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Sorry, I know it used to be part 2 of 3. Then I started writing. I want the next two to be less tome-like than this one. FWIW you may want to read part 1part 3, or part 4.


So, where was I ? Oh yes, we had just started to discuss the …

History of Vélib’ (cont.)
As an amateur Vélib’ scholar, it’s unclear to me if the Mairie de Paris (City of Paris) decided in 2005 to experiment with multiple strategies to increasing cycling as a form of transportation — maybe the others were duds? — or if the Delanoë administration determined that bikeshare would be the only solution. (This is a question I hope to investigate!) However, it is documented that Vélib’s origins lie in Delanoë’s policy of deemphaising vehicular travel in the city of Paris — heartening news for policy wonks worldwide.

However, it’s unlikely that a big city like Paris would have bet so heavily on bikeshare had other smaller cities in France not tried bikeshare before. In an interview with a PBS film crew in 2008, Denis Baupin, the deputy mayor of sustainable development in Paris, said, “We felt it would work because of other experiments in France. In Lyon, for example, one had already worked so clearly we weren’t talk a major risk. We knew that if we offered something like this, people would go for it” (Paris: Vélo Liberté).

Photo courtesy of David via flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sanggi/2723247456/

On Vélo’v. Photo courtesy of David via Flickr.

Launched by the City of Lyon and JCDecaux in 2005, Vélo’v started with 1,500 bikes. Though other cities in France had experimented with bikeshare even before Lyon — like Rennes and La Rochelle, as noted earlier — none had done so at the same level of complexity and service as Vélo’v. “It was the experience in Lyon that allowed us to acquire the maximum know-how to prepare Paris, because it’s true that when we started in Lyon, no one seriously expected such a success,” said Remi Pheulpin, Executive Vice President at JCDecaux (Paris: Vélo Liberté). “There was a genuine desire to embrace the trend of sustainable development, but no one expected that people would use bikes to go to work.”

But go to work they did! And to stores, school and and Star Wars events (find an interesting analysis of the first two years of Vélo’v data here). During the first year of Vélo’v, the City of Lyon reported a 44% increase in bicycle riding (“Bikesharing in Europe, the Americas, and Asia“) This must have piqued the attention of Parisian planners and officials because in 2005 the Mairie de Paris began a a study of bikeshare programs to avoid the pitfalls of other systems and fit the model to suit the needs of Paris.

According to Vélib’ Manager Lépault (Paris: Vélo Liberté):

We looked around Europe and the world, for other bikeshare systems. There was another one in France in Rennes that wasn’t working very well, and others with varying degrees of success and sometimes some failures, and an analysis of these systems allowed us to see that we had to pay close attention to the dimensions of the program (size of the plan). So the primary study for Vélib’ was a precise study in which we cut Paris into 400 square-meter blocks, and in each square, we evaluated the population density, job density, businesses, infrastructure, and the potential demand for bike trips. This study examined each neighborhood and arrived at the conclusion that there had to be a minimum of 10,000 bikes for the system to to work well immediately.

The Mairie de Paris took the results of the study (for the record, it’s also unclear to me if the study preceded the contract with JCDecaux or vice versa) and essentially ran with them. The City signed a 10-year contract with JCDecaux to start a bikeshare program that would operate 11,000 bicycles at 750 stations within the city in exchange for the exclusive right to display ads on 1,400 outdoor signs for the duration of the contract. The nature of the partnership between the Mairie de Paris and JCDecaux is that the city owns the Vélib’ program, but JCDecaux pays for the bikes, infrastructure and operating costs. This public-private partnership was quite controversial when it was announced in the mid-2000s, and some Parisians with whom I have spoken still bring it up as a strike against Vélib’ (more on this later).

Contract signed and study completed, JCDecaux quickly got to work to build the program in Paris. With the Mairie de Paris, JCDecaux obtained the rights to build 750 stations at an average of 300 meters apart (the number of stations doubled by December 2007), designed a “universally accessible,” heavy-duty bicycle, developed the IT infrastructure to accept payments and offer subscriptions at the stations and on the web, and started Allo Vélib’, the all-important customer service operation. Then with all (or most of) the pieces in place, the Mairie de Paris launched Vélib’ on midnight of July 15, 2007, during the celebration of Bastille Day, the French independence day on July 14.

