Bike Share Toronto hopes new partner will help stem financial bleeding
Nov. 16, 2022
Toronto's bike sharing agency is about to announce it's landed a major sponsor, CBC Toronto has learned -- one the agency hopes will solve its nagging financial problems.
Justin Hanna, the director of Bike Share Toronto, would reveal few details of the impending deal, but says he expects to make an announcement within months.
"We're very excited to see how the business community has shown and seen how this is a worthwhile investment," Hanna told CBC Toronto.
"We're anticipating finalizing this probably early next year."
But some have criticized the agency for its inability to make ends meet. TD Canada Trust sponsored the program shortly after the Toronto Parking Authority (TPA) took it over in 2014, and covered all its operating costs. That sponsorship ended in 2016 and Bike Share Toronto has been operating in the red ever since, racking up a total of $12.3 million in losses since 2018, from a low of $1.76 million in 2020 to a high of $3.15 million in 2019.
And according to a report Monday to the TPA board, Bike Share expects another $2.77 million loss in 2023.
That doesn't sit well with Coun. Stephen Holyday, who represents Ward 2, Etobicoke Centre and who has questioned the value of expanding Bike Share in the past.
"Each year, there seems to be a loss," he said.
"I see a proposal to put multiple millions of dollars of capital into this. I think we have to take measured and careful steps on any expansion plans to make sure that we're in a secure financial position.
"I have worries about looking to the taxpayer to subsidize these types of operations."
Toronto expands bike share program 'into all corners' of city during pandemic
Even so, cycling advocates say Bike Share Toronto is worth the cost, and more.
"I don't think it's fair to look at the small investment that's being made to supporting a program like Bike Share versus ... the huge investments that are being made towards maintaining and building our roads, which really serve only those that can afford to have and maintain a car," said Alison Stewart, acting co-executive director of of advocacy and public policy at Cycle Toronto.
"I don't know that breaking even is the objective."
Alison Stewart, of Cycle Toronto, says Bike Share should be operated by the city, even if it incurs an annual loss. (Paul Smith/CBC )
In Monday's report, Bike Share staff say it's more popular with riders than ever.
"Bike Share Toronto is North America's fourth-largest bike sharing agency, with a projected 4.3 million rides in 2022, a 23 per cent increase in ridership versus 2021," the document reads.
As well, the report continues, "2023 will see Bike Share Toronto... add a further 160 stations, including 1,815 bikes of which 1,300 will be EFIT pedal assist bikes."
It's this expansion, Hanna says, that is at least partially responsible for his agency's losses. For instance, more bikes and more stations means more employees are needed to manage the operation. Monday's report also notes the service's payroll will almost double in the new year, from $619,000 this year to $1.1 million.
Bike Share Toronto adding 105 new stations in $7.5M expansion
Coun. Brad Bradford, an avid cyclist, Bike Share Toronto subscriber and member of the TPA board, told CBC Toronto the service is actively trying to reach a break-even point.
"We have to explore opportunities to increase revenue, to bring more service to more neighbourhoods, that's why we're looking at our fare structure and our pricing, seeing what the right mix is," Bradford said.
"That's looking to other jurisdictions, seeing what they're doing. And, of course, that's pursuing partnership opportunities, sponsorship opportunities for Bike Share. You see [the Bike Share stands] all over the city ... they are of course a prime advertising opportunity right in the right of way," he said.
A Bike Share Toronto stand is pictured here. Bradford says the stations and bikes are a 'prime advertising opportunity' for businesses who want to invest in the service. (Michael Wilson/CBC)
"A lot of other cities have explored sponsorship, they've landed those big partners and all of a sudden that takes us from the red ink into the black ink."
He said the service is now canvassing other bike share operations around the world to see how others are coping with financial pressures. As well, Hanna said Bike Share is "looking at how we drive efficiencies and productivities."
Sponsorship is key, Bike Share director says
But the drive for corporate sponsors is a big priority, Hanna says.
"This past summer you couldn't walk two blocks without seeing people ride Bike Share, and so we know what we've seen from the business community is that they see this as a really worthwhile product to invest in and promote," he said.
"And that's important for us."
Despite losses, city set to pump more money into Bike Share
But Holyday wonders whether major corporate support is an appropriate road for the city-owned agency to go down.
"I worry about relying on external sources for funding as a base for your business model," he said."It's kind of looking to somebody else to pay the bill."