Is Ottawa’s Bixi Bike Missing Its Target Group?

Does this tourist couple from Hamilton, ON take the Bixis for an 85 minute spin along the river?
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(See for a spring 2012 update at the bottom of this page). Since the Bixi bikes (Bixi bike is rental bike that you can pick up and leave at a number of unmanned fixed locations) were introduced in Ottawa on May 18th 2011, over 13,000 (13,187 to be precise) times a bike was taken out of one of the ten stations. There are one hundred bikes, divided over ten stations. De average time a Bixi was used is 85 minutes.

Does this tourist couple from Hamilton, ON take the Bixis for an 85 minute spin along the Ottawa river?

24% of the bixis is used in Gatineau versus 76% in Ottawa. That makes sense as there are seven stations in Ottawa and only three in Gatineau. The system has 92 active members and rented out 4596 1-3 day passes (called a “Laissez passer”). The numbers have been growing steadily, trending upwards, with a peak in August.

Looking at the numbers, our first reaction is ‘wow, great numbers’. But let’s take a closer look because there is a catch:

Average rental time
First of all, the average time a bike is rented is 85 minutes. If you were to take a bike at the Peace War museum (the Western most station) and cycle to the Byward market (the Eastern most station) along the river and over the locks and back along Major’s Hill Park, it would take you 15 minutes. So if the Bixis were used for errands, the max they would be rented should be 15-20 minutes, assuming human beings take a fairly straight route to their destination in the boss’ time. What would take 85 minutes? Roughly an easy bike ride along the canal, over the Hartwell locks at Carleton U, around Dow’s Lake and back to downtown, about 15 km I’d guess. That is obviously a sightseeing trip, not an errand.

Museum route
Second, the most popular station is the one at Elgin and Queen (near the NCC offices). That is where most tourists pass. The most popular in Gatineau is at Laurier and Victoria (Museum of Civilisation). One can nearly safely assume these are not patriotic museum employees cycling to the war memorial on Elgin, nor NCC staff cycling to Gatineau for lunch, but tourists from Ottawa heading out to the museum.

Tourist places
Third, if you take a closer look to the station locations in the region, you’ll notice that the stations are mostly at the War museum (tourists), Museum of Civilisation (tourists), Market (tourists) and three in the Queen street corridor. Two are in other locations in Gatineau, but what’s a public servant from Plan de Portage to do at the war museum? So if you are running an errand from Queen Streets business district, you can only leave your bike at touristy places.

Few members
Forth, there are only 92 active members (members are considered 1 year and 30 days subscriptions) and over 4500 1-3 days rentals. If you live here, and you use the Bixi for errands for six months of the year, a 1-3 day pass doesn’t make any sense.

Early to bed
Ottawa is a city where people start early and leave work early. Traffic builds up at 3-3:15 pm and by 5:30 pm the city is pretty much abandoned. That the busiest time of Bixi bike return is between 5 and 6 pm, is an indication that tourists are coming back from a ride as the locals are already home grilling chicken on the BBQ.

Ottawa commuters go home early in order to have the chicken on the BBQ at 5 pm.

These five points explain that the Bixis mainly cater to tourists. That is not a bad thing per se, but there are already bike rental companies that cater to this market. The concept of bike share programs is not to compete with existing businesses, but to basically serve as a self propelled taxi for the people who live and work in the Bixi bikes’ ‘catchment area’, to run errands around town. Currently, it appears that they take business away from bike rental places and that was never the intention I hope; locals possibly bring their own bike (like I do), walk (like I do too) or haven’t figured out that they are the target group. Or is taking a car still very easy, despite the complaints about a clogged downtown?

On average 160 bikes are taken out of the stations every day. With 100 available bikes, the bikes are taken 1.6 times a day for a total number of (1.6 x 85 minutes) 136 minutes or just over 2 hours and 15 minutes. The average bike is standing still for nearly 22 hours.

The busiest time for Bixi bikes is between 5 and 6 pm. At 5:15 pm, these Bixis at Queen and Lyon must have all been returned.

I think we can safely bet, that all those trips wouldn’t have been made if one could only rent bikes at the usual stores. I think that renting a Bixi is a classic example of an impulse ‘purchase’. It is in your face, it is easy. And I would guess, considering the numbers, that people are not too worried about helmets not being available. The NCC has a big advantage over the bike rental places, as they can place their Bixis on prime locations instead of underground along the canal or somewhere off the main drag in the Market.

So why do locals not use the bikes for the short trips they are intended for? I have three theories on this (where one doesn’t exclude the other):

The first one is that he Bixi system is not properly marketed by the NCC. Although I tune out for advertising myself (Can you mention five on line ads you saw in the last week while surfing the web?), I tend to keep my eyes open for anything bike related. I haven’t seen much marketing by the NCC. News releases and websites might not be enough.

