Peddling bike share a bad business for the City of Vancouver

By Kirk LaPointe, Business in Vancouver’s vice-president of audience and business development

By Kirk LaPointe. Photo: Dan Toulgoet

I can hear the Barenaked Ladies singing: “If I had a million dollars … I’d build you a bike share.”

The City of Vancouver appears to have that much in each of the next five years to underwrite a program that undercuts local businesses, takes more downtown parking spaces out of commission and mixes vague logistics with an urgent deadline in a way that should terrify us like a speeding bike courier on the sidewalk.

Don’t get me started. I will do that on my own.

The last time the city had this idea – and it’s not a horrible idea inherently – it merely neglected to conduct the due diligence on the financial viability of the provider or to appreciate that provincial law requires a helmet. Slight oversights. The plan died on the vine when the provider couldn’t provide. We were spared helmet-vending machines.

Fast-forward and here we are again: Look, Ma, no hands!

Now, before anyone brands me anti-bike, I want you to know I’ve owned one since I’ve afforded one and cycle a few times a year for exercise and sightseeing – I prefer running, but whatever. For some, too, cycling is an economic necessity as transportation. This program adds costs and augments public transit in a narrow corridor of the city. It won’t much help our physical or economic fitness.

In its zeal to preen green, the city hasn’t been smart about its bike infrastructure. We talk a good game, but if we were serious, we would dedicate an artery and not just a few capillaries to get people in and out of the core. But, like many of the city’s environmental efforts, political optics prevails over practicality.

No question, some bike lanes are awful retrofits of snarled streets that annoy merchants and frighten driver and cyclist alike. Some are akin to bridges to nowhere. One, on Point Grey Road, is a gated community posing as a bike rendezvous that could have been simply and affordably transformed into a shared-use road – on many days and most every night, you can drive a golf ball down it.

Like many living-in-the-moment ideas to convince us we are greener than we are – ahem, don’t look up at those towers, please – the bike-share scheme is about popping wheelies and not thinking a few metres down the road.

To wit: there are about 20 businesses that rent bikes in Vancouver, almost all in the city centre. This year they have 1,500 competitors for business. Did anyone think of involving them before invading them?

Not really, but the city pledges to talk, real soon. Promise: no stations within 50 metres of rental businesses, and you can keep the all-day business to yourselves. A chorus rings out: Hey, thanks.

And by June – and we mean this June, not just any June – quite a few things need to be sorted out, like where these 150 stations will go. Again, talks beckon, pronto. In keeping with how panic often looks for fellow travellers, if only to mask disorganization with the patina of engagement, a website welcomes your suggestions.

The city says “some” metered parking will be taken out to accommodate stations. I suspect “some” means closer to 150 than to zero. The city will surrender hundreds of thousands of dollars of parking revenue; the provider will backstop some, but likely not even half of it.

Exactly what we need: less downtown parking and revenue.

Then there’s the helmet thing. Free helmets will be available and the provider will sanitize them before they’re reused. It seems we’ll all be offered skullcaps to segregate clean scalps and helmets. With 150 stations and 1,500 bikes and helmets to be kept clean and locked in specially designed baskets, let’s see how that goes.

The city is promising some sort of specific safety program, but no details. Pricing? A few matters to work out. In-kind ongoing support? Revenue sharing? Sorry, a secret.

For $5 million, we could have bought bikes for about 20,000 children in low-income households. As an initiative to create a healthy city, it would do more than any bike-share program.

Then again, children are only voters much later. 

Kirk LaPointe is Business in Vancouver’s vice-president of audience and business development.