Monday, July 16, 2007
These were not the leading riders of the Tour de France racing toward the finish line, but American tourists testing this city’s new communal bike program.
“I’m never taking the subway again,” said a beaming Justin Hill, 47, a real estate broker from Santa Barbara, Calif.
More than 10,600 of the hefty gray bicycles became available for modest rental prices on Sunday at 750 self-service docking stations that provide access in eight languages. The number is to grow to 20,600 by the end of the year.
The program, Vélib (for “vélo,” bicycle, and “liberté,” freedom), 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 trendy third district, which opened 15 docking stations on 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 bicycles fulfill this role much more today.”
Users can rent a bike online or at any of the stations, using a credit or debit card and leave them at any other station.
A one-day pass costs 1 euro ($1.38), a weekly pass 5 euros ($6.90) and a yearly subscription 29 euros ($40), with no additional charges as long as each bike ride does not exceed 30 minutes. (Beyond that, there is an incremental surcharge, to make sure that as many bikes as possible stay in the rotation.)
The outdoor advertising company J. C. Decaux is paying for the bicycles, docking stations and maintenance in return for exclusive use of 1,628 urban billboards owned by the city. The city receives the rental income, and city officials say they are hoping the program will bring in millions of euros.
Vélib is the brainchild of Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, a Socialist and longtime green campaigner who has set a target for the city to reduce car traffic by 40 percent by 2020. Since he took office in 2001, his administration has added about 125 miles of bicycle paths, at the expense of lanes for cars, prompting accusations from drivers that it has aggravated congestion in the city.
But even the most hardened cyclists still try to avoid some parts of Paris. The Champs-Élysées is not for the faint-hearted. The police have so far refused to grant a permit for a cycle lane along the avenue, fearing hopeless congestion on this main traffic artery.
Jean-Luc Dumesnil, who is an adviser in City Hall on cycling policy, said that while the number of bicycles on the streets increased by 50 percent in the last six years, the number of cycling accidents remained stable.
“It’s the cycling paths, but it’s also a question of critical mass,” Mr. Dumesnil said. “The more bikes there are, the more car drivers get used to them and the more care they take.”
Still, only about 40,000 of the 2.5 million Parisians say they use their bicycles regularly. Mr. Delanoë would like to raise that number to 250,000 by the end of the year.
City Hall is hoping to draw on the experience of smaller-scale rental programs in other cities like Berlin and Stockholm to address concerns about theft and financial viability that ended an experimental program in Amsterdam in the 1960s.
The key, Mr. Aidenbaum said, is to make it easy. “What this initiative does is to take away some of the inconveniences of owning a bike in Paris,” he said, “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, 13,000 people had bought annual subscriptions online. On Sunday, 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,” Mr. Bocquet said.
Some 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 because it would reduce her 20-minute Métro commute to 10 minutes.
By 2:30, Mr. Hill, his wife, Megan, and their two teenagers were at the Arc de Triomphe, on their third set of bicycles.
“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,” Ms. Hill said as her son Tommy, 17, rolled his eyes. “This is fun. I never realized Paris was so small!”
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