Commentary: Halifax shouldn’t pedal past other cities’ bike-share plans

Originally published by Saltwire on Nov. 24, 2023.

There are advantages to being late to the game like learning from the mistakes of others and adopting best practices.

Halifax Regional Municipality is about to open a bid for a two-year bike-share pilot, following cities worldwide where bike sharing has become an established service.

The biggest takeaway from other cities? Publicly funded bike-share models work. Private, for-profit models don’t.

Bike, e-bike and scooter-share programs are effective means of making short, non-vehicle trips more accessible to the general public. Shared systems can allow you to drive or take public transport into town and then switch to a bike to navigate a congested centre or get to a meeting faster. Properly implemented systems can make choosing to cycle more practical, help reduce congestion and improve public health.

Despite common perceptions that Halifax is too hilly, too cold, lacks the necessary infrastructure and has a mandatory helmet law, other cities with similar challenges are thriving.

Quebec City is hilly and faces harsh winters; they have an e-bike program. Vancouver enforces a mandatory helmet law; they have a bike-share program.

Many cities are working on building viable active transportation infrastructure, and Halifax's infrastructure is steadily improving, making cycling more feasible each year. Getting a share system up and running now will make uptake easier as infrastructure rolls out.

As bike-share programs have emerged and gained popularity, they have attracted keen investors and entrepreneurs. However, for-profit models have largely proven unsustainable, with companies such as Uber exiting the market.

Municipalities shouldn’t rely on for-profit models providing this service. They should view bike-share programs as a public service like public transit. Both reduce congestion, enhance public health and offer equitable access by providing more affordable rates, discounted passes and broader service areas that include lower socio-economic neighbourhoods.

North American bike-share programs that thrive are publicly funded. Halifax needs to invest in a bike-share program to get it up and running.

The pandemic has shown the potential of e-bikes. They help overcome obstacles such as hills, long distances, age and physical limitations, making cycling more appealing and accessible. However, e-bikes are still prohibitively expensive for many individuals to buy. By establishing a shared system, we can make short e-bike rides accessible to a broader range of people.

With rapid growth, it’s crucial for HRM to intensify efforts in making alternative modes of transportation more accessible, affordable and appealing, compared to single-occupant vehicles. Failure to do so may lead to a gridlocked and inaccessible city in the not-so-distant future.

In June, HRM staff presented a significant report, Regulation of Electric Kick-scooters and Shared Micromobility Services. In it, they recommended a particular course of action: “licensing one or a limited number of private owners and operators for a combined bike-share/e-scooter share system as a two-year pilot, with the target to launch in 2024.”

Under this approach, HRM’s involvement is minimal, primarily focusing on expanding parking stations, adding an extra staff member to oversee owner-operators and reinforcing enforcement measures. However, this approach directly contradicts the best practices observed in numerous cities and, as has been the case in some other Canadian cities, could make it hard to realize an equitable and sustainable bid. To truly make this venture successful, we need regional council and the province to invest significantly in bike sharing (and transit, too).

We strongly advocate for HRM to consider an alternative approach, as outlined in a second recommendation: for a municipally owned and third-party-operated bike-share system for 2026. This approach would also see a privately owned e-scooter service starting in 2024. The capital cost for this option is estimated to range from $3.75 million to $9.8 million, with an estimated annual operating cost of just over $1 million. By all examples, this approach is the most likely to yield a successful and equitable system.

Bike sharing can undoubtedly thrive in Halifax, but only if the municipality and the province are willing to make substantial investments. This initiative presents an exceptional opportunity to promote equity if it receives the necessary funding and attention.

We have a unique chance to learn from cities across North America and lead the way; let’s seize this opportunity.

Anika Riopel is a senior sustainable transportation co-ordinator at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax.  This past fall, Anika attended the North American Bikeshare and Scooter Share conference in Hamilton, Ontario, thanks to the generous support of Stuckless Consulting Inc.


See posts related to

Are you ready to spring into environmental action?
Become an EACer