Paris" Vélib" bikes allow for unlimited rentals—as long as a rider sticks to no more than 30 minutes per bike.
The time-dependent fees, meanwhile, mostly aim at keeping the bikes in circulation for everybody: locking the bike to a railing while buying a pastry is acceptable, but visiting the Louvre would take too much time. Still, to truly tour the city, one can follow the standard Vélib"ist lore: "Swap bikes every 30 minutes."
Compared to getting the bike, returning it may prove tricky. Success depends on many unpredictable things—the fickle Paris weather, for instance. On the worst rainy days, as few as 20,000 Vélib" trips—only about one per bike—are registered: Idle bikes then crowd all spots at the end station. Similarly, there’s unlikely to be an empty spot in front of a University at 8 a.m. In an attempt to remedy this, Vélib" employees shuffle bikes around the city, or remove some during the cold months.
At the other extreme, Vélib" logged nearly 180,000 trips on a particular day when strikes paralyzed the subway. As a matter of fact, weeks of strikes a decade ago had already popularized bikes and roller skates. The impetus has grown thanks to measures taken by socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoé and his socialist-green-communist city council. Among other measures, the council allowed bikes on bus lanes. Far from being scared, Paris cyclists boldly cross four-lane avenues to turn left, their bare heads bobbing above the car roofs. Helmets are neither compulsory nor provided by Vélib".
Vélibs already generate one journey for every 10 car trips within Paris. Why this Vélib"mania? In interviews, Velibists told me they used the bikes "because they are convenient," "to get some air," or "to exercise," not out of concern for the environment.
Claims that Vélib" will reduce pollution and congestion deserve qualification. Such statements indeed assume that bikes cause a decrease in car traffic. Yet if the few interviews I conducted are any indication, Vélib"ists seem to use the bikes not as a replacement for cars, but rather as a substitute for the subway. And in terms of gas emissions and space, bicycles only offer marginal advantages over buses and subways. Also, when compared not only to cars but also to walking and public transportation, Vélib" accounts for one percent of the trips within Paris—not negligible but maybe not enough to make a difference.
Still, JC Decaux follows a set of self-imposed green measures, such as having their mechanics patrol on electrically assisted bikes. And in a country where nuclear plants generate most of the electricity, the company signed a contract ensuring that its power comes from low-carbon sources other than nuclear.
The company also cleans its outdoor equipment without detergent: Press contacts recite the findings of JC Decaux engineers that "pure water possesses natural cleaning properties." Snake oil? No, rainwater collected from the company’s roofs. Unfortunately, details of the studies remain "confidential."
JOHANNES HIRN is a post-doctoral student in High-Energy Physics at Yale.
CONTACTS: Bikes Belong; SmartBike DC; Vélib"