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This is part 3 of a series. You may want to check out part 1part 2, or part 4.

Look at this street:


Can you imagine commuting by bicycle on that? Probably not — though it’s likely you could legally share the road, the conditions are not exactly enticing to the average cyclist because the roadways have not been designed to be used by different types of vehicles — bicycles, pedicabs, feet, etc. — they have been designed for cars. Ergo if all of Paris looked like this, you can imagine that bikeshare may have had a hard time catching on (Good luck L.A.!).

Paris, however, looks a lot more like this:


Of course this street design has its own trade-offs. As a Parisian cyclist I’m convinced I will be run off the road every time a delivery van passes me. But having been planned centuries before the automobile, my neighborhood is inherently more human-scaled. And perhaps inherently discourages a reliance on a car? Less than half the population of Paris owns a vehicle, and because the streets are so narrow and windy, speed limits tend to be lower than those in the U.S. For instance, the neighborhood pictured above, my neighborhood near Odéon, is capped at 30 kph (~19 mph).

That said not being markedly car-friendly is not the same thing as being cyclist-friendly. Thus in 2001 when the Delanoë administration wanted to make a dent in the vehicular traffic cramming itself through Paris’ streets, it needed to shape the existing urban environment to be more proactively friendly to cyclists.

Paris cycling environment

As noted earlier, Paris’ commitment to cycling both predates and extends beyond Vélib’. For instance, during a “build it and they will come” period in the early 2000s, the Mairie de Paris expanded the bicycle network to 400 km in 2005 before the study for Vélib’ had commenced.

Since the launch of Vélib’, the Mairie de Paris issued Plan Vélo, its plan to increase the use of cycling as a mode of transport by double by 2020 (“Cinq Ans de Vélib’“). [Disclaimer: I have yet to read Plan Vélo, but in the act of writing this, I have decided to find it very, very soon.] 

According to the Plan Vélo 2014, the city hopes to count a total of 700 kilometers (~435 miles) of bike paths and lanes as well as increase the number of Zones 30, residential neighborhoods where speeds are capped at 30 kph (~19 mph) in which bicycles can ride in both directions along the one-way streets. And with this investment there is a correlation with increased rates  of use. The Observatoire des Déplacements in Paris (the branch of the department of transportation responsible for statistics) observed seven newly minted two-way-for-bikes streets between Oct. 7, 2010, and Oct. 6, 2011, and found the rates of use to accelerate over time as more cyclists discovered these connections in the city’s bike network (“Cinq Ans de Vélib’“).

Beyond Plan Vélo, Paris has taken other planning measures to favor cycling. After the success of the first Vélibienne, the bike ride that celebrated Vélib’s first birthday, the Mairie de Paris started Paris Respire, a series of events in which neighborhoods redirect traffic around stretches of roadways to cyclists and pedestrians on Sundays and holidays  — in San Francisco we have something similar called Sunday Streets — that offers a safe space for residents to walk, bike or play in the streets.

For cycling to catch on though, a city needs more than just a bike network. It also needs a population that would embrace the bicycle. As former Vélib’ manager Lepault noted, even though the city started to invest in the bike network between 2001 and 2005, the rise in cycling as a form of transport didn’t immediately follow it, and Deputy Mayor Baupin attributes that to the culture associated with the bicycle in Paris (Paris: Vélo Liberté):

Before Vélib’, the image of the bike was of grandpa’s bike, that which one used during the war. It was associated with images of the past and hardship. And if we wanted to ensure that people use bikes without feeling that their social status is lowering, and that it is comfortable, we had to do something that would position the bike as something fashionable and positive.

Of course it’s hard to quantify such a sentiment, but from conversations I’ve had with cyclists in Paris, I can confirm that pre-Vélib’ riding a bike was quick to be associated with being poor or participating in cycling for sport. Adding to the sense that riding a bike was a fringe activity, some Parisians noted that because the parks in Paris ban riding bicycles, it’s hard for non-cyclists to find a space to get used to being on a bike.

However, there is some evidence that the presence of Vélib’ has helped to shift the Parisian bicycle’s fringe-like status. According to Eric Britton of EcoPlan International in 2008 (Paris: Vélo Liberté):

The Vélib, in addition to creating, on a normal day, depending on the weather, 50,000-100,000 people are now using the Vélib that weren’t using it before, but what’s interesting about it, is that the number of bicycle trips on non-Vélib, on your own bikes, has doubled. And so, in fact, the big increase has not been from Vélib’, but it has been from people using their own bikes.

