Toronto’s bike-share system has been blowing past its growth targets since the arrival of COVID-19, which brought with it fears about transit safety and prompted the city to install new bicycle lanes to give residents more travel options during the pandemic.
A recent report from the Toronto Parking Authority, which runs the bike-share service, forecasts annual ridership revenue rising 37 per cent from last year to about $7.5-million. The total number of rides on Bike Share Toronto, formerly known as BIXI, was up 20 per cent in 2020 compared with the previous year. The most recent figures, dating to the end of August, show that ridership was up 25 per cent over the same date in 2020.
Justin Hanna, director of bike-share at the TPA, said there could be various factors behind what he called “tremendous growth.”
“With COVID-19, folks have looked for an alternative way to get around town that is active, that is outdoors, that is sustainable,” he said. “We can speculate that that’s one of the reasons.”
Mr. Hanna pointed to recent system expansion as another possible factor: There are more bicycles, and more docking stations from which to borrow them, than even a few years ago. The TPA also made a point of adding stations in areas where the city has made its own efforts to improve cycling conditions.
Toronto’s bike-share system charges the casual user $3.25 for a single-use membership – the same price as a cash transit fare – to access a bike for 30 minutes. Keeping it longer incurs penalties. The committed user can buy an annual pass for $99 or $115, depending on how long they want to use the bicycle each time they take one. There are also one- and three-day membership options.
The number of members – which includes both annual and casual users – had been rising before the pandemic. But it recorded its biggest increase from 2019 to 2020, more than doubling to about 465,000, before growth slowed this year. Casual users, who pay as they go, have taken on a larger share of the overall ridership as work restrictions left fewer people doing a regular commute.
Fears from early in the pandemic about the dangers of being crowded into transit vehicles pushed many around the world to seek other options. After 18 months, even as research emerged to suggest transit was a modest risk, TTC ridership is still less than half its prepandemic normal. In the meantime, dozens of cities, including Toronto, tried to encourage cycling as an alternative by creating temporary bike lanes on a number of streets.
However, their use risked being constrained by a massive global surge of people seeking bicycles. Demand spiked so rapidly it led to worldwide supply shortages. Whatever limited stock of bicycles landed in showrooms was snapped up immediately. With such hot demand for bikes, some people turned to other sources.
Used bicycles became a hot commodity on sites such as Kijiji, commanding prices that were sometimes considerably higher than normal. Keagan Gartz, executive director of the advocacy group Cycle Toronto, said that community programs also worked to match donated bikes with people unable to afford one of their own. And the bike-share program became another possible entry point for new cyclists.
“There’s so much pent-up demand,” she said, noting that the city’s bike-share racked up record numbers of rides on some days this summer. “People are thinking about trying riding a bike, I think, in more ways than ever before.”
Casual bike-share users are expected to generate 78 per cent of the service’s revenue in 2021.
The bike-share numbers are a bright spot for the TPA, which has been losing millions of dollars in parking revenue as a series of pandemic restrictions quelled demand. They are also good news to cycling advocates concerned that the difficulty in finding bicycles for sale could leave Toronto’s new bike lanes underutilized.
“Bike supply, as a constraint, I don’t think it’s something we’ve encountered before in planning,” said Jacquelyn Hayward, director of transportation project design for the city.
“But the bike-share expansion was able to keep pace as well, and we certainly co-ordinated some of the new infrastructure expansions with new bike-share [stations]. So to some extent, hopefully that started to fill the gap.”
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