, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This is part 1 of a series. Please also read part 2part 3, and part 4.


Vélib’ station. Photo courtesy of LWY via Flickr.

Ok, after four months in France, it’s time to take stock of what I know about Vélib’, bikesharing, and the bicycle scene in Paris (at the onset, it doesn’t feel like much, but hopefully by the end I will have pleasantly surprised myself).

You should know, dear reader, that this is my first stab at a very bloggy literature review — as in the supposed culmination of the phase of my project during which I have read the other research that’s out there, so as not to produce redundant work. Turns out there’s a lot to read! For better or worse, this phase is going to have to continue, so I’ll probably produce a “More Stuff I’ve Read About Vélib'” later in the spring.

The basics:

  1. Vélib’ is a bikeshare program, which allows members of the public the ability to borrow a bike from a station, ride it for a short trip, and return it at another station within the Vélib’ system.
  2. The public-private system was planned and is owned by the Mairie de Paris (the City of Paris), but it is operated by Cyclocity, a company of the international advertising firm JCDecaux. JCDecaux has a 10-year contract with the City of Paris to maintain the Vélib’ fleet and operations in exchange for 1,400 outdoor advertising placements.
  3. Vélib = Vélo (bike) + Liberté (freedom)
  4. Since 2007, Vélib’ riders have logged 130 million trips.
  5. Vélib’ was not the first such system in France — many iterations of bikeshare programs existed before from La Rochelle to Lyon — but it was the first of its size and stature. Today, it is still one of the largest bikeshare systems in the world (only dwarfed by one in Hangzhou, China, with more than 50,000 bicycles.)
  6. Vélib’ has 245,000 annual subscribers.
  7. Vélib’ began in 2007 with 11,000 bikes at 750 stations in the city of Paris. (Interesting comparison: Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare, the largest system in the U.S., launched with 400 bicycles at 49 stations in 2010.
  8. In 2009, Vélib’ extended the system to 30 communities surrounding Paris. As a result, the system now includes about 23,000 bicycles and 1,700 stations. (Comparison continued: Capital Bikeshare also expanded geographically and systemically to 1,670 bikes circulating among 189 stations)
  9. As of 2010, there have been three deaths associated with Vélib’.
  10. Since Vélib’ launched, the number of cyclists on the streets of Paris has increased by 41%.

Most of the above statistics can be verified here.

A brief history of bikeshare

“Bikeshare started in Amsterdam, right? Bicycles are so popular there.”

Argh! If I only had a quarter for every time I’d heard that, I wouldn’t have to spend my own $ on another latte again during my stay in Paris. Yes, to most Americans (maybe most Westerners) Amsterdam is paradise for the bicycle; all good biking things must start in Amsterdam. And technically, yes, it is the home of bikesharing. The first documented, public, bikeshare system, White Bikes, began in Amsterdam in 1965. White Bikes was a system in which an advocacy group left a bunch of free white bikes about for people to use. Within a month they had all been stolen or vandalized.

Those Dutch bikes aren't for sharing!

These Dutch bikes are not for sharing! Photo: liber.

The collective demise of the White Bikes was largely the end to the shared bike in Amsterdam (yes, all those bikes are privately owned!), but not the end of bikesharing. In 1974, the city of La Rochelle in France successfully ran with a free bikesharing program, Vélos Jaunes (Yellow Bikes), which is actually still in operation. Since then, France has become the spiritual home of bikeshare, and where you can still observe the greatest diversity of systems in terms of size, generation, and business model.

Not wanting to rehash the great work of Paul DeMaio (PDF), Dr. Susan Shaheen (PDF), or the Wikipedia community, I encourage those who are interested in reading more about how shared-bike schemes came to be to click through one of the above links. For my purposes, it’s important to note that researchers classify bikeshare programs into four generations:

  • First generation bikeshare systems provide bikes free of charge that are parked willy-nilly around the city (ex: White Bikes).
  • Second generation systems require a coin deposit and consist of bikes as well as stations to which the bikes must be eventually returned (ex: Bycyken, Copenhagen).
  • Third generation systems have docking stations, bikes, and information technology that powers kiosks, websites, apps, etc. which allow users to pay with a credit card (ex: Vélib’ c. 2007).
  • Fourth generation systems have everything that third-generation systems offer plus smartcards that integrate with existing transportation networks, bicycle redistribution networks, and possibly electric bicycles to navigate challenging topography (ex: Capital Bikeshare or Vélib’ c. 2012).

On the Bike-sharing Blog, DeMaio counts that as of the end of 2012 there are now 493 bikeshare third-generation (or fourth!) systems worldwide. Some first- and second-generation systems are still in existence, but they do not offer the same scalable opportunities and cost containment measures that have piqued the interest of city leaders around the world. Basically, until bikeshare met IT, this kind of system wasn’t a viable public transportation option.

More importantly, bikeshare has very much piqued the interests of city leaders everywhere and very quickly. DeMaio claims that as of the end of 2007, there were only 68 operational bikeshare programs, and now there are almost 500.

In my opinion, that’s because a) bikeshare is cheap (or a hell of lot cheaper than building a new subway line, right San Francisco?); b) bikeshare is politically viable because people like bikes and often planners don’t have to remove a lane of car traffic to squeeze in a bike lane; and c) over the past 10-15 years, cities have led the charge to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, so a city-scale, emission-reduction program such as bikeshare is bound to look appealing to leaders regardless if there is demand among residents. But it’s not yet time for my opinions — more of those later.

History of Vélib’

Mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoe. Photo: Bertrand Delanoe

Mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoe. Photo: Bertrand Delanoe

Paris may be a bastion of lefty values, but it has not always been an emblematic “green” city or a “biking” city. The conspicuous consumerism that takes place daily along the Champs Elysées should be enough to shatter that image. However in 2001, Bertrand Delanoë, the head of the socialist party, became mayor and set out on a plan to “improve quality of life, reduce pollution, and cut down on vehicle traffic” that was strangling the city. Specifically the city adopted the target of cutting traffic by 40% by 2020 (Paris: Vélo Liberté).

Under Delanoë, Paris soon moved to prioritize public transportation, cycling, and walking over personal automobiles and started taking measures to redevelop public space into pedestrian walkways, lines for new tramways, and bicycle lanes and paths. Unfortunately, even after building 400 km of new bike lanes and paths by 2005, cycling as a mode of transportation was still pitifully low — only 1% of all trips according to Céline Lepault, the Vélib’ Manager for the Mairie de Paris 2005-2008 (Paris: Vélo Liberté). Thus in order to boost cycling as a percentage of trips in the city, the transportation planers needed to find a different strategy.

Enter bikeshare.

Post to be continued in “Stuff I’ve Read About Vélib’, Part 2 of 4.