Canadian dollars, and the third is 3.00 Canadian dollars. After two hours, the 30-minute rate doubles again to 6.00 Canadian dollars. The fee structure is intended to encourage short trips and rapid turnover of the bikes.


Each Bixi station has spots for 11 bikes.

My friend and I decided on a roughly 10-mile ride that would take us past Buckminster Fuller’s Biosphere and Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, and we had no problem finding two bikes at a Bixi station just a few hundred yards from our Old Town hotel. After some fumbling around with our credit cards (the system accepts only Master Card and Visa, not American Express) the solar-powered control terminal spit out a receipt with a five-digit code. We punched the numbers into a small keyboard on the bikes’ individual docking stations to release their locking mechanisms, and we were off.

Riders won’t win any time trials on the Bixis (my guess is that they weigh in at about 40 lbs.) But we found the aluminum-framed bikes sturdy and stable and easy to pedal, despite their weight. And they are well-equipped with fenders, a cushy saddle, front and rear LED lights, a small rack with bungie cord, and three gears.

The bikes aren't lightweight but are stable and well-equipped.

Though we got a little lost, we had a great time cycling over the Pont Jacques Cartier to the île Saint Hélène (site of the 1967 World’s Fair and Bucky’s dome) and over the Pont de la Concorde to see Safdie’s apartment building. Along the way we were treated to some terrific views of Montreal’s port and the downtown skyline. When were done, we returned the bikes to the same Bixi station where we had picked them up. But we could have returned them to any of the 299 others, since all are connected via Wi-Fi and rely on RFID (radio frequency identification) tags to keep track of the returned bikes. How cool is that?