French revolution: Rentable bikes every 900 feet

Beginning July 15, Parisians can get one with the swipe of a card – and the first half-hour is free.

The socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, 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 "vélorution" with 10,648 rentable bikes, or vélos. 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 Vélib' – wordplay for bicycle freedom. Read: freedom from too many cars and carbon fumes.

"When I first got involved with Vélib, 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 Vélib 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: Vélib 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. People are charged for bikes that aren't returned, placing an emphasis on rider care and oversight. Should a bike not be returned, an alarm inside the bike will go off.

Today, Lyon's program seems to have lost its training wheels; it now has 4,000 bikes that get ridden 20,000 times a day, more than 40 percent of which are used by office workers.

Paris officials hope to register 200,000 rides a day. Perhaps one can amend Ezra Pound's famous 1913 modernist reflection on the Paris metro: "...faces in the crowd/petals on a wet black bough" to "pedals on a silver-grey vélo."

Not that Parisians won't have to adjust. The French are fond of the idea of civilization and the vision of a city suffused with bike commuters is a humanist heaven. The problem is that Paris streets are Darwinist by nature. The 19th-century avenues are host to 21st-century traffic. The bulk of movement is not by vélos, but by Jurassic Park-like véloceraptors – aggressive autos and packs of even more aggressive motorscooters that tunnel through and sweep around car lanes and backed-up traffic.

City fathers and mothers argue that Parisian drivers will simply start to adjust. Such is the faith.

In the past two years, Paris has created larger zones for bikes, buses, and taxis. But there's no history of bike helmet wearing. Paris commuters in the morning and evening aren't particularly patient, and bike stations only have one sign-up panel. Some Parisians question the vélo station courtesy levels late at night, when students and partygoers want to get home.

For all the Tour de France glam and a general rise in bicycle culture in France, Paris has not been a bike town. A rising tide of bikers, though, are notorious for riding on sidewalks, ignoring traffic signals, and biking the wrong way on all those one-way streets.

Ann-Marie Fouchet of the Geppeto Vélo bike shop on the Left Bank feels the program "is good as a way to establish biking in Paris." But she says that Parisians are not used to dealing with bikes on the road. Every Friday evening about 500 bikers join for a tour of the city, during which "cars aren't always courteous and the bikers are not always knowing how to deal with them," Ms. Fouchet says.

Another niggling factor amid the revolutionary fervor: parking. Parisians may like the idea of bike heaven, but few want their already crowded parking spaces absconded. To the barricades!

Albert Asseraf, director of marketing at Decaux, says that the bike project is so broad that after July 15, 2007, Parisians will refer to "before Vélib, and after Vélib."

Ok. Vive le vélo!

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