Small town
The second one is that Ottawa’s Bixi Bike catchment area is simply not big enough. Many places downtown are within a 20 minute walk and it doesn’t make sense to walk ten minutes to Queen in order to go 5 minutes east by bike.

People may not feel comfortable cycling on for example Queen Street. Although the Laurier Bike Lane is a great addition to Ottawa’s bike infrastructure with 45,000 bike rides in the first 35 days (update after 9 months in service, Laurier’s Bike Bike Lanes saw already over 250,000 bike rides), it is not a logical choice in you route plan if you pick up a Bixi bike. You’d take Wellington (yuk), Sparks (bikes not allowed), Queen (not a pleasant ride), Albert (buses) or Slater (buses). The intersection in front of Chateau Laurier is horrible for cars and cyclists alike (you don’t need to invite someone from the US to point that out), and the Corktown bridge might already be too far South as your station is in the market.

The Bixi bike numbers for May until early August (the last two weeks were lumped into one number, so I took the average.)

Don’t get me wrong, I think Bixi bikes definitely add to the active city we’d like to see and I applaud the NCC for new initiatives, knowing that they will be criticised to no end by the Grumpensteins in this city, who scream about NCC initiatives costing tax payers money, but love to see the Parkways turned into six lane highways (paid in part by cyclists taxes no less), but the NCC has to be careful not to be accused of false competition: the only way to avoid that is to market the system better to the target group, add a few more stations deeper into downtown and support better bike infrastructure (such as Wellington or ask for bikes on Sparks) to prove that they are really not targeting tourists. I know that this is much easier said then done, and this is a pilot, but it would be very unfortunate to see the system go down prematurely.

Update spring 2012: The NCC, the City of Ottawa and the City of Gatineau together expanded the number of Bixi bikes to 250 and the number of stations to 25. Indeed, you’ll find more bikes further into the down town area.

Update autumn 2015: The NCC stopped the Bixi Bike system. In 2015 VeloGo took over and started in the summer with a somewhat different system, with different bikes. The first year, they counted 25,000 rides and clocked 63,000 km.



  1. Totally agree with Charles A-M. The initial 50 stations would have made this project a lot better for Ottawa Gatineau residents and would have targeted the RESIDENTS as much as the tourists. Poor NCC gets the blame (maybe not directly from you, but from everyone else) when it’s the cities that should get it!

    This article is a nice summary of the first (official) summer of BIXI in Ottawa-Gatineau. But I think your point is off a bit. Why point out that the system (BIXI) does not target the right market… Yes it does, it’s just the current implementation here has failed (I think) for the first year because of the reasons stated above (few stations).

    Don’t point out the system itself, point out the current implementation!!

    Nice to see people are passionate about this though!

  2. I think the feds should enroll all downtown civil servants and then forbid reimbursing any taxi fares within downtown Gatineau and Ottawa. Ditto for city employees based downtown.
    Commuting? Who both lives and commutes within the downtowns and doesn’t walk? 92 people, I guess….
    Causeway is researching a bike rental scheme in western Ottawa and might get it going next year.
    What we need is something similar in scope to Barcelona or Paris or Lyon – a thousand bike stations, well, maybe fewer given Ottawa/Gatineau has fewer people.

  3. Speaking from the Tourist point of view, I was in Lyon recently for four days, and their Velov system made our visit. The freedom of it turned two people who normally hate cities into ardent explorers of the town. But of course they have 300+ stations and several thousand bikes, so they can serve both tourism and every day bike rides.

    • Hi Chris, we have been city cycling converts too. We love cities, where we used to walk normally or take public transport. But with easier access to bikes, we have been cycling through Chicago, Vienna, Stockholm, Budapest and Munich to name but a few in the last few years. The radius becomes so much bigger all of a sudden and a 10 bike ride to the palace of the Swedish Royal family 10 km out of the centre was a true gem: along the water, through some older Swedish suburbs, and just beyond the palace an extra loop through the country side. On the way back, we stopped at a small urban beach to cool off. (These were just normal rental bikes though, not the Bixi concept.

  4. I am aware that both cities bailed out, but the point is that the Bixi concept is set up for errand type trips. I am not saying that the NCC should cater to commuters (although they did introduce park and ride), but the question in the title is if bixi bike is reaching the people for whom the concept is designed and the numbers show that they don’t. My fear is that bike rental places are going to tell the NCC to stop the system as the NCC now competes with them. I fully agree that it is not the NCC’s fault and therefore I don’t mention that.

  5. If you considered in your article the fact that the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau pulled their contribution at the last minute, leaving the NCC going it alone with ten stations instead of fifty, your article would be drastically different. It is not the NCC’s job to cater to commuters, and it’s not their fault if it decided to continue on its own rather than follow its partners in bailing out.

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