Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

French Revolution: Rentable Bikes Every 900 Feet

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

French Revolution: Rentable Bikes Every 900 Feet

Article excerpt

The socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoee, has seen the future and it's got two wheels, three speeds, an adjustable seat, indestructible tires, a basket, and a bell. It's 50 pounds of ecofriendly handlebars, comin' at ya.

The French are turning Paris into a bicycle zone, pretty much overnight. Even now, astride small alleys and behind boulangeries, paving stones are being ripped to fit 750 bicycle rent "stations."

On July 15, a day after the French Revolution anniversary, the city of lights will kick off a "velorution" with 10,648 rentable bikes, or velos. By January, some 1,400 rent stations and 20,600 bikes are scheduled to be in place. In Paris proper, one will never be more than 900 feet from a set of cheap wheels. At least theoretically.

Similar programs have been launched elsewhere with varying success. But Paris officials say their city is the first world capital to adopt a major green biking initiative, and they are doing it in a way that may be too big to fail. The ambitious Paris project is titled Velib' - wordplay for bicycle freedom. Read: freedom from too many cars and carbon fumes.

"When I first got involved with Velib, I was amazed at the number of stations, 750 to start with, and the enthusiasm of everyone for reducing auto traffic," says Jonathan Pierson, a Paris native who's part of a team of young Parisians hosting questions at Velib stations during the day.

Amsterdam, a city not unfamiliar with bikes, tried a similar experiment that foundered. But the French think they've conquered the kinks. A bike-rental program started in Lyon in 2005 is working.

One clincher for the Paris project: Velib isn't costing the city anything, and should be self-supporting. The program is financed by advertising behemoth JC Decaux - in exchange for 1,600 billboards around the city.

The concept is computerized and credit card driven. Each station has a large ATM-sized panel that gives instructions in French, German, English, and Chinese. Riders buy in for a day (1 rules), a week (5 rules), or a year (29 euro). The panel issues a card that can be swiped over a small locking pod to release the bike.

It is also a concept designed mainly for commuters, not tourists seeking a languid ride along the Seine. Riders have 30 minutes to get to their destination before any charge is made. After 30 minutes, the cost is 1 euro ($1.36). The bike is 2 rules for 1.5 hours, and 4 euro for 2 hours. "We hope each bike is used 10 to 14 times a day," says Pierson, who notes that the stations are open 24/ 7.

A rider who arrives to find no locking pods available, checks in, and is given another free 15 minutes and directions to the closest space. Need to stop for a baguette? The bike has a lock.

Yet there's also some personal responsibility tied up with bicycle freedom. To avoid problems found in Lyon - nearly half of its 1,000 bikes disappeared or were destroyed in the first year - initial membership in the Paris program puts a 150 euros hold on the credit card. …

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