I talked with bicycle dealers before Vélib’, and they were very very pessimistic about what was going to happen … [Now] their business has never been better. They can’t keep up.

Of course correlation does not equal causation. Around the same time Vélib’ launched, gas prices rose in Europe to record highs and the economic crisis started to depress the European job markets. Whether a bicycle in Paris is poor-man’s chic has little bearing when it may be the most affordable way to get around.

Finally its worth mentioning, that while Parisians have not always embraced the bicycle as a mode of transportation, they have not always been distinctly pro-car. Fewer than half of all Parisians own personal automobiles, and they get around by and large by walking and taking the Métro, which I posit could make them more likely to embrace an additional form of non-automotive transportation into the mix than a similar population that was more car dependent.

Vélib’: The network

The fundamental elements of a third-generation bikeshare program include bicycles, bicycle stations, and the information technology that makes the magic happen. Focusing on the physical components first, it’s important to note that all bikeshare programs are not created equal. Different operators have different ideas of how much distance should be between two stations, how many bicycles should circulate to serve a given population, how many bicycle stations should be installed in a city, etc. For instance, through the precise study that preceded Vélib’, the Mairie de Paris determined that stations should be located an average of 300 yards apart with a base circulation of 10,000 bicycles (Paris: Vélo Liberté).  Now contrast that to Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C. which a system that’s about a tenth of the size of Vélib’ over an area that’s only half as large as Paris.

In 2009, when Vélib’ expanded to the suburbs it increased its fleet to 23,000 bicycles circulating among 1,700 stations. It’s unclear to me if Vélib’ maintained the 300-yard average between stations during the expansion, or if it applied different density measurements to serve the suburbs as opposed to the downtown (I hope to get the answer here through interviews). I also have a question here about whether that density changes with respect to topography. Are residents who live on a hill more or less likely to take Vélib’ if gravity is on their side for their trip away from home? And how difficult is it to relocate a station if its original location doesn’t seem to serve the needs of the neighborhood? How does Vélib’ know that a station is not well-used?

Finally, some bikeshare programs in the United States have been criticized for not serving neighborhoods with few cyclists (often low-income or minority neighborhoods). It’s unclear to me if this is problem from which Vélib’ suffers in Paris, or if accessibility equity was taken into consideration when planning for Vélib’ in the first place.

As you can see, dear reader, from what I’ve read, I’m left with more questions about the planning of Vélib’ than answers — answers that will hopefully be forthcoming!

Not Mr. Average’s bike

The Vélib’ bicycle itself begs further questions. The bicycle was specifically designed to be heavy and durable to withstand vandalism as well as daily use in traffic. According to JCDecaux Vice President Remi Pheulpin, “The first consideration for the design is the bike’s performance. Because the bike is used by around 10-12 different people a day, it lives in the street, and it travels around 10,000 km a year. It’s not Mr. Average’s bike. The average bike one owns goes about 200 km a year” (Paris: Vélo Liberté).

That said there’s question if the current Vélib’ actually lives up to those goals. “A 2009 study of Vélib’ reported that since its launch in 2009, 7,800 bicycles have disappeared, and another 11,600 bicycles have been vandalized. High rates of theft raise concerns because Vélib’s bicycles are expensive. [As of 2010] it costs the program 400 euros (US $519) to replace bicycles,” (“Bikesharing in Europe, the Americas, and Asia“)

The maintenance needs of the bicycle fleet spurred a wave of necessary reinforcements to accessories — lights, baskets, seat posts, etc.– on the bikes in 2008, a public anti-theft campaign in 2009, and an extensive repair system which includes a barge (!) on the Seine than repairs about 30 bicycles a day while floating from on end of Paris to another. According to Fleet Manager Jean-Claude Joyeux (Paris: Vélo Liberté):

Well, it was at a meeting and we said, the Seine is marvelous, it crosses Paris, it’s wonderful highway, and why not use it? So, in order to use it, you need a boat, and the ideal boat is a barge … We have almost 300 usable square meters on board which is significant when you consider the difficulty there is here in Paris to find space in the central areas. It was a brilliant idea not to be missed … On average we have 30 bikes per day. The most common repairs are the serious repairs that you can’t do in the field. We take advantage of the storage cages on the banks of the Seine, so the vehicles bring the bikes that can’t be fixed on site. These bikes are put int he cages, and picked up by the barge. The technicians on board the barge make the repairs and put the fixed bikes back in the cages so they can be put back into service.

The barge is an ingenious solution to the lack of space and cost of real estate in central Paris, but one that comes with added costs and greenhouse gas emissions. More about those when it come time to discuss Vélib’s impacts.

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