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

Hello Vélib’ literature, we meet again. It’s been almost two months, but it’s time to bring this series to a close. There’s more to write about this bikeshare system than just a synthesis of what the Vélib’ community already knows.

Tourists enjoying the first real day of spring on Vélib'

Tourists enjoying the first real day of spring on Vélib’

At this point we’ve discussed the history of bikeshare (in Europe and the world), the origins of Vélib’, the safety of riding in the streets of Paris, the network of stations, and a bit on the bicycles themselves. Infrastructure aside, it’s time to focus on the squishy parts in between that link the physical elements of bikeshare together: the actual Vélib’ system itself.

Vélib’: The operator
Not all bikeshare systems are structured similarly. Sure all of them have bicycles and stations of some kind, and all third-generation systems involve some kind of financial transaction, if only a security deposit is held against a bank card for a limited amount of time. For long-term subscribers, usually some kind of smartcard technology is employed to access bikes, which is hopefully integrated with the surrounding region’s public transportation network. (This is the case for Paris with the pass Navigo.) Nevertheless the underlying organizational structure that supports all of these services can be a public entity operated by the city or local government, the project of a nonprofit,  a private for-profit entity (as many original subway and train lines started out), or some kind of public partnership.

Use your Yélo card to borrow a bike or this lovely electric vehicle.

Use your Yélo card to borrow a bike or this lovely electric vehicle.

For instance the City of La Rochelle’s Yélo bikesharing service is owned and operated by the regional transit authority, which also maintains the buses and electric vehicle carsharing service. In contrast Vélib’ is operated by a division of JCDecaux, the international advertising company, which has a 10-year contract with the city to provide bikeshare services to the City of Paris in exchange for the exclusive advertising rights of 1,400 outdoor properties .

(There’s been so much growth in bikeshare systems worldwide — about 500 systems functional by the end of 2012 (“2012 Bike-share Year in Review,” Bike-sharing Blog) — I would love to see someone do a survey of the different organizational and funding systems to determine which systems provide more effective service. Preliminarily, we know non-profit bike-share systems have a harder time reaching underserved populations in North America, but to my knowledge we have no deeper understanding of which models provide the best level of service.)

In November 2012, the Chambre Régionale des Comptes of the Ile-de-France released a five-year analysis of Vélib’ which specifically highlighted the friction between working with a third-party to manage a bikeshare service. Curiously the points of contention seem to be less about the level of service — the number of bikes on the streets at any one time, the number of empty stations, etc. — and to revolve more about accounting practices and how (and when) penalties should be applied to the system operator (JCDecaux) for contract infringements .

Without digging too deeply into the many types of contracts and operator relationships worldwide, we can see cursorily that arrangements with private operators tend to result in larger fleets (with the notable exception of the 60,000-bike system in Hangzhou, China, operated by the municipal transportation authority). However with private operators comes certain setbacks with regard to access to information. Operated by a private outfit, JCDecaux doesn’t have to release data about revenue from the system (though we can make some assumptions from the released user statistics), so we don’t know how fiscally solvent the program is (or if that matters in France — it certainly matters in the U.S. and Canada). JCDecaux also doesn’t have to release system data about the trips taken, most/least popular stations, etc. leaving third-party researchers like yours truly wondering just how to evaluate the effectiveness of the system. More on this later.

Bicycle redistribution

A Vélib' truck servicing an empty station

An adorable Vélib’ truck servicing an empty station

Back in the early days of bikeshare in the 1960s through the 1990s, bikeshare systems were created with the idea that the bikes would rotate among stations in a manner that would self-regulate i.e. empty stations and full stations would balance out naturally without any additional help from the operator. However, by the time Vélo’v launched in 2005 and Vélib’ in 2007, JCDecaux had discovered the need to employ staff to redistribute the bikes with trucks to keep the system flowing. Because some stations are primarily donor stations (i.e. stations on the tops of hills) and some stations are primarily receiver stations (i.e. stations near the universities in Paris), natural gas trucks are needed to move bicycles to stations in a pattern that is more in step with the way users engage with the system.

Examining the chronology of Vélib’ we can see that in early 2008, soon after the system launched, the operator had to increase its investment in bicycle redistribution by creating a team that moves bikes to the stations on hills overnight. Again in 2009, JCDecaux bought two buses that can carry 62 bicycles each to better transport bikes around the city (Cinq Ans de Vélib’), which join Vélib’s fleet of 20 natural-gas powered trucks that shuttle bicycles across the city.

