Could a free public bike system woo drivers to ditch their cars?

Ever see a neat project in another city and wonder: could we do it here? Should we? We have too, and as part of an ongoing series we’ll be taking ideas from around the world and running them through the lens of Toronto.

With three stations, 72 bikes and a hundred trips per day in 2010, Buenos Aires’ bike-sharing system had modest beginnings. Some 12 years later, the Ecobici (“Eco-bike”) program has expanded to include more than 4,000 bicycles, 400 stations and at least 250 kilometers of protected cycling lanes covering 30 neighborhoods in the city.

The system’s most significant feature: it’s completely free to use.

Residents can rent a bike for up to one hour on weekdays and two hours on weekends and public holidays for free, with the cost subsidized by the city.

The capital of Argentina is one of just a handful of cities around the world that has a free-for-use bike-sharing system. The subsidized-fare model is meant to incentivize residents to ditch their cars for bikes, and is part of a wider push by the city to achieve one million bike rides a day by 2023.

Toronto also has ambitious targets. The city’s TransformTO climate action strategy wants 75 per cent of commuting trips under five kilometers to be completed by walking or biking, by 2050.

Could a free bike-share fare system, akin to Ecobici in Buenos Aires, woo drivers to ditch their car for a bike and help Toronto reach that lofty goal?

Currently, Toronto’s Bike Share program has 6,850 bikes and 625 stations, concentrated primarily in the city’s downtown core. A single one-way trip of up to 30 minutes costs $3.25 — the same price as an adult TTC fare. A Bike Share annual pass for unlimited 30-minute rides costs $99, while an annual membership for unlimited 45-minute rides costs $115.

While Bike Share is quite affordable compared to most other transportation options, the cost of a membership is still a barrier for some residents, said Kevin Rupasinghe, senior advocacy manager for Cycle Toronto, a community group pushing to transform the city’s cycling culture.

He says a free-for-use model or any other policy that would encourage people to pick up a bike is one worth considering.

In 2017, the city started Free Ride Wednesdays, which attracted thousands of new riders to the system. The free ride program, which has been sponsored by CAA since 2020, occurs over four Wednesdays in July. In 2021, the program saw roughly 19,000 riders each day. The system typically sees about 11,000 users on an average Wednesday in the summer.

“Every person we can get riding a bike, that’s a car off the road, or a seat on the subway or on the bus that is freed up for somebody else,” said Rupasinghe.

However, he says the lack of safe cycling infrastructure in the city is still the largest barrier for would-be users, noting there is “simply an absence” of a protected bike network outside the core.

“If this program was free, that wouldn’t help my neighbors and give them an affordable way of getting around because there simply aren’t any Bike Share stations here,” said Rupasinghe, who lives in Scarborough and notes that building a network of safe infrastructure has to take priority over a free fare system.

“If people feel like they don’t have safe places for them to ride in order to get to and from major destinations, then they won’t take advantage of a program like this,” he said.

Bike Share is currently expanding its network to all 25 of the city’s wards. The expansion project, which will grow the system from 625 stations to about 1,000 stations, is expected to be complete by 2025.

Justin Hanna, director of Bike Share Toronto, says though a free bike-sharing service for the city would be great for residents, it’s simply not feasible at this time for the organization, which is directing much of its capital costs towards its four-year plan expansion.

“We have operating costs that we have to incur as part of our everyday operations of Bike Share, along with some capital costs,” he said, noting that much of the organization’s operating budget is spent on repositioning bikes across the system throughout the day, based on demand.

Last year, Bike Share earned $7.6 million in revenue, against $9.9 million in operating costs. Hanna notes the budget shortfall is publicly subsidized by the Toronto Parking Authority.

While cities like Toronto and Buenos Aires offset operating costs largely through public subsidies, bike-sharing systems in some other municipalities are substantially funded via corporate sponsorships. In Chicago, the local bike-sharing system Divvy inked a $12.5-million, five-year deal with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois. Though the private funding does not cover fare costs for users, the money was used to expand the program and improve and maintain the city’s bike lanes.

Beth Savan, an emeritus senior lecturer at the University of Toronto and a researcher on cycling uptake, says corporate sponsorship would likely be the most feasible way to fund a free-fare program in Toronto given the budgeting constraints the city faces in the wake of the pandemic. But she warns private sponsorships may not be in the best interest of the city and riders.

“You don’t want to have majority sponsors because you want the program to be dictated by what’s best for the City of Toronto and the citizens of Toronto — not what’s best for the sponsors, who might, depending on the sponsor, prefer to be in a certain demographic area because that’s where they feel their clients are most likely to be located,” she explained.

Bike Share is exploring strategic sponsorships with Toronto’s business community — in addition to its existing deal with CAA to fund Free Ride Wednesdays in July — but Hanna says those private funds would be used to alleviate the system’s operational losses, not to cover free rides.

Hanna does note, however, the organization is committed to reducing financial barriers for riders. Bike Share is set to introduce a discounted $5 annual membership for low-income residents in early 2023.

But Savan stresses that reducing financial barriers is just one part of transforming the city’s cycling culture.

“That isn’t the only barrier,” she said. “We need those protected lanes. We need programs to encourage people to bike. We need to help them understand how to achieve the goals of their small trips with bikes.”


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