Tour de Paris: our neighbours have had a brilliant idea
In 1964, the Provo anarchists of Amsterdam launched a celebrated White Bicycle scheme in which cycles became communal property – a groovy anarcho-syndicalist transport alternative. Sadly, the bikes were quickly stolen, or fell apart and the idea was not durable. There have been other efforts along similar lines but we are still waiting for bike-sharing to make a major urban impact, even as the logic of sharing cycles has grown ever more powerful.
More than 40 years later, it is still proving tricky to pull off this sort of scheme without a hitch. Just days after the launch of the ambitious Vélib’ project in Paris, it is admitted that there have been some problems. Tant pis. Vélib’ – a neologism created from the idea of Vélo Liberté (cycle freedom) – still looks like the coolest thing our neighbours have done since they put up the Tour de Fer.
Two weeks into the scheme there have been plenty of twitches but the Vélib’ (pronounced ‘vay-leeb’) seems on the way to becoming a triumphant success and the first large-scale transformation of the humble 19th century cycle into a 21st century transportation system. These are not just bikes but smart, networked cycles that are practically (if not quite) free to the user, and organised on a scale that offers a real chance to get thousands of cars off the streets.
It is hard to write about this without violating the primary rule of journalism to be cynical and disparaging, especially when writing about anything Made in France.
But the idea really is wonderful and there are scores or hundreds of cities which should imitate it at once, or as soon as they have worked out the kinks, which I predict will not be long. The Vélib’ stations are themselves extremely cool pieces of urban furniture that send all the right messages about the environment, sharing, sustainability, health. It is not surprising that the French outdoor advertising group JCDecaux is the private sector partner in the project. For Bertrand Delonoë, socialist mayor of Paris, and a potential rival (one day) to Sarko (perhaps), Vélib’ is a massive achievement.
Monsieur le maire
The Vélib’ web site reports “several technical incidents, inevitable in a period of running in the system, are currently being dealt with. Roughly 5% of the attachment points have experienced information system problems not permitting the registration of rental terms of less than 30 minutes, hence generating an inappropriate invoice. While these problems are being resolved, the city of Paris has decided in these well-defined cases not to bill the users concerned. Those who have had this problem whose accounts have already been debited will be reimbursed.”
This sounds pretty benign. I reckon they’ll have this working perfectly, and soon.
The bikes themselves are comfortable, sturdy, practical, unisex and unisize.
The bike – with a basket and bell and things that make it look good: mudguards, lights and reflectors. There are 20,000 to start with; more to come. Riders will need their own helmets.
The machine is retrieved and dropped off using a smart card at a Véilb’ docking station, or borne (“post”).
The annual subscription is a measly 29 euros and all journeys up to 30 minutes are free. Longer hiring attracts escalating charges. This is a policy deliberately designed to keep the bikes recycling between users.
The borne – with 750 of them being built, riders will never be more than 300m from one
Paris is the biggest project of its kind but not the first. A functioning but smaller scale system is up and running in Lyon, France’s second city (below), with a website here.
Vélo’v : le Grand Lyon innovates
But there is a bigger problem facing Vélib’ and all further attempts to integrate cycles into urban transport systems. It is that the roads are too often lethal for cyclists and thousands of kilometers of urban routes must be completely re-engineered with the security of the cyclists paramount, even if this creates inconveniences for motor vehicles. This involves more than painting a few white lines on the street.
No city I am aware of has begun seriously to consider how to do this, nor are the funds seemingly readily available. Isn’t this what congestion charging should pay for?
The point is not just to make cycle sharing convenient, but attractive to those, like me, who are nervous about sharing road space with Chelsea tractors.
London Freewheel is what motor-free cities might look like. Backed by Transport for London, Freewheel is inspiring but is only a one-day effort on September 23, 2007. I expect London mayor Ken Livingstone is having a close look at what his chum Bertrand is doing in Paris. If ever there was an idea that we need in London, this is it.
The Tour de Bronx in New York is another great idea in a city where the cycle is making a strong come back.
There’s no doubt that the bike is an important way forward for cities. Vélib’ seems like the most intelligent approach so far to making shared bicycles into a practical, economically sustaining proposition. I am not the first to say, “Vive Vélib‘!”