2011 Ecocities Conference

The 2011 Ecocities conference just wrapped up in Montreal. Overall it was a good conference. The concept of Ecocities (although not defined in the conference program or anywhere else I could find) seemed just broad enough to attract a good variety and quality of presentations. Also, a great part of the conference was the involvement of a number of Montreal community organizations, in particular, the Montreal Urban Ecology Center who put on the conference. Excellent work.

A big shout out to Martine Shareck, Stephanie Alexander and Geneviève Mercille friends and colleagues who did really great presentations. Steph even got asked a question by Howard Frumkin. My presentation was fun. It was a 7minute dynamic presentation. Instead of slides I recorded the traffic on my street (a one way street south toward downtown with a bike lane) during the morning rush hour. Here is the video and the text for my presentation:

Welcome to Montreal. As Richard Register the president of the Ecocities conference said in his welcome letter ‘You are here to change the world. We all change the world in small ways but here in this conference we are talking about changing the largest creations of our species, cities.’ With reflections on the small but important ways we can change our cities, I’m going to speak about cycling in Montreal and how I have observed, and some data shows that the BIXI public bicycle share program has changed the city.

“PS. Behind me you are watching the traffic on the corner of Rue Rachel and St. Urbain, near my apartment, between 8:15-8:45am, compressed into 7 minutes. Listen to me but keep an eye on the video. I have a prize for the person who correctly counts the number of BIXI’s in the video.”

Most of you have been in the city for a few days now and I assume you have noticed that there are probably more cyclists in Montreal than you expected. Great. Actually around 8% of the population of Quebec regularly cycle for transportation. This goes as high as 30% in the central neighborhoods of Montreal. Because there is probably some selection bias going on, that is, you are in this room because you already think active transportation is good, I’m also going to assume you have noticed, and perhaps even tried, the BIXI (by the way the name is a combination of the words bicycle and taxi) public bicycle share program. I’m a PhD student involved, with a number of other great people, in a research project studying what we call, the public health impact of BIXI. I’m going to skip straight to results and not focus on the methods, if you are interested in methods, check out my website, www.walkabilly.net (the address is on the top corner of the video). You can get details there.

So here are some results. From the research that we have done we have shown that BIXI users tend to be regular people. They are as likely to be men and women; as likely to be young and old, except those aged 60 years plus. Why is this interesting? Well because this is very different from the average cycle commuting population in North America, who tend to be young males. You know those intense looking guys in spandex or those equally intense looking guys in tight jeans. Some people have proposed that that female cyclists are kind of like a canary in a coal mine. That the percentage of female cyclists may be a good indicator of the overall cycling health of a city because they tend to take less risks, and use cycle paths more, so if BIXI users are equally as likely to use the program as men this may have important implications for the health of the cycling culture in Montreal in general. Another interesting thing we have found in our research is that if you look at the in areas where BIXI is implemented about 14% or 53,000 people tried it in the first year, that is 2009. For people living in areas where BIXI was not implemented about 8% or 125,000 tried BIXI. Think about those numbers for a minute. So a large percent of people tried BIXI in places were it is implemented but more of the total contribution of users comes from people living in areas where BIXI is not implemented. To us, it suggests that people are coming into the BIXI area (i.e., central neighborhoods) with some other mode of transportation and are using BIXI once they get there. Well, who said people who drive or train into downtown don’t like cycling.

Ok those are the good things. Great, women, older people and people from non-central neighborhoods are using the program. But what about those inevitable negative consequences, in particular, injuries from collisions with motor vehicles. Well, we asked people about that too. We found that, compared to people who cycle on their own bike, BIXI users are more likely to be in a collision or close-call with a motor vehicle… but wait… this is only the case if you don’t control for how much people cycle. Once you control for exposure, that is, how much time cyclists spend interacting with motor vehicle traffic, there is no difference in the likelihood of a collision or quasi-collision. Being on a BIXI or regular bike doesn’t seem to matter, despite what the Montreal blogs want to you believe, what matters with respect to collisions is how much time you spend interacting with all forms of traffic.

But beyond our research, I think my wife can attest to the success of BIXI. We spend a lot of time walking around our neighborhood and because I’m pretty into bikes and even more into BIXI I say BIXI aloud whenever someone rides by on one. This was not much of a problem in May 2009 at the beginning of the program, but by the time June 2009 rolled around and to this day I say BIXI every 2 seconds. Well, I don’t say it aloud anymore because I was told that I would have to stop because she could not get a word in and I was getting strange looks from people. It is interesting to note, and this is not in any way a plug for the newly released smurfs film, that in a few short years the word BIXI has become not only a proper noun describing both the system and the bikes but also a verb. It’s not uncommon to hear someone say they BIXIed to work. Much like it is not uncommon to hear smurfed in the old cartoons.

So those are some reflections and research findings related to the BIXI program in Montreal. Will public bicycle share programs change the word? I’m not sure, maybe, but if you have a bike share in your city and for the rest of your time Montreal, I want you to try and observe the little things going on around you. Challenge yourself to see the city from a new perspective and attempt to understand how small things, like a woman cycling, can make big changes. How many BIXI’s went by in the video? 

By my count there was 66 BIXIs.

I do have one complaint though. This is second conference I have been to where there have been corporate sales pitches ‘disguised’ as presentations by academics or community organizations. In my opinion this is not ok. Many corporations sponsored the conference. I thank them for that and these companies were able to get visibility at the exhibitors hall and throughout the conference program. These companies do not need and should not get presentation time during conference sessions.

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