Ride to the V+ station on the other side of the park for 15 minutes of credit.

Ride to the V+ station on the other side of the park for 15 minutes of credit.

The challenge of bicycle redistribution is not strictly a Vélib’ problem. Bikeshare systems worldwide that offer one-way service — so most systems — have to regulate bicycles. Bicing in Barcelona notably has to drive bikes up hills multiple times a day (“Bike-sharing Guide,” Transport Canada). To address the problem in Paris, Vélib’ employs a bicycle redistribution team and area managers recently outfitted with tablets that offer real-time information about station saturation. Vélib’ also incentivizes riders to return bikes to V+ stations — at the tops of hills or permanently empty — by offering 15 minutes of riding credit per each V+ return, and offers 15 minutes free to the Vélib’ user who finds her chosen destination station full. In 2013, Vélib’ plans to experiment with electric bikes to see if they will better facilitate natural bicycle redistribution.

Yet the imbalance of empty and full stations persists. In its five-year report, the CRC highlighted the problem of regularly empty stations, which the Mairie de Paris acknowledges as a point of contention that has been regularly discussed with JCDecaux. However, the City claims that since 2011, actions taken by Vélib’ have increased system flow by 35% (“Vélib’ : anatomie d’un success“). Without access to data, it’s hard for a third-party to confirm or to question these figures.

Vélib’: The start-up
As for the secret sauce that turns Vélib’ from well-meaning pipe dream (à la Amsterdam in the 1960s) to functional mode of transportation, it is definitely the information technology. Without the ability to scan debit cards (only with microchips!) at the station terminals or register on a website, Vélib’ would collapse. Transportation scholars have shown that via use of information technology, the main differences between second- and third-generation bikeshare systems — or between scalability and unscalability — include third-generation systems’ ability to reduce (or eliminate) user anonymity and create financial accountability, which are essential characteristics of any well-functioning sharing service. It’s funny to look at it this way, but Vélib’ is more of a public service start-up then a simple bike program; it’s an outgrowth of the information age much like smartphones or Airbnb.

Photo courtesy of anna via Flickr.

Photo courtesy of anna via Flickr.

Key components include: Vélib’ stations that are equipped with terminals that can conduct financial transactions, offer real-time information about station and bicycle availability, and allow users to contact customer service; a website that processes financial transactions, offers real-time information about station and bicycles availability, and account management; smartphone apps that provide real-time information about station and bicycles availability; and an integrated mobile- and web-platform that allows the Vélib’ team to monitor the flow, redistribution, and maintenance of bicycles.

Subscription choices
How, then, can a transportation system with thousands of bicycles, stations an average of 300-meters apart, a bicycle-redistribution fleet, a website and selection of smartphone apps boost ridership when bicycle rentals decline? Service diversification — rather, as the service didn’t really change, I mean targeted subscription options.

In 2008, the first full year of operation, annual Vélib’ rentals totaled 27.9 million (!) and then proceeded to decline through 2010 :(. In 2011 though, there was a major uptick! Over 31.3 million bicycle rentals took place in 2011, which happens to be associated with the 2011 release of a new website and updated mobile app as well as a diversification of the kinds of subscriptions available to Vélib’ users (Cinq Ans de Vélib’). Before 2011, users could become annual subscribers at a price of 29€ per year. In April 2011, Vélib’ diversified the subscription choices to include the Classique for 29€ per year (unlimited 30-minute trips — the same as the original long-term subscription) and the Passion for 39€ per year (unlimited 45-minute trips) as well as price reductions of 10-20€ for youth aged 14-26, students, and teachers.

Options for annual subscription

Options for annual subscription

After these new offers targeting youth and longer rides went into effect, 22% of subscribers were identified as youth aged 16-25, an increase from 14% of subscribers in 2009, and 43% of subscribers were found to live in the near suburbs served by Vélib’  as opposed to 36% of subscribers in 2009.

It’s not fair to say there’s direct causality. Other factors could have influenced a user’s decision to rent more bicycles such as greater ease of use with the improved website and app, the increasing cost of public transit, the improved access to tourists, etc. However there certainly seems to be a relationship between the introduction of targeted subscription options and more bicycle rentals on Vélib’.

