Join Date: Apr 2006
Location: Portland, OR
Bikes: Breezer Uptown 8, U frame
Mentioned: 0 Post(s)
Tagged: 0 Thread(s)
Quoted: 0 Post(s)
In France, 'liberté' comes with two wheels
By Katrin Bennhold
Sunday, July 15, 2007
PARIS: A cluster of sweaty bodies pedaled up the Champs-Élysées on Sunday, their eyes firmly fixed on the Arc de Triomphe, as onlookers cheered from the sidelines.
This was not the leading squad of the Tour de France racing toward the finish line. This was a group of Californian tourists testing Paris's new large-scale communal bike program hours after it was inaugurated.
"I'm never taking the subway again," beamed Justin Hill, a 47-year-old real estate broker from Santa Barbara, glancing back over his shoulder at the outline of the Louvre at the distant bottom of the French capital's best-known avenue.
The sight of the hefty gray bike frames with metal baskets on the handlebars may soon become familiar. More than 10,600 bikes on 750 self-service docking stations became available Sunday in an inexpensive program that provides access in eight languages.
With the number to grow to 20,600 by the end of the year, the scope of this initiative - dubbed Vélib', a name that fuses the terms "vélo" (bike) and "liberté" (freedom) - is by far the most ambitious in the world. It is the latest in a string of European efforts to reduce the number of cars in city centers and give people incentives to choose more eco-friendly modes of transport.
"This is about revolutionizing urban culture," said Pierre Aidenbaum, mayor of Paris's third district, which has the highest share of bikes per inhabitant and which opened 15 docking stations Sunday. "For a long time cars were associated with freedom of movement and flexibility. What we want to show people is that in many ways bikes fulfill this role much more today."
The idea is simple: You can pick up a bike from any docking station in Paris - they are installed at 300-meter, about 1,000-foot, intervals and clustered at popular sights and transport hubs - and park it at any other station. You can book your pass at either a station or online; all you need is a bank card. A day pass costs €1, about $1.40; a weekly pass, €5; and a yearly subscription €29, with no additional charges as long as each bike ride does not exceed 30 minutes. (Thereafter, a surcharge of €1 for the first additional half hour, €2 for the second half hour and €4 for each half hour after that is incurred to ensure that as many bikes as possible stay in the rotation.)
Moreover, the program could bring about €30 million in rental receipts into public coffers, city hall officials say. The advertiser JC Decaux is paying for the docking stations, the bikes and their maintenance, in exchange for exclusive use of 1,628 urban billboards.
Vélib' is the brain child of Paris's mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, a Socialist and longtime green campaigner who has pledged to double the number of cycle lanes in the French capital by 2008 and reduce car traffic by 40 percent by 2020. Since he took office in 2001, Delanoë has built almost 200 kilometers, or 125 miles, of additional cycle paths, ripping up car lanes and earning him accusations from drivers of aggravating congestion in the city.
There are still vast parts of Paris that even the most hardened cyclists try to avoid, like the four lanes that circle the Arc de Triomphe, or the messy cross road at the Place de la Concorde. Even the Champs-Élysées is not for the faint-hearted. The Paris police department has so far refused to grant a permit for a cycle path along the avenue, fearing that this would hopelessly congest the city's main traffic artery.
But all the other paths have made cycling in Paris noticeably safer. The statistics speak for themselves: While the number of bikes on the streets has increased by 50 percent over the last six years, the number of cycling accidents has not budged, said Jean-Luc Dumesnil, who is in charge of cycling policy at City Hall.
"It's the cycling paths but it's also a question of critical mass," Dumesnil said. "The more bikes there are, the more car drivers get used to them and the more care they take."
Despite the increase of bikes on the streets, only about 40,000 of the 2.5 million Parisians say they use their bikes regularly, a toll Delanoë would like to raise to 250,000 by the end of the year.
City Hall is hoping to tap into the large pool of bike skeptics by drawing on the experience of smaller-scale rental programs in other French and European cities, including Berlin, Barcelona, Brussels, Vienna and Stockholm. The programs differ in a number of ways, but they all seek to address the concerns about theft and financial viability that brought down the pioneering "White Bike" experiment in Amsterdam in the 1960s.
In Germany, for example, the railroad operates the "Call a Bike" program, where cyclists can unlock rental bikes outside train stations by using their mobile phones, making this a convenient way of combining public transport and cycling. Copenhagen and Helsinki both have a free system in which bikes are lent for a deposit that is automatically returned when the bike is relocked. In London, the authorities have set up a pay-as-you-go system in which cyclists pay a registration fee of £10, or $20, which is then run down each time a bike is rented.
For inspiration, Delanoë's team looked to Lyon, where a similar, smaller bicycle rental program was started two years ago with great success. Ten percent of the city's population has a subscription, city officials said, and each of the 4,000 bikes is used on average 10 times a day.
Aidenbaum, one of the staunchest defenders of Vélib', is hopeful that Parisians will also grow fond of the slightly unwieldy bicycles, which weigh 22 kilograms, or nearly 50 pounds, and which are equipped with a comfortable and easily adjustable seat, a lock for interim stops and three gears that make them run surprisingly smoothly.
The key, he said, was to make it easy for people.
"What this initiative does is to take away some of the inconveniences of owning a bike in Paris: the lack of storage space in Paris buildings, the issue of theft and the hassle of maintenance."
First indications are positive. Even before the docking stations opened, some 13,000 cyclists had bought annual subscriptions online. On Sunday, a scorching summer day that brought thousands of Parisians and tourists into the city center, some docking stations were so popular that they temporarily ran out of bikes.
Denis Bocquet, 37, an urban planner who divides his time between Paris and Berlin, had to wait in line before renting a bike with his partner, Nora Lafi.
From now on, he said, he would use the Vélib' to go to work during his stints in Paris.
"It used to be stressful and dangerous to cycle in Paris, but the city has changed and this could change it even more," Bocquet said. "People are reclaiming urban space from cars."
To deter thievery, cyclists are obliged to leave credit card details (a €150 deposit will be debited if the bike is not returned). Still, the city has factored in a 10 percent theft rate.
In some parts of Paris, like the working-class neighborhood of Belleville, residents are skeptical about how long the shiny new fleet of rental bikes will survive unscathed.
"There is a lot of gratuitous vandalism that could harm this initiative in this area," said Marylise Dutoit, 37, a primary-school teacher. But she said she would try to use it to go work every day.
"It takes me 20 minutes by Métro because I have to change once. By bike it will be 10 minutes."
By 2:30pm, Justin Hill and his wife, Megan, and their two teenagers were already on their third bikes. They had grabbed their first ones in the Latin Quarter after brunch. After a 20 minute ride through the cobbled streets on the left bank of the Seine, they dropped their bicycles off behind Notre Dame and went for a stroll around the cathedral. An hour and a leisurely coffee later, they hopped again on bikes to cycle to the Louvre - that took 11 minutes - and then wandered through the Tuileries gardens and had an ice cream. The Arc de Triomphe was to be the last point on their itinerary for the day and it took them 15 minutes to get there.
"But when we're done here we might get one more bike to go back to the hotel and swing by the Eiffel Tower on the way," said Megan Hill as her son Tommy, 17, rolled his eyes. "This is fun. I never realized Paris was so small!"
"Real wars of words are harder to win. They require thought, insight, precision, articulation, knowledge, and experience. They require the humility to admit when you are wrong. They recognize that the dialectic is not about making us look at you, but about us all looking together for the truth."