Bike-Share: Not Just for French Commies

bixi_station.jpgIn Montreal, theft is “not a major problem” for the bike-share network. Photo: TreeHugger.

The Times ran a piece on Vélib’s growing pains this weekend. The story is more thoroughly reported than the hatchet job we saw from the BBC back in February — no claims that bike-share in Paris will flame out quickly this time around. Vélib is part of Parisian life now, and some level of theft and vandalism is part of the bargain.

Still, there’s no mistaking the overwhelming sense of schadenfreude emanating from this new Times story (headline: “French Ideal of Bicycle-Sharing Meets Reality”). Francophobes all over America are relishing the tale of Parisian comeuppance.

But bike-sharing is a global phenomenon. So why do we only seem to read alarming stories about the problems in Paris? Part of the reason appears to be that bike-share operators in other cities have few alarms to sound. In Montreal, 5,000 public bikes are available through the Bixi system, launched earlier this year. Responding to the Times story, a Bixi spokesperson told the Montreal Gazette that theft and vandalism don’t affect the system very much:

“Our bikes are very robust and Montrealers have a great
respect for the Bixi program,” said Michel Philibert, a spokesperson
for Stationnement de Montréal, which oversees the bike rental program.

“Montreal is not Paris. The theft of bikes here is not a major challenge.”

The Bixi operators also brought down theft rates thanks to a technical fix: They reinforced segments of the docking stations, and fewer bikes were stolen.

Vélib showed the world what a bike-share network can
accomplish, but the appeal of public bicycle systems has never been limited to
Paris or France. In the past few years, cities in China, Brazil, and the United States have launched bike-shares of various size. London is
looking at a 6,000 bike system, and Dublin recently launched a network with about 500 bikes. Boston may be on the verge of rolling out the first truly robust American bike-share network. Even in Australia, where it’s illegal for anyone to ride without a helmet, bike-share is on the way.

Like any good invention, bike-share tech is going to evolve over time. The first telephone looked like a fat brick with a hole in one end, and there was no way to tell if someone else was calling you. So it makes sense that Vélib has some kinks — it marked a huge step forward for bike-share systems, on a scale no one had ever tried before. Inspired by the Vélib model, cities all over the world are also trying to improve on it.

  • The suggestion by the sociologist in the Times article that the Velib theft was of a piece with the car burnings so popular amongst disaffected Parisian youth made sense to me. Why on earth would you steal such a heavy, ungainly bike for which spare parts are unavailable and with little to no resale value when there are so many other more desirable bikes to steal?

  • I suspect Bike Share is going to be a can opener in many ways. Perhaps it will indeed become a measure of the civility of a city.

    We desperately need bike share in Australia, not to test our civility, but because we presntly have a bike culture not conducive to the cycle commuting we need to embrace, and bike share can help change that.

    There are many reasons for this culture, but the bottom line is that there is now almost a state of war between the Lycra clad cyclists and other traffic. This reached it’s nadir a week ago when one of the Lycronistas mounted a bus and beat up the driver.

    What can bike share do? It can bring women into commuter cuycling for one thing. Presently only about 13% of bike commueters are women.

    It can also slow us down by showing us that sitting upright up on a hike (all bike share bikes are the sit up and beg type) is not only very comfortable, but much safer. You see better and are see better.

    Sitting upright also provides the chance to relate to other traffic in a friendly way, even to wave. This is almost impossible in the hunched over posture which is now the norm. Thus, sitting up is one way to bring some peace to our roads.

    I first discovered what was wrong in covering the story of Sue Abbott who was going to court in her country town of Scone, NSW, to fight our compulsory helmet law. Sue has never worn a helmet and even after her conviction, still refuses to.

    It was not so much her defense which impressed me, but the way she rode her sit-up bike, elegantly upright, as if she was in Copenhagen, and not on an Aussie country road. (It’s in the movie)

    Also, shock, she waved to motorists. Her look and style were stunningly different. Her film, Sue Fights Helmets, is on my blog, And So To Bike

    Now, the drama expands. ALTA, a US company assoiciated with Bixi, has just won the contract to install Bike Share in Melbourne.

