Article published in Monocle Magazine, July/August 2017
Montréal’s celebrated Bixi bike-share system – conceived in 2008 by city hall and launched a year later – is credited with bringing similar schemes into the mainstream both in the city and worldwide. Its recognisable bikes and solar-powered docking stations, which are still manufactured in Québec, are now found in 21 cities globally from London to New York to Melbourne.
But Bixi’s model – whereby city hall owned and operated the commercial side of the programme – unravelled in 2013. Accusations of financial mismanagement alongside the company’s near-bankruptcy spurred the municipality to sell the international wing of the operation, which had become a financial, administrative and political millstone despite it being one of Montréal’s most potent soft-power assets.
“To put it simply, the company needed love,” says Luc Sabbatini, the Canadian former media executive who bought the company in 2015 and rebranded it PBSC Urban Solutions. “Having a commercial division isn’t necessarily in a city’s DNA.” Sitting in his office at the firm’s headquarters in Longueuil on the outskirts of Montréal, he adds: “The company gets a lot of love now.”
Since Sabbatini took over, research and development has been key. Investments worth about CAD$5m (€3.5m) have been made in PBSC’s software offering, the development of a pedal-assist electronic bike called Boost and the production of a lighter bike frame. Meanwhile, existing systems in cities including Toronto and London are being expanded.
While some bike-share schemes have come in for criticism for being underused, Sabbatini is undeterred. “We choose our partners carefully; there are cities we decided not to go with because we didn’t believe they needed a bike-share system,” he says. “It’s important to us to go one city at a time.”
Founded: 2008 (became private in 2014)
Number of cities served: 21 (including London, New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Melbourne)
Number of bikes in use: 50,000
Biggest scheme: London (13,850 bikes)
Number of models: Three (Iconic, Fit and Boost e-bike)