Category Archives: Bike share programs

Guest posting: Alan Forkosh on community bike systems

Vélib bicycles, Paris, France

Vélib bicycles, Paris, France, September, 2009

This guest posting is by permission of the author, Alan Forkosh, who writes:

Here are some observations on how the Vélib community bike system in Paris works.

My thoughts on the issue crystallized after a trip to Paris in the fall of 2009 and stemmed from 3 observations:

  • The heavy use of Vélib and the high density of Vélib stands;
  • The lack of Vélibs parked in the wild;
  • The fact that the common way of obtaining a Vélib was to swipe an authorized Navigo transit pass at the stand holding the bike.

By the way, I have some pictures of Vélibs and other bikes online.

A community bike sharing program is not about the bike: it’s about overcoming the shortcomings of the mass transportation system and making it better serve the users without increasing congestion. The problem with mass transit is that unless you are very lucky, it doesn’t quite serve your needs. The inefficiencies in waiting for trains or buses, waiting for transfers, and not going exactly where you want to go add up. In many cases, you get very frustrated just attempting the trip. A community bike system alleviates that by giving you an almost instant way to cut the delays and straighten routes to go from place to place without the intra-system delays. You go to a bike station near your origin, swipe your pass, and take the associated bike. When you reach your destination, you click the bike into a stand and are done with it. The grid is dense, so that these stations should be no more than 1000 feet from the origin and destination (I think that Vélib stations are spaced no more than 300 meters [about 1000 feet] apart).

In Paris, it is rare to see an unattended Vélib away from a bike station; the stations provide more convenient and secure parking than trying to manipulate the lock provided on the bike. Also, if you leave the bike unattended away from a station, you are responsible for it; once you secure it to its post at a station, you’re done with it. Note that Paris is only about 6 miles across and there is no extra charge for a Vélib for the first 30 minutes. So you should be able to complete almost any trip without charge. I’d be surprised if there is any measurable keeping of a Vélib over 30 minutes.

So, the intention of the program is mobility: the bike is only an instrument to promote that. The bike should be used when it makes sense to travel that way. You don’t need to plan. This idea would fail if the user were required to provide any bulky personal equipment (helmet, gloves, etc.) to use the bike.

Bike Share? Careful!

I just got the August 5, 2009 San Francisco Bicycle Coalition newsletter online. It contains the news that the Paris, France bike share program has been “a huge success.”

The credit-card swipe necessary to release a bicycle from its parking station in Paris would seem to solve the problems inherent in earlier “yellow-bike” programs that simply left bicycles lying around for people to use. Such programs have repeatedly been tried by people whose idealism knows no bounds, and have failed when the bicycles disappeared.

I was initially very hopeful for the Paris bike-share program, with its more sensible business model. The program has seen wide use, to its credit, with claims of 80,000 users per day. But there have been reports of very serious problems with theft and vandalism; I’ve read that some 8,000 of the original 15,000 bicycles have had to be replaced. See for example these news items from treehugger.com and the BBC. Unfortunately, claims of “huge success” do need a reality check.

I don’t have good information about the reasons for the problems, but I can speculate:

  • Perhaps the bicycles don’t have locks that secure them — or secure them well — to fixed objects other than the special racks.
  • People who use these bicycles are likely not to be knowledgeable about securing a bicycle.
  • Another problem could be that the bicycles all look the same, and so are hard to trace.
  • And they are rather nice bicycles, with built-in lighting, fenders and geared hubs.
  • There also could be a problem with credit-card theft and fraud.
  • Also, as the photo with the treehugger.com story shows, bicycles are an easy target for vandalism while parked in their racks, day and night, in unsecured areas on the streets. That problem doesn’t admit of an easy solution, because widespread dispersal of the bicycles is essential to the program’s usefulness.

Much would seem to depend on the general crime rate; the prototype program in the smaller university city of Lyon is reportedly doing better.

A claim which seems credible is that JCDecaux, the advertising company which financed the program, is suffering from the current economic downturn — see the report on triplepundit.com. The economic downturn might be less of a problem except that JCDecaux didn’t set the program up to pay for itself, but rather, subsidized it in return for rights to post billboards. Shades of the yellow-bikes phenomenon, from a large, established business…though a story on Streetsblog reports that JCDecaux is overemphasizing the problem to score negotiating points, and does not release financial information which would clarify the issues.

The program is expanding, but now the City of Paris also has had to subsidize it too, according to Bike Europe. Yes, all modes of transportation are subsidized, some more than others (apologies to George Orwell), but asking for a new and different subsidy may not be popular, and especially not in today’s economic climate.

I regard the problems with the Paris bike-share program as unfortunate, but also I ask the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and other bicycling advocacy organizations not to stick their heads, or ours, in the sand. Your credibility is at stake.