Parisians show their va va voom as city rolls out ‘freedom’ bike scheme

Taxi drivers and other critics of the scheme said that it would never work, but three weeks after Paris was sprinkled with 10,000 self-service bicycles, the scheme is proving a triumph and a new pedalling army appears to be taming the city’s famously fierce traffic.

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Published August 9, 2007 by Times Online UK
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Taxi drivers and other critics of the scheme said that it would never work, but three weeks after Paris was sprinkled with 10,000 self-service bicycles, the scheme is proving a triumph and a new pedalling army appears to be taming the city’s famously fierce traffic.

Bertrand Delanoë, the city’s mayor, and his green-minded administration are jubilant at the gusto with which Parisians and visitors have taken to the heavy grey cycles that have been available at 750 ranks since July 15.

Nowhere is the project being watched with greater interest than in London as the city prepares for London Freewheel day next month, when miles of roads will be car-free for the day. Ken Livingstone, the Mayor, who has encouraged a surge in the number of cyclists in recent years, has already asked Transport for London to develop a similar scheme for London.

In Paris there have been few teething troubles with the high-tech system that supplies the bikes for up to €1 per half-hour — but one is a result of residents using them to glide downhill to work and then taking public transport home, resulting in gluts of bikes at some low-level stands and shortages at higher altitude stations, such as Montmartre.

Subscribers must pay €29 (£20) a year, give their credit card details and leave a €150 credit card deposit to join the Vélib scheme. This buys half an hour’s pedalling a day and a card to lock and unlock bicycles from automated stations spaced every 300 metres in the city’s centre.

A simple swipe releases the bike and secures it at the other end, where a computer charges users on a sliding scale for any time over the first 30 minutes. This ensures that Vélib bikes are used for short journeys. Bikes are redistributed daily by electric trailers to avoid stations becoming empty or full.

Visitors to Paris can buy weekly or daily Vélib cards for €5 or €1, which also cover half an hour of cycling each day with the same option to pay for extra time if needed.

The giant fleet of Vélibs (short for free or freedom-bikes in French) is already showing signs of transforming a city which, despite increasing cycle lanes, had never been pedal-friendly. The real test will come with the end of summer and the return of bad weather and grumpy Parisians from holiday.

The bikes have added to the festive mood of Paris Plage, the sandy recreation zone that has been a hit on the Seine’s right embankment for the past six summers. “We can already see that they are reducing traffic and above all calming and pacifying it,” said Denis Baupin, the deputy mayor and senior Green party official in the Socialist-led council. “The more bicycles there are, the more drivers adapt their behaviour.”

In the first three weeks of the world’s biggest bike rental scheme, the 22kg (48lb) machines were borrowed 1.2 million times. Each is being used six times a day on average, usually for the short trips that are encouraged by the pricing scheme.

New patterns are forming, with arriving commuters stripping the stands at railway stations. To ensure a morning ride, some have taken — illegally — to securing bikes at night with their own locks. Some fans have taken to using the Vélibs like the old Pony Express, stopping to change mounts every half-hour. By the end of the year, the number of bicycles will be doubled to 20,600 and hundreds more ranks will be opened to meet the goal that a Vélib should be within three minutes’ walk of everyone.

J. C. Decaux, the company that provides and services the bikes at no charge in return for rights to the city’s advertising space, is also seeking ways to counter theft and damage. Although they were designed to resist abuse, more than 50 bikes have been torn from their moorings and 180 have been put out of service. Resistance is also coming from delivery drivers who resent the new bike congestion, while taxi drivers fume over their rivals in bus lanes.

Pedal power

15 extra free minutes are granted if a rider’s destination station is already full of bikes

48% increase in bicycle use in Paris since 2001

27 miles of these were built in 2006

14 minimum age to join the scheme

1,451 collection points by the end of the year

230 miles of cycle paths in the city

Source: www.velib.paris.fr