Vélib' arrives in Puteaux, a suburb of Paris, in 2009. Photo courtesy of Gilles Couteau via Flickr.

Vélib’ arrives in Puteaux, a suburb of Paris, in 2009. Photo courtesy of Gilles Couteau via Flickr.

Since Vélib’ has launched, both the system itself and how Parisians respond to it have evolved over time. The initial user response was largely quite positive — Vélib’ facilitated 3 million rentals in the first month and attracted 200,000 subscribers in the first year, though over the following two years the numbers of subscribers and rentals gradually declined. Within its first year of operation Vélib’ started the Vélib’ & Moi blog to better communicate with users, increased its bike fleet to nearly 20,000, started a team to return bikes to empty stations at night (the theory of natural bicycle redistribution wasn’t working so well on the hills), added greater functionality to the terminals at the Vélib’ stations, and increased the size of many stations. In 2009, Vélib’ expanded to 30 communities in the Péripherique, the adjacent suburbs of Paris, increasing its fleet size to about 23,000 bicycles circulating among 1,700 stations (“Cinq Ans de Vélib’“).

The case study
Now after five years in operation, there’s such a wealth of data and experience associated with Vélib’, that it almost feels like a shame not to explore it for the sake of the hundreds of other systems that are popping up around the world. Luckily for me other researchers and institutes like Dr. Susan Shaheen, the Chambre Régionale des Comptes, have done some of this work already — which I plan to reference liberally — but the bikeshare world still lacks a in-depth, holistic, independent evaluation of Vélib’. Such a case study will hopefully be valuable to other cities exploring similar programs.

Using the themes of research and news stories that I have already read, I have started to organize them into working categories that I believe should be used to adequately evaluate such a system — and it’s within these categories that I hope supplement the research that already exists with my own expert interviews and data analysis during my remaining four months in Paris. So far the categories I have explored include: safety, the city’s cycling environment, the system’s network and infrastructure, the system’s support services, the demography of users, bicycle theft and vandalism, the system’s communication practices, the system’s administration, and the system’s impacts on the city.

Phew! Enough explanation. On to what the bikeshare world knows already about Vélib’ and the rest of my review.

This is always the first thing I am asked about.

With few exceptions, whenever I explain my Fulbright project to a new person, the topic of safety while riding Vélib’ comes up immediately. Sometimes the new person asks if I am a Vélib’ rider (I am — I have the classic annual subscription), and then follows up with a question/statement like, “Do you feel safe riding in Paris? There are so many cars, and they go so quickly, aren’t you scared? Or sometimes she explains why she doesn’t ride a bike, “I just don’t like the cars going by me so quickly. Plus in Paris it’s so hard to get comfortable on a bike, because you can’t ride in the parks or gardens.” At this point this conversation generally evolves to discuss the non-automotive form of transportation the other person does prefer, “walking for exercise and because the city is so beautiful on foot,” “the bus because I can see the city go by,” or “the Métro because it’s so easy.” Rarely does the other person admit to driving around — I think that admission has been largely stigmatized, especially in younger populations — but of course that is the implied point of reference. In my opinion, one wouldn’t necessarily feel so exposed and vulnerable on bicycle, if the counterpoint of driving in a seemingly safe, enclosed vehicle wasn’t so second nature.

Photo courtesy of Julien via Flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/spidey-man/203048018/

Photo courtesy of Julien via Flickr.

Yet, the reality on the bike lanes of Paris is the statistics do not justify the fear. Much like flying in a commercial plane can feel terrifying, but is ultimately far safer than a driving your own car, the reported statistics of bicycle travel tell a very different story. For instance, in 2011 zero cyclists were killed in bike accidents in Paris. Not one. In 2010, two cyclists died in bike accidents. Between 2007 and 2009, 13 people died from bike-related accidents on the streets of Paris (three also people died in a cycling-related sports accident in Vincenne), which skews the average higher, but it is heartening to see those figures declining (“Les vrais effets de la pratique quotidienne du vélo,” Roue Libre Sept.-Oct. 2012).

