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Vélib’ City Bike Launch – From your intrep id embedded reporter in the Paris trenches

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  • Eric Britton
    (In the newspaper article at the end of this note, you have one typical media report on the Paris Vélib project which opened on Sunday, including the usual
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 17, 2007
      (In the newspaper article at the end of this note, you have one typical media report on the Paris Vélib project which opened on Sunday, including the usual wisecracks about French drivers and behavior, but other than that the basic numbers are just fine. But let me see if I can be a bit more help on this since I know it is of interest to many of you and since I have had the luck to be right here to try it out.)

      Of course you know all about this one, but here are a few thoughts from a transportation guy who thinks this is just about the best innovative transport  project he has ever seen – and that after more than a thousand projects of many sizes, costs and types in more than fifty world cities over all these years behind me. I will be going into my reasoning behind this (though I am sure you will get there probably before I do) in two reports in the "Reinventing transport in cities" series that will by the end of the summer, if the right gods are up there and doing their bit. (See http://www.climate.newmobility.org for more on this.)

      Anyway, after having followed this closely with the city people planning and running the project, and then after two days of pretty extensive use with a dozen or so bike borrowing and rides, here is what I think thus far.  

      The Bikes:
      How good are the bikes? And is 20+ kilos too heavy? I would say pretty good and no, respectively. Of course it's not my bike, my faithful steed, but hey! It's transport that works. Zero problems on that score.

      The Electronics:
      For first time users the access/ticketing interface is a bit clunky, but once you have mastered it the whole thing is quick and effective. But it's not easy to get seven hundred stations and something like ten thousand bikes with electronic support to click over perfectly in the first days, and there are a certain number of problems as the electronic interface works itself out.  (What I notice when it happens that a given station or machine has teething problems is that the pre-digital generation tends to give up after a bit while the digitally literate ( i.e., young people) just keep on going till it works. The story of our age.)

      Also, you have to do your homework the first times out to be sure you know where the closest stations are – but hey! that's true if you use a bus as well.  At this point there are something on the order of 700 stations built and more or less in working order, which may seem like a lot for this physically smallish city (105 sq. km) . But what I feel as I ride around the city trying to drop off a bike and pick up another one, is that 1451 sounds just about right.

      How good are the riders? Oops, that's the rub. You have all these sports fans out there riding around on these unfamiliar vehicles and not necessarily up to scratch on what is needed to survive in city traffic. Of all, I would say that this is the weakest point yet. We are gong to see some accidents, that is for sure. But when someone starts to whimper, let's just ask them to remind us how many people were killed by cars in the last days.

      Public Reception:
      Everybody, just about everybody loves them. They bring joy, smiles, gentle conversation and neighborly behavior to this big and sometimes somewhat aloof and individualistic city.  Also since the system is new, you constantly see people who have mastered the ropes taking the time to help out befuddled first time users.

      There are notably more bikes out in the traffic stream, and as we know the more the better. Lots of cyclists on the streets tend to "educate" the drivers.  Since you can easily spot the Vélib' bikes, it is easy to verify this increase in numbers through simple visual identification.

      The free half hour is pure genius as a tactic. This is ensuring that the bikes are used for what is intended and indeed needed in our cities. Those short hops, ten to twenty minutes which at 10 kph (for example) really have a very nice urban reach.

      Prodigal Son:
      And finally a personal note. I have been cycling happily in Paris for many years, and have been long accustomed to what I call the car wars. This has made me a less than model cyclist, when it comes to things like always respecting red lights and one way streets.  But then I get it where  I want to go fast, don't burn up the planet in the process, and thus far have avoided any accidents or even brushes.  Inshallah!  The point is this: With more riders on the road, I too am modifying my behavior. You see, I am no longer alone. I am part of a greater and really quite nice whole. So, I am starting to be a better citizen. That's very nice too.  (Even if a bit late in the day.)

      This of course is not the whole story, but it's a start. Stay tuned.

      Eric Britton

      Paris turns toward the two-wheeler
      Bike rental plan launched to reduce traffic, pollution

      Source: http://www.boston.com/news/world/europe/articles/2007/07/16/paris_turns_toward_the_two_wheeler/

      Riders used new bicycles provided by Paris City Hall around the Eiffel Tower yesterday. (LAURENT BAHEUX/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

      By Shelley Emling, Cox News Service  |  July 16, 2007

      PARIS -- A city notorious for aggressive drivers was transformed into a giant bicycle-friendly zone beginning yesterday as part of an experiment being closely watched by US cities, including Atlanta and Austin, Texas.

      Across the City of Lights, 750 bicycle "stations" have been set up where 10,648 three-speed bicycles, all equipped with electronic locks, can be rented as part of an ambitious scheme designed to draw urbanites from their vehicles.
      By January, more than 20,000 bicycles will be available at 1,400 stations.

      "The idea for now is really to reduce traffic and also pollution by getting people to use a bicycle," said Celine Lepault, head of the project launched by Mayor Bertrand Delanoe. "A long way down the line the idea might be to close off Paris to cars, and this may be a first step."

      The service, financed by JC Decaux, the world's second-largest outdoor advertiser, is called Velib -- a combination of "velo" and "liberte," the French words for bicycle and freedom.

      It is modeled on a successful scheme launched two years ago in the central city of Lyon, where about 50,000 people out of a population of 445,500 are now subscribers.

      The hope is that as many as 200,000 people will be participating each day by the end of the year in Paris, a city of more than 2 million people.

      But results won't come easy.

      While the city boasts a growing 230-mile network of bike lanes, Parisians are famously brash drivers who are fond of their cars. When they are coaxed onto bicycles, they rarely wear helmets or pay attention to traffic signals.
      "We know that people who already ride bikes here are not very disciplined," Lepault said. "But we will teach the people to respect red lights and rules of the road."

      She said the sheer number of cyclists expected to be on city streets would force motorists to be more considerate.
      Lepault admitted that similar schemes have been tried in other European cities, including Brussels, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen, with mixed results.

      "This idea has failed elsewhere simply because there were not enough stations, which is why we're making sure people here will never be far from a station," she said.

      Velib is being watched with keen interest by city planners and bike enthusiasts in the United States who are eager to transform the way residents get around.

      "We have all been watching Paris very closely to see how their arrangement works out," said Fred Meredith of Manchaca, Texas, editor of Southwest Cycling News, which is published by the Austin Cycling Association.

      "In Austin, there is dialogue on the subject and our mayor is on record as committing Austin to becoming as close to carbon-neutral as possible through several programs," he said. "But he has yet to propose rental bikes as any part of the solution."

      One scheme that has been tried in Austin, Atlanta, and elsewhere is the Yellow Bike Project. It lets people freely borrow donated bikes for short rides and return them to designated drop-off points.

      "But the bikes generally disappear just as quickly as the project can get the bikes onto the street," Meredith said. "The bikes' value is perceived as zero, so people think it is OK to do anything they wish with them.
      To prevent that from happening in Paris, participants will have to buy a membership. Rental stations are equipped with ATM-style panels that take credit cards and give instructions in eight languages.

      A yearlong pass is $40, while a one-day pass costs a euro, about $1.36. The membership puts a temporary charge of about $200 on the user's credit card so that they can be charged for bikes that aren't returned. Bikes are also equipped with alarms that go off if they aren't returned.

      The system is designed mainly for short-term users. The first half-hour is free.

      © Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.

      With all good wishes,

      Eric Britton
      The Commons: Open Society Sustainability Initiative at www.ecoplan.org        
      Le Frene, 8/10 rue Joseph Bara                  75006 Paris, France, Europe

      T: +331 4326 1323          
      E: eric.britton@...        
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