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Share and share a bike

After using Montreal’s Bicycle Taxi program this pedal pusher is geared up for Boston’s 2011 launch

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / September 9, 2010

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MONTREAL — “Where do I begin?’’ Shirley Bassey purred 40 years ago while singing the theme from the film “Love Story.’’ “To tell the story of how great a love can be?’’

In my case, where I begin is not to profess a deep love for Ali MacGraw — or even Ryan O’Neal — but I’m declaring my love for approximately 5,000 bicycles that reside in Montreal. It’s hard not to fall in love when you’re in Montreal on a balmy summer evening. Meandering through this charming Quebec city can feel like a stroll in Paris, but with more strip clubs, Starbucks, and fried chicken restaurants. My heart was unprepared, however, for the moment that I laid eyes on my first Bixi.

Bixi, short for Bicycle Taxi, is a one-piece, aluminum frame bicycle that is part of the bike sharing program that was introduced in Montreal last summer. It’s such a success story here that it migrated to the US this summer. With a sleek exterior and pedal-powered flashing lights, it looks like a bike that would have been used in Jean-Luc Godard’s futuristic 1965 film “Alphaville.’’ They are everywhere in Montreal. I’m happy to report that the Bixi, or a similar, yet-to-be-determined bicycle sharing program, is, after several delays, slated to come to Boston in 2011.

These ultra-chic bikes are part of an incredibly convenient city-wide program that is revolutionizing the way that people get around Montreal. It works something like this: There are 400 bike stations sprinkled throughout Montreal where the 5,000 bikes are anchored. You slip your credit card into the kiosk, and pay $5 for a code to unlock one of the bicycles. The $5 buys you a day on your Bixi, and you incur additional expenses the longer you stay on the bike. You can also purchase monthly and yearly subscriptions.

But the beauty of the program is that you can pick up your bike at one station, pedal to another part of the city, and drop it off at another station. If you need a bike later in the day, you insert the same credit card in a different kiosk (it remembers your number), and you pull out another bike. It’s covered by the $5 you paid earlier. It’s like Zipcar for bicycles, and it’s an amazing way to familiarize yourself with a foreign city. I saw more of Montreal than I ever have in the past as I rode my Bixi to landmarks such as the Biosphere and Habitat 67. It’s also a bit dangerous, because it’s far too easy to stop at tempting boulangeries and tell yourself that you’re exercising off that chocolate croissant you just devoured as you pedal about town.

While I was amazed at the experience of being a tourist on a bike, David Watson, executive director of the 2,500-member nonprofit MassBike, says that when a bike-sharing program is introduced in Boston next year, he anticipates that it will have a major effect on how Bostonians travel every day.

“There are already more people riding their bikes downtown,’’ he says. “This will really transform the way that a lot of people get around the city. I think you’ll see more casual cyclists exploring the option when we have this program. It makes it incredibly easy.’’

Bixi was slated to begin in Boston this summer, but funding delays waylaid the start of the program. Finally, in July, the federal government awarded Boston $3 million to institute a bike sharing program. This will be added to $2 million in previously pledged funds. That means that the contract for a bike sharing program in the Hub must go out to bid again. We could still get Bixi or “maybe even something better,’’ says Boston’s bike czar Nicole Freedman.

Before you turn up your nose at the idea of riding a bicycle through the urban snarl of Boston, please be aware that I am no Lance Armstrong (more like Lance Bass), and I manage to get through the city on my bike. I had casually heard about bike sharing in the past, but I assumed this would be something used only by those who wear vegan shoes or enjoy squeezing themselves into Spandex cycling shorts. After my fling with Bixi north of the border, I’m a convert. I can barely wait for bike sharing to arrive in Boston, and I don’t own a single pair of vegan shoes.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.