COMMENTARY: Freewheeling in Paris

The French Offer Lessons in Bike Sharing

Washington, DC, residents wondering how the nation’s first bike-sharing operation might work can take a few lessons from the Paris program, Vélib", which was launched last summer. Paris" program provides thousands of sharable bikes to commuters, tourists and students, whereas Smartbike DC has started small in its launch this month, with 120 bikes available at 10 spots in the city. The bike-sharing bug seems to have caught on. Healthcare company Humana has teamed with the nonprofit Bikes Belong to bring 1,000 free-to-use bikes each to the cities holding the Republican and Democratic National Conventions—the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul), Minnesota, and Denver, Colorado, respectively.

Smartbike DC brings public bikes to the U.S. for the first time this month.©

When the conventions end this fall, 70 bikes each will remain in those cities under the Humana program called Freewheelin", which first launched at the company’s headquarter city, Louisville, Kentucky. The free, public bikes are parked at solar-powered kiosks. And cities across Europe have had success with their small-scale public-bicycle operations, but none have yet matched the bike-sharing passion of Paris.

Paris City Hall asked JC Decaux—the company behind most bike-sharing schemes in Europe—to deliver 20,600 bikes, one for every 100 inhabitants. About half of the bikes were put in service on July15 last year for the launch of Vélib". And with the numbers gradually increasing, visitors to Paris are assured to see the sleek gray bikes zooming past them as soon as they step out of the subway.

While weighing in at a hefty 49 pounds with all their equipment—basket, lock, kickstand, LED lights—the bikes provide a smooth ride. Some tweaking of the tire pressure was necessary to accommodate for the Paris cobblestones while avoiding possible punctures. But even though they pass through the hands of six different users every day, the Vélib" bikes show no sign of abuse.

Most users hold a 12-month pass worth 29 euros. But a mere euro suffices to turn someone into a Vélib"ist for 24 hours, provided his or her credit card is accepted (American Express is your only chance if your card does not have an electronic chip). Whether one chooses to subscribe for one day or one year, they are allowed an unlimited number of rentals at no extra charge, provided each rental lasts less than 30 minutes.

Would-be riders simply have to locate a bike stand—with four times as many stands as subway stations, finding a bike doesn’t require walking more than 1,000 feet. A touch-screen leads riders through the steps in English. Each 30-minute period beyond the first free half-hour costs a few euros. A failure to return the bike means a 150 bill on one’s credit card.

Come to think of it, these subscription fees stop short of covering the 90 million euros start-up cost, paid by JC Decaux. But in exchange for running the whole scheme, the company—an international giant in outdoor advertising and street furniture—gets control of half the advertisement space on about 1,600 billboards throughout Paris (replacing 2,000 older billboards).

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"