In France, 'liberté' comes with two wheels
PARIS: A cluster of sweaty bodies pedaled up the Champs-Élysées on Sunday, their eyes firmly fixed on the Arc de Triomphe, as onlookers cheered from the sidelines.
This was not the leading squad of the Tour de France racing toward the finish line. This was a group of Californian tourists testing Paris's new large-scale communal bike program hours after it was inaugurated.
"I'm never taking the subway again," beamed Justin Hill, a 47-year-old real estate broker from Santa Barbara, glancing back over his shoulder at the outline of the Louvre at the distant bottom of the French capital's best-known avenue.
The sight of the hefty gray bike frames with metal baskets on the handlebars may soon become familiar. More than 10,600 bikes on 750 self-service docking stations became available Sunday in an inexpensive program that provides access in eight languages.
With the number to grow to 20,600 by the end of the year, the scope of this initiative - dubbed Vélib', a name that fuses the terms "vélo" (bike) and "liberté" (freedom) - is by far the most ambitious in the world. It is the latest in a string of European efforts to reduce the number of cars in city centers and give people incentives to choose more eco-friendly modes of transport.
"This is about revolutionizing urban culture," said Pierre Aidenbaum, mayor of Paris's third district, which has the highest share of bikes per inhabitant and which opened 15 docking stations Sunday. "For a long time cars were associated with freedom of movement and flexibility. What we want to show people is that in many ways bikes fulfill this role much more today."
The idea is simple: You can pick up a bike from any docking station in Paris - they are installed at 300-meter, about 1,000-foot, intervals and clustered at popular sights and transport hubs - and park it at any other station. You can book your pass at either a station or online; all you need is a bank card. A day pass costs €1, about $1.40; a weekly pass, €5; and a yearly subscription €29, with no additional charges as long as each bike ride does not exceed 30 minutes. (Thereafter, a surcharge of €1 for the first additional half hour, €2 for the second half hour and €4 for each half hour after that is incurred to ensure that as many bikes as possible stay in the rotation.)
Moreover, the program could bring about €30 million in rental receipts into public coffers, city hall officials say. The advertiser JC Decaux is paying for the docking stations, the bikes and their maintenance, in exchange for exclusive use of 1,628 urban billboards.
Vélib' is the brain child of Paris's mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, a Socialist and longtime green campaigner who has pledged to double the number of cycle lanes in the French capital by 2008 and reduce car traffic by 40 percent by 2020. Since he took office in 2001, Delanoë has built almost 200 kilometers, or 125 miles, of additional cycle paths, ripping up car lanes and earning him accusations from drivers of aggravating congestion in the city.
There are still vast parts of Paris that even the most hardened cyclists try to avoid, like the four lanes that circle the Arc de Triomphe, or the messy cross road at the Place de la Concorde. Even the Champs-Élysées is not for the faint-hearted. The Paris police department has so far refused to grant a permit for a cycle path along the avenue, fearing that this would hopelessly congest the city's main traffic artery.
But all the other paths have made cycling in Paris noticeably safer. The statistics speak for themselves: While the number of bikes on the streets has increased by 50 percent over the last six years, the number of cycling accidents has not budged, said Jean-Luc Dumesnil, who is in charge of cycling policy at City Hall.
"It's the cycling paths but it's also a question of critical mass," Dumesnil said. "The more bikes there are, the more car drivers get used to them and the more care they take."
Despite the increase of bikes on the streets, only about 40,000 of the 2.5 million Parisians say they use their bikes regularly, a toll Delanoë would like to raise to 250,000 by the end of the year.
City Hall is hoping to tap into the large pool of bike skeptics by drawing on the experience of smaller-scale rental programs in other French and European cities, including Berlin, Barcelona, Brussels, Vienna and Stockholm. The programs differ in a number of ways, but they all seek to address the concerns about theft and financial viability that brought down the pioneering "White Bike" experiment in Amsterdam in the 1960s.