What happens when the last bike goes? Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
What happens when the last bike goes? Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The Official Blog Spouse and I are avid users of Washington’s bike-share system, Capital Bikeshare. After having several bikes stolen, including two that couldn’t possibly have been worth the effort, I’ve given up on bike ownership in the District of Columbia. Plus Capital Bikeshare offers you almost all the benefits of biking (zero marginal cost and it lets you slack off at the gym) without the inconvenience of figuring out where you can lock up the damn thing. Sure, I’d rather it wasn’t subsidized by the government, but this wouldn’t even make it onto my list of Top 100 Inappropriate Subsidies From the Government of the District of Columbia. So my conscience does not pang me too much as I glide through the bike lanes of our nation’s capital.

But it looks as if my favorite government program may be in danger. Bixi, the Montreal company that makes the bikes, seems to be having some serious financial problems. It may be bankrupt, but no one can tell, because the Montreal authorities are having trouble getting the company to cough up its 2012 financial statements. For that matter, we don’t actually know that it has 2012 financial statements.

What we do seem to know is that it's been losing money despite the wild popularity of urban bike-share systems, for which Bixi (actual name: PBSC Urban Solutions) manufactures most of the bikes and docks. This is obviously not a viable long-term business plan, and Bixi seems to be cycling toward disaster at a rapid clip.

So what happens to all the bike-share systems if they can’t buy replacement bikes? Sarah Goodyear of Atlantic Cities put the question to Alta Bicycle Share, which operates the eight U.S. installations using Bixi bikes. The company responded with a stream of glorious irrelevancy:

Within the last year, Alta Bicycle Share and PBSC have successfully launched four new systems in Chicago, NYC, Columbus OH, and the San Francisco Bay Area. We continue to work with our clients to expand and improve these systems, and to add to the growing number of cities deploying and benefitting [from] bike share. We are aware of the allegations in the Montreal media. No matter what happens with PBSC, Alta Bicycle Share will continue now and in the future to provide world-class products and services to our clients.

You really have to admire the way they managed to say all those words about bike-share without addressing the central question of how you operate the system without, you know, bikes.

This doesn’t necessarily mean doom, of course; someone else could take over the company (though I’m guessing they’re going to have to raise the price of the bikes to cover things like the cost of making the bikes). Or the government could step in -- either the Canadian government or a consortium of the governments that have installed these things. I’m not really sure that I want my city government going into business with Melbourne, Australia. And I’m sure Melbourne, Australia, feels even more strongly about the matter.

What is clear is that bike-share systems around the country need to be thinking hard about a contingency plan. They may have more invested in Bixi’s success than the company’s shareholders.