What do people die from in Paris? By and large they die from heart disease, cancer, dementia and diabetes. Data from the Observatoire régionale de santé Île-de-France show that from 2006-2008 (a similar period to that which witnessed the deaths of those 13 cyclists), 69, 499 people in the Île-de-France region (the region that encompasses Paris) died from the aforementioned maladies. Now — pardon me as I play fast and lose with statistics for a moment — the population of Paris as of Jan. 2009 was 2.2 million and the population of the Ile-de-France region was 12.1 million at the same time (INSEE), which means the population of Paris represents 18% of that of Île-de-France as of the beginning of 2009. Thus the through the powers of association, let’s say 18% of those ~70,000 deaths were Parisian, which means 12,700 people died of long-term maladies. Compare that to 13. People just don’t die that often on bikes in Paris.

Statistician friends, hold your angry emails! When it comes time to publish, I’ll be more precise with these figures. But for the sake of making an approximate comparison, I think the statistics are fair. Moreover, it’s not just that you’re way more likely to die from some terrible illness. Actually, riding a bike will likely help prevent the maladies that reduce years of good health. According to Mieux se Déplacer à Bicyclette, a bicycle advocacy organization in Paris, the benefits of riding a bicycle outweigh the risks by a factor of 20:1 (“Les vrais effets de la pratique quotidienne du vélo,” Roue Libre Sept.-Oct. 2012). In gambling terms, choosing not to ride a bicycle in Paris for fear of being killed, is like going to a casino assuming the odds are going to be in your favor (ok, this analogy needs a little work). It just doesn’t pencil out.

Cyclonudistes protesting  the domination of cars and motorbikes in the city in 2008. Photo courtesy of Philippe Leroyer via Flickr.

Cyclonudistes protesting the domination of cars and motorbikes in the city in 2008. Photo courtesy of Philippe Leroyer via Flickr.

What does this mean for Vélib’? Well, for starters if it were terribly dangerous to ride bikes in the streets of Paris, the system would probably be a non-starter. It may seem obvious, but if no one rides because it’s actually not safe to do so, Vélib’ would have a hell of a time operating — no revenue, exorbitantly high insurance premiums, Conseillers de Paris breathing down the neck of Mairie de Paris, inflammatory press coverage, etc. Thus the system needs a safe environment in which to operate. Over how much control Vélib’ has over the general safety of cycling in Paris, or the specific needs of Vélib’ riders is another question, however. I am curious to explore what kinds of precautions Vélib’ has taken to ensure the safety of its users. Or, maybe more importantly, how do those precautions compare to the best practices in the bikeshare field?

Vélib’ itself has not been immune to fatalities. As of 2008, Vélib’ reported three fatalities (“Bikesharing in Europe, the Americas, and Asia”). I am unclear if there are have been more since, though I am inclined to believe there have been.

Beyond fatalities, injuries are legitimate risks in Paris (that I only mention now because I have little data on them :)). Six hundred and sixty cyclists per year are injured on Vélib’ with a severity index of 5.3. (What’s a severity index? You ask.) The severity index represents how serious a set of accidents is, thus for all transport accidents in Paris, 10.4 people were hospitalized. If you separate just the cycling accidents, then just 5.3 people go the hospital for all the injuries. For pedestrians, the index is 12.7. “We can deduce from this that the injuries from bikes are often more benign,” said François Prochasson, head of road security in the transportation agency of the City of Paris.  (“Cinq Ans de Vélib’“).

Of course, I’m curious to see how Vélib’s index compares to cycling at large in Paris, and also if Vélib’ is monitoring injuries on the system. As of right now, I have more questions than answers when it comes to cycling safety. But I do know this: urban cycling may seem dangerous, but that’s just how it feels. In general, it’s a pretty safe way to get around in Paris.

Read about the cycling environment of Paris and other components of Vélib’ in “Stuff I’ve Read About Vélib’, Part 3 of 4.”