Bixi Bikes a Tourist's Dream or Credit Card Nightmare?

There is absolutely no better way to get around an urban core then by bicycle. Walking limits your range and is tiring, while cars can get you caught in grid lock and are a hassle and expensive to park. Being on a bike, however is massively liberating as you sit comfortably upright, weave around traffic, cruise by blocks and blocks of great sites, and noodle into places not accessible by car. The problem is that taking a bike with you when travelling to a city is largely impractical. An added problem is locking the bike up.

Enter Bixi. Bixi is a system running in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa that allows you to pay just $5 a day for unlimited access to a bike. That’s a bargain, but the system is more interesting then this. With Bixi you take a bike out from any number of conveniently located lockup stations, usually about three blocks apart from each other, then park it at the same or any another station. You are required to check your bike in every 30 minutes else you ring up penalty charges: this is presumably to encourage you to use the bike for point to point travel and to make sure the stock of bikes at stations doesn’t drain low.

A Bixi station just off Bloor Street in Toronto
Bikes are paid for with a credit card, then checked out from subsequent station stops using the same credit card. A handy and easy to use terminal at each station will give you a 5-digit pass code to unlock the bike. The process is pretty simple and convenient. The bikes are darn good for their purpose too. They have brakes that work in the wet, fenders, three speeds, a convenient front basket rack with bungie cord, and a bell. On most of my Montreal bikes the bell didn’t work well, which is not great given that city riding often involves a bit of sidewalk detouring. The bikes appeared to be unisized with adjustable seat heights. Unfortunately only a small minority of the bikes had seats that went high enough for even a moderately tall person. Truth be told, you don’t need full seat extension when puttering around a city, but they still needed to be higher. The Bixi system is not without issues. I ran into a quirk, and two problems - one of them major - on my day of using the bikes with my daughter to shuttle between and around Old Montreal, McGill University, Crescent Street and our day-long car parking location. The quirk was that one of the bikes my daughter used was a bit noisy, so we stopped to exchange it at the next station we found. The station would not allow us to do a direct swap: we needed to wait two minutes to do this. Two minutes doesn’t sound like much, and it wasn’t under the circumstances, but it was a bit confusing, and the delay can be annoying when you are in a rush.
My daughter and me at Marché Bonsecours in Old Montreal

The problem we encountered was that one of the stations at which we terminated a trip was full and had no room to park either of our bikes. This happened to us after rushing in pouring rain from Marché Bonsecours in Old Montréal across to McGill to make a scheduled university tour. We made it with no time to spare, but were forced to look for another station to park our bikes. This required investigation, a trip down busy sidewalks, then a three block scurry on foot back to our tour starting location. We may also have exceeded our 30 minutes because of the length of the trip and because we needed to take shelter for awhile when the rain was really coming down.

The last problem was more significant. Apparently one of the bike check-ins at the previously mentioned stop was not registered as checked in with Bixi’s system. When we went to take out our new bikes we couldn’t because we still had one bike out, and ringing overtime charges as well.

Several system problems occurred at this point. The first two were with the terminal user interface. I was pausing on one screen of the interface to read the passcode out to my daughter, but the system timed out or changed screens while this happened, and I didn’t catch the number nor what was shown on the screen. The passcode is also printed, but the printed number didn’t work, possibly because the number was confused with a ticket printed for a previous customer. I was doubly confused by having missed some information on screen. To compound matters I was proceeding through the interface and pressed cancel at one point by mistake. This happened because a screen changed on me and the location of the OK button on one screen was in the same location as the Cancel button on the next screen. At least I think that’s what happened because the process, in pouring rain, was confusing. We never got this passcode to work.

What about our bike that was still checked out? The terminal said we had one bike out still. What? How do we resolve this one. There’s a phone number on the terminal, but as we were visiting from the U.S. we didn’t bring our cell phones to avoid roaming charges (thank you North American cell phone carriers). I told my daughter I’d be right back while I went across to McGill, waited for 10 minutes to sheepishly request the use of a phone, then called Bixi. Fortunately I had a Bixi ticket with the phone number on it (though in difficult to read fine print), so I had a way to remember the number. Unfortunately the problem was not quickly resolved once I got on the phone. The kind and helpful customer service person could not find the bike that had not been reported back in. She spent a great many minutes – perhaps 15 or 20 – trying to locate the bike at various stations but without success. She said they often get check-in quirks but offered no resolution except for me to call back later to see when or if it had been found. And we wouldn’t be allowed to rent additional bikes on the same credit card until resolved.

I told her I couldn’t continue to borrow the McGill office phone any longer and needed to press on with my day, and that I’d use a second credit card to make a second set of rentals for the day. I told her she had all the information to straighten this out and make sure we were charged accordingly, but I got no assurances this would happen. I told her I’d dispute the charges if they didn’t come out right, including the second pair of rentals.

At this point my daughter was soaked and a bit cold from waiting outside, and she wasn’t too happy. We continued on to Crescent Street in the pouring rain and got her some comfort food and visited a couple of clothing stores (I’m not sure why stores make teenage girls happy). Riding in the rain can actually be fun once you accept that you are wet, and by the time we got back to our car we were happy again just from the simple joy of riding bikes around town.

I was left with multiple billing uncertainties. Would I be billed for two sets of rentals for the day? At just $5 per bike this would not be a big deal. Would I be billed for a trip longer then 30 minutes? Would I be charged for a missing bike? This is hassle I hardly needed, and I wouldn’t want to get into a dispute with Bixi given I love what they are doing and the utility and pricing of their system. Stay tuned to hear how this resolves itself.

Update:

All is not quite well. I was charged for only two rentals for the day, not four (good), I was not charged for a lost bike (good), but I was charged $52 in overtime fees (bad). I’d have to presume that my missing bike was finally reported in and I incurred the overtime fees in the meantime. If the bike had not been reported in, I imagine I would have been hit with the charge for the full cost of the bike. Would I use this service again? Absolutely! But I’d be more careful about checking the bikes in.

Update #2:

Apparently I’m not the only one with problems

Update #3:

Six months later, after not resolving the charges via email, I phoned Bixi to resolve the overcharge. They said they would refund the overcharge this one time, but that I must always be sure that the green light goes on when I dock the bike and, if it doesn’t, to immediately call them. I also found out that we returned the first two bikes eight minutes late. That was for two reasons, the first being that we had to take shelter for a few minutes en route because of the rain, the second is because the destination station was full and we had to find an alternate station.

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