10 Sep 2008 8:35 am   //   Filed under: Bicycles, Transit, Travel

Viva Velib!

Last year when I went to Paris, the city had just installed the Velib bicycle sharing program. I was so amazed by this idea I couldn’t stop telling people about it. When I visited France last week, it was clear the system is still humming along, but some cracks in the infrastructure have started to appear. More about that in a minute. First, here’s the rundown on how it works.

In short: You walk up to a kiosk, tap a few buttons, and the computer unlocks a bike from an electronic rack. You can ride the bike as much as you want and return it to any one of hundreds of other racks just like it scattered around the city. The computer charges you a Euro or two (or nothing) depending on how long you use the bike, and charges you 150 Euro if you fail to return the bike at all. (The bikes are heavy, fat-tire cruisers with ugly fenders. You can buy a better bike for 150 Euro.)

Who pays for this? No, not taxes. Somebody had a great idea when the contract to manage Paris’s outdoor advertising came up for bid. To win this lucrative contract, companies were required to submit a proposal to create and operate a public bicycle program. Done!

In Paris I had a great time riding around on the Velib bikes. I also saw similar systems in action in Lyon (their Velo’v system was the model for the one in Paris) and Perpignan. These local bike-share programs have been so successful that they are rapidly spreading across Europe. Some U.S. cities have expressed interest. But before we deploy the bikes here, we need to avoid the pitfalls starting to crop up in Paris.

  • First, the system needs way more racks that bikes. Why? Because people tend to ride in the same direction at the same time of day. When I was zipping around Paris last Monday, I found that all of the bike stations near the center of the city were full. I spent about half an hour looking for a station that had an open hitch. The kiosks can display a map showing you where the nearest open bike rack is, but it’s confusing. This problem really gums up the works.
  • Second, the payment system in Paris and Lyon seems needlessly complicated. Most riders buy a special card online, which is mailed to them. Visitors can buy a temporary card right at the kiosk using a credit card. (But only the European kind with a built-in chip. Curiously, the only card in my wallet that worked was my American Express card, and it only worked in Paris.) Perpignan has a much more elegant system. You go online and use your credit card to register for an ID number, which you punch into the kiosk to unlock a bike. (Mine was a four-digit number less than 2,000.) Use it once or use it forever; there’s no card to carry. So simple. I also found the BIP bikes in Perpignan to be better to ride – smaller and lighter, but still sturdy.
  • Third, the system should let the users choose the bikes they want. That was my one gripe with the Perpignan bikes. Sometimes people return damaged bikes to the racks, or bikes with flat tires. The Paris and Lyon systems let you choose the best bike yourself, but the Perpignan system assigns a bike to you.
  • And finally, these bike systems just wouldn’t work in some American cities. Snow and ice – and road salt – would destroy these bikes. That rules out most of the East Coast and Midwest. It has to be a compact city, so forget places like Los Angeles and Miami. What’s left? I’m thinking Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and mid-size southern cities like Austin and Savannah. Let’s make it happen!

(Photo shows a guy waiting for a space to open up at a Velib rack outside the Centre Georges-Pompidou in Paris.)