It’s also worth noting here, that in comparison to the public transportation network in Paris, Vélib’ is priced remarkably low. The lowest monthly pass for RATP in zones 1 and 2 (the most central zones and essentially Vélib’s service area) costs 65.10€ per month — students will pay about half of that with a special pass — which is squarely 26 times more than the Classique Vélib’ subscription. It’s unclear to me exactly how and why Vélib’ priced the subscriptions as low as it did — and not much has been written about the ideal pricing of bikeshare in general — but it is clear that the price point is earning admiration from regular Vélib’ users. In a 2011 user survey, 72% those surveyed considered the price to be one of its primary advantages (Cinq Ans de Vélib’). Of course without information on how revenues compare to expenses, it’s difficult for a third party to evaluate if the system is well-priced.

A piece of the transportation puzzle
Since Vélib’ was only a twinkle in Mayor Delanoë’s eye, the system has been designed to embrace transportation integration. Yes, that’s horrible planner jargon, but it means that the system was designed to fit into the existing public transportation network. Denis Baupin, deputy mayor for sustainable development noted, “The idea is to create hub areas, so that means a Métro station is also a bus station, a Vélib’ station, a taxi station, and car-sharing. It’s a space to transfer, and an important city hub where you’re able to find everything, etc.” (Paris: Vélo Libérté).

Beyond peppering the city with stations within easy walking distance, Vélib’ planners picked out key transportation hubs at which to install stations. For instance in 2010, Vélib’ built stations in the squares of the train stations Gare d’Austerlitz, Gare de Lyon and Gare de l’Est, to increase transportation intermodality between bikeshare and the train.

What’s neat is that Vélib’ users seem to be taking advantage of the transportation integration! In a user survey, 87% of Vélib’ users considered a primary advantage of the system to be its integration with existing transportation infrastructure (Cinq Ans de Vélib’). Moreover, users aren’t just saying they like it, there seems to be evidence that they use the system in an intermodal manner. With one month of Vélib’ trip data,  IFSTTAR researcher Etienne Côme did some elegant statistical analysis to tease out the train stations as key clusters in the system network that are particularly busy in the morning and evening rush-hours for arrivals and departures, leading yours truly to pose that many people combine Vélib’ with the train to get to work in Paris as well as in the suburbs.

Passe_NavigoBesides strategic station placement, Vélib’ pursues transportation integration in the form of a smartcard. Like any good third- or fourth-generation (depends on who you ask) bikeshare system, Vélib’ offers its annual subscribers a smartcard so a user can scan her card at a bike stand and avoid the station terminal all together. Yet from very early on in the history of the system, Vélib’ users with a passe Navigo, the smartcard for the public transportation system in Paris, could add their Vélib’ accounts to their passes Navigo to use both systems with one card.

Let’s talk
The last bits of operational grease that help turn Vélib’s wheels are the channels of communication between operator and user and the operator and the public at large. In early 2008, Vélib’ launched its blog, Vélib’ & Moi, to keep users up-to-date about major developments with Vélib’ as well as provide features on events and activities that are Vélib-able. (Yours truly has very much appreciated the Vélib’ bar recommendations.) In 2010, Vélib’ created its first Twitter and Facebook presences which have since been joined by those on Google +, Foursquare, and Pinterest, which provide users with system alerts and amusing diversions.

velib-twitterThese are of course the official web presences of Vélib’. There are non-official pages and accounts that have popped up to compensate or to complement (depends on who you ask) the official uses of social media, including the new Twitter handle @VLS_Paris.

For information to flow from the users to Vélib’, the system created the Users Committee (Comité des Usagers) in 2010, which consists of 20 user representatives who meet regularly to share their perspectives about the service to Vélib’ officials.

Of course, like the another initiatives above, it’s difficult for a third-party to really evaluate if these communications measures have been effective in the absence of data. A user survey in 2011 found that 90% of users were satisfied with the website, which is an increase from 87% in 2009 (Cinq Ans de Vélib’). This approval rating would indicate that users are generally pleased with the state of communication between users and the operator, but it’s hard to judge if users feel their needs, wants, and aspirations for the system are being taken into consideration by Vélib’.

Finally, as a Vélib’ user and a bikeshare researcher, I find the lack of data available frustrating (if you hadn’t guessed). Luckily this is changing. Vélib’ is joining its bikeshare brethren like Capital Bikeshare, Hubway, and BIXI (a little) in the open data universe sometime in the spring of 2013. Nevertheless, as the data have been advertised by Vélib’, they will be limited to  point-to-point trip observations. This is great! There’s a lot we can learn from where people ride in the city, but I am skeptical that it will offer researchers the depth of data available to examine the efficacy of this bikeshare program.

That said I’m still excited about it. It’s spring 2013 already, isn’t it? Time to dig into the bikeshare data!