By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 24, 2007
PARIS, March 23 -- Paris is for lovers -- lovers of food and art and wine, lovers of the romantic sort and, starting this summer, lovers of bicycles.
On July 15, the day after Bastille Day, Parisians will wake up to discover thousands of low-cost rental bikes at hundreds of high-tech bicycle stations scattered throughout the city, an ambitious program to cut traffic, reduce pollution, improve parking and enhance the city's image as a greener, quieter, more relaxed place.
By the end of the year, organizers and city officials say, there should be 20,600 bikes at 1,450 stations -- or about one station every 250 yards across the entire city. Based on experience elsewhere -- particularly in Lyon, France's third-largest city, which launched a similar system two years ago -- regular users of the bikes will ride them almost for free.
"It has completely transformed the landscape of Lyon -- everywhere you see people on the bikes," said Jean-Louis Touraine, the city's deputy mayor. The program was meant "not just to modify the equilibrium between the modes of transportation and reduce air pollution, but also to modify the image of the city and to have a city where humans occupy a larger space."
The Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, has the same aim, said his aide, Jean-Luc Dumesnil: "We think it could change Paris's image -- make it quieter, less polluted, with a nicer atmosphere, a better way of life."
But there is a practical side, too, Dumesnil said. A recent study analyzed different trips in the city "with a car, bike, taxi and walking, and the bikes were always the fastest."
The Lyon rental bikes, with their distinctive silver frame, red rear-wheel guard, handlebar basket and bell, can also be among the cheapest ways to travel, because the first half-hour is free, and most trips are shorter than that.
"It's faster than the bus or metro, it's good exercise, and it's almost free," said Vianney Paquet, 19, who is studying law in Lyon. Paquet said that he uses the rental bikes four or five times a day and pays 10 euros (about $13) a year, half for an annual membership fee and half for rental credit that he never actually spends because his rides typically last just a few minutes.
Anthonin Darbon, director of Cyclocity, which operates Lyon's program and won the contract to start up and run the one in Paris, said 95 percent of the roughly 20,000 daily bike rentals in Lyon are free because of their length.
Cyclocity is a subsidiary of outdoor advertising behemoth JCDecaux, which runs much smaller bike businesses in Brussels, Vienna and the Spanish cities of Cordoba and Girona. London, Dublin, Sydney and Melbourne reportedly are considering similar rental programs.
The Cyclocity concept evolved from utopian "bike-sharing" ideas that were tried in Europe in the 1960s and '70s, usually modeled on Amsterdam's famous "white bicycle" plan, in which idealistic hippies repaired scores of bicycles, painted them white, and left them on the streets for anyone to use for free. But in the end, the bikes were stolen and became too beat-up to ride. A number of U.S. cities, including Portland, Ore., have also experimented with community-use bicycle programs.
JCDecaux experimented with designs and developed a sturdier, less vandal-prone bike, along with a rental system to discourage theft: Each rider must leave a credit card or refundable deposit of about $195, along with personal information. In Lyon, about 10 percent of the bikes are stolen each year, but many are later recovered, Darbon said.
And to encourage people to return bikes quickly, rental rates rise the longer the bikes are out. In Paris, for instance, renting a bike will be free for the first 30 minutes, $1.30 for the next 30 minutes, $2.60 for the third half-hour, and $5.20 for the fourth half-hour of use and every 30 minutes after that. That makes the cost of a two-hour rental about $9.10.
Membership fees in Paris will be steeper than in Lyon, from $1.30 for one day to about $38 for a year.
The Paris deal will bring the world's biggest bicycle fleet to the City of Light in a complex, 10-year public-private partnership.
JCDecaux will provide all of the bikes (at a cost of about $1,300 apiece) and build the pickup/drop-off stations. Each will have 15 to 40 high-tech racks connected to a centralized computer that can monitor each bike's condition and location. Customers can buy a prepaid card or use a credit card at a computerized console to release a bike.
The company will pay start-up costs of about $115 million and employ the equivalent of about 285 people full time to operate the system and repair the bikes for 10 years. All revenue from the program will go to the city, and the company will also pay Paris a fee of about $4.3 million a year.
In exchange, Paris is giving the company exclusive control over 1,628 city-owned billboards, including the revenue from them, for the same period. About half the billboard space will be given back to the city at no cost for public-interest advertising.
Based on statistics from Lyon, company officials estimate that each bicycle in Paris will be used on average 12 times a day, for a total of about 250,000 trips a day, or 91 million trips a year.
In Lyon, according to deputy mayor Touraine, the city's 3,000 rental bikes have logged about 10 million miles since the program started in May 2005, saving an estimated 3,000 tons of carbon dioxide from being spewed into the air. Overall, vehicle traffic in the city is down 4 percent, he said, and bicycle use has tripled, not just on account of Cyclocity, but also because the program has prompted a boom in private bicycle use and sales.
The main complaint voiced by riders is that at certain times in certain places -- such as mornings at local universities -- all the racks can be occupied, making it impossible to return a bike. "I'm going to start using my own bike, because sometimes there are not enough spaces in the rack" at school, said art student Cecile Noiser, 19.
Company and city officials said that because the system sends in electronic data about which bikes are where, they are exploring ways to redistribute bikes using trucks to better match customers' needs. Touraine said the glitches are minor compared with the benefits.
Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.