    But will it ever come to Australia? As Alison Cohen, who works for ALTA, candidly confesses in another film on the blog,(Bike Share and Helmets Don’t Mix?) they are very far from working out how to deliver a helmet along with the share bike. Automatic dispensing for health and safety reasons, is impossible.

    Another informant states that a bike share scheme has never been implemented in a city with compulsory helmet laws.

    How ironic it would be if the only thing the Federal Government here has ever done for cycle safety, bringing in our compulsory helmet law, ended up inadvertently sabotaging a scheme which can, potentially, do far more for cycle safety than those mandatory helmets.

    Bike share, if we get it, would bring the thousands more cyclists onto the roads, and it’s well established that there is signifcant safety in numbers.

    This is a cliff hanger to follow. Will Bixi lead to a rethink of these helmet laws which now keep us out of step with the rest of the world?

    A rethink which is considered politically impossible, but stranger things have happened here.

    Mike Rubbo

  • Kevin

    I agree. This article highlights the fact that the problems Velib is having relate more to the broad social issues Paris is having, not problems intrinsic to bicycle sharing.

  • …but the irony with the melbourne bike-share programme is that a car club has won the bike share contract!

    Isn’t this somewhat akin to the fox looking after the chickens?

    …and how glibly the helmet issue is airbrushed into a little mention: “while regular users will be encouraged to use their own helmets, operators are yet to decide whether it will make helmets available” – really? Is this a question of corporate ‘civil disobedience’ (yay!!!) or bureaucratic flag-waving, and ‘look-we-gave-it-our best-shot-but-it-was-always-going-to-fail’? (sigh!)

    How can a club of motorists possibly have the interests of cyclists (and the environment) ‘at heart’?

    PS: btw, following on from my appearance in the District Court of New South Wales last Monday, my final appeal is set down for the sittings starting next February 2010

  • Yup, a large part of the problem in Paris is social. Most other cities do not see annual riots. Most other cities dont see annual subway strikes. I dont want to oversimplify the situation, but the problems you see in Paris will probably be repeated in Rio….but not in the US (well, perhaps Miami)

    And of course, all the manufacturers have learned from this. Paris was first. Now the companies know what parts are most vulnerable, and how to deter theft.

    One final issue: JCDeceaux reportedly allows you to “lose” your bike 3 times before they can take your deposit, due to consumer protection laws there. I think american companies will be more ready to ensure that a stolen bike is quickly met with a $500 credit card charge.



Why TIME Magazine Got the Bixi Story Wrong

Major media have a habit of blowing bike-share problems out of proportion. Witness the 2009 BBC story that cast theft and vandalism as an existential threat to Velib in Paris. Five years later, Velib is still going strong. The most recent entry in the genre is Christopher Matthews’ misguided story on the Bixi bankruptcy in TIME. Headline: […]

Theft and Vandalism Just Not a Problem For American Bike-Sharing

Even as bike-sharing spreads across the United States, it remains dogged by one persistent doubt. Critics, and even some boosters, fear that the bikes will be routinely stolen and vandalized. It’s time to stop worrying about crime, however. In America’s new bike-sharing systems, there have been essentially no such problems. Fears that public bikes will […]

Reports of Vélib’s Demise Greatly Exaggerated

A recent BBC story describes the severity of theft and vandalism faced by Vélib, Paris's wildly popular bike-share network, as a mortal threat to the system. So is Vélib destined to burn brightly only to flare out after a short time? Hardly. Vélib is here to stay, according to officials and transportation experts familiar with the details of its operations.

The London Model is Dead. Time to Look at Paris.

David Haskell, executive director of the Forum for Urban Design, and organizer of last week’s New York Bike-Share Project demonstration in Soho, says it’s time for New York City to ditch the London model and take a closer look at the traffic-reduction techniques Paris has implemented without congestion pricing. An op/ed in today’s New York […]