Montreal has a cool new public bike rental service, but be very certain you understand the fees before you use it.
It would be very easy to believe from reading the explanation at the automated Bixi bike rental stations that $5 buys unlimited access to the bikes for 24 hours, with the first 30 minutes entirely free. In fact, many people have interpreted the information provided at the stations in just that way and have complained online about getting much higher charges on their credit card statements.
Here’s how it actually works: You pay $5 for 24 hours of access, which allows you to take any bike from any rental station and return it to any other. As long as you do that within 30 minutes on each trip, there’s no additional charge. You can take multiple rides of less than 30 minutes, with at least 5 minutes between them, within that 24-hour period. But if you keep a bike longer, the fees start to add up: $1.50 for the first additional half hour, $3 for the next, and $6 per half-hour thereafter.
The rationale for this fee structure is that the bikes are intended to provide an environmentally sensitive alternative to cars and taxis for short trips, and are not meant for all-day touring. But the city of Montreal could go a long way toward making that clear to visitors.
With a full understanding of how the fees work, the bikes can be a lot of fun. These are not racing bikes — they’re sturdy three-speeds with baskets on the handlebars. There are 3,000 bikes available at 300 stations throughout the city; another 2,000 bikes are scheduled to be added at 100 stations next month.
The instructions on how to pay for, extract and remove the bikes are clear at the stations, even if the fees are not. You can even check the Bixi Web site to see how many bikes are available, in real time, at each station.
Stay to the right in Montreal’s bike lanes because the locals will be whizzing past you at high speed. If the bike lanes along boulevards Maisonneuve and Rene Levesque are too intense for you, head to the more relaxed bike paths on the waterfront in Old Montreal.
There are no helmets available for rental, which has caused a bit of controversy. It would be a very good idea to bring your own.
My husband and I took Bixi bikes across town to lunch and then out onto the Jacques Cartier Bridge. We had a terrific time, and ended up paying $18US each for roughly three and a half hours, total. Not bad, but we would have broken up the rides differently had we understood the fee structure better.
A full explanation of the fees is available online. You can read it at the stations, but only if you squint through several pages of information on a small screen in tiny type through the sun glare. I can’t imagine the reason for not posting a simple breakdown of the fees in readable type on a regular sign at each station, unless the goal is to deceive people. The city should fix that.
Despite this complaint, Montreal’s Bixi bikes are regarded as a big success, and other cities are considering similar programs. I just hope they’re more transparent about the charges.