On the recent visit to the City of Light I was impressed at the racks of smart bikes which are part of the Vélib scheme which makes it possible to cycle around Paris without worrying about having your bike stolen or indeed to get home late at night where there are few other alternatives. In August 2007, the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone ordered a feasibility study into a scheme which would see travellers hiring and dropping off bikes from street corners. The Mayor had been inspired by the Vélib scheme that was introduced in Paris in June the same year. The French initiative offers 10,000 bikes at 750 hire points every 300m around Paris. The bikes are available at any time of the day or night and cost just about 70p to hire for half an hour and it was claimed theft would be minimal because of the unique design of the bicycles, their highly secure parking facilities and because payment is via credit or debit card. If a bicycle is not returned the hirer faces a penalty charge.
Mr Livingstone said then: “Cycling is a clean, fast and cheap way to get around London and we have seen an 83% increase in cycling since I became Mayor. I have seen the Paris freedom bike scheme, and discussed it with the Mayor of Paris. It clearly works and is highly popular.”
Transport for London officials were to conduct a feasibility study to see how a similar system could be made to work in London. A popular bicycle rental scheme in Paris that has transformed travel in the city has run into problems just 18 months after its successful launch. Over half the original fleet of 15,000 specially made bicycles have disappeared, presumed stolen. They have been used 42 million times since their introduction but vandalism and theft are taking their toll despite the assurances at the launch.
The company which runs the scheme, JCDecaux, has now said it can no longer afford to operate the city-wide network. Championed by Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, the bikes were part of an attempt to “green” the capital. Parisians took to them enthusiastically. But the bikes have suffered more than anticipated, company officials have said. Hung from lamp posts, dumped in the River Seine, torched and broken into pieces, maintaining the network is proving expensive. Some have turned up in Eastern Europe and Africa, according to press reports.
Since the scheme’s launch, nearly all the original bicycles have been replaced at a cost of 400 euros ($519, £351) each. The Vélib bikes – the name is a contraction of velo (cycle) and liberte (freedom) – have also fallen victim to a craze known as “Vélib extreme”. Various videos have appeared on YouTube showing riders taking the bikes down the steps in Montmartre, into metro stations and being tested on BMX courses.
Remi Pheulpin, JCDecaux’s director general, says the current contract is unsustainable. “It’s simple. All the receipts go to the city. All the expenses are ours,” he said. The costs, he said, were “so high that a private business cannot handle it alone, especially as it’s a problem of public order. If we want the Vélib set-up to keep going, we’ll have to change the business model.” The original contract gave the advertising company a 10-year licence to exploit 1,600 city-wide billboards in return for running the scheme, plus a share in the revenue, estimated at 20m euros for the first year of operation.
City hall has recently agreed to pay towards the costs of replacing the stolen or trashed bicycles but is refusing to bail out the company. Not all the bicycles receive rough treatment however. One Vélib repairman reported finding one of the bikes customised with fur covered tyres.
The scheme was modelled on one in Lyon, which appears to have been less troublesome, and has been extended to other cities in France. It is also being copied overseas with London, San Francisco and Singapore all intending to set up similar schemes.
Another scheme modelled on Lyon is the highly visible Bicing scheme I saw in Barcelona. The bicycles have a specific image, distinctive to Barcelona, as the City Council collaborated with B:SM on the design for the bikes. They have adjustable dimensions for youth and adultsand their reduced weight (they only weigh 16,5 kg) and the wide and ergonomic handlebar make driving easy. All bikes have three speed gears, a foot peg for the resting position, anti-slip pedals, a nocturnal lighting system and both front and back breaks. They are made from the resistant materials steel and aluminium since they are always in the street. A yearly subscription of Bicing costs 24€ a year, after which the first half hour is free and every other half hour costs 30 cents.
London by comparison to Barcelona and Paris offers a poor and often dangerous cycling experience. There is no Citywide rent a bike scheme almost two years after it was to be investigated, there are few cycling lanes and in particular there are very few protected lanes with kerbs or barriers to separate them from motorists and particularly the trucks which are allowed into Central London at all times and often catch cyclists in there sweep when they turn. London also suffers from the Balkanisation of responsibility between TfL and the 32 Boroughs and the Police so initiatives like you see in Paris and Barcelona where whole swathes of the city at weekends are closed off to traffic and opened only to pedestrians and cyclists are out of the question. Indeed, on Sunday in Paris all the traffic tunnels through Paris are open only to cyclists and pedestrians.
As the current Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is a noted cycling fan would not the twin initiatives of area closures to traffic at weekends and a City rent-a-bike scheme not be two quick wins in the Greening of London?