THE VÉLIB: A BIKE SHARING PROGRAM IN PARIS.
AN OPTION FOR NEW YORK CITY?
By Nathalie CHARLES
In several European cities, bike-sharing programs already exist: Amsterdam, Vienna, Oslo, Brussels, Barcelona, Stockholm, Helsinki, Rennes and Lyon support programs that promote bicycle usage as an alternative to motorized transportation. This paper will take a special look at the bike-sharing program in Paris, named the Vélib’—a contraction of two French words, Vélo (Bicycle) and Liberté (Freedom)—boasts the largest program in the world. The second part of this paper will explore the adaptability of such a program for a city such as New York.
When Bertrand Delanoë took office as Mayor of Paris in 2001, he decided that the automobile traffic should be reduced and that the urban public space should be preserved for the pedestrians and bicyclists. Since then, his administration has worked on a mobility plan and on an urbanism plan to adapt the city of Paris for a better future. His plans worked so well that the administrations of most major cities in the world now use Paris as a model.
Few cities in North America are now interested in a new way of transportation like the bike. Whether as a complement to the existing transportation system or as completely alternative rethinking of the entire transportation system, cities in the United States are showing more and more interest in the bike-sharing system, especially New York . The question that will guide this paper will offer insight regarding alternative transportation practices: Is it possible to implement the bike sharing system, as launched in Paris, in New York, and if not, is there a way to adapt it so that New York may benefit from a bike-sharing initiative?
Paris’s New Mobility and Urbanism Plan
Mayor Bertrand Delanoë and his Deputy Mayor for Transportation, Denis Baupin, when in office, wanted to address traffic congestion, reduce air and sound pollution and revitalize public space in Paris. The grim reality stood as follows: in 2001, Paris had a daily circulation of 3 million cars, a statistic that they hoped to be cut by 20 percent. That meant using fewer cars and returning some of the urban space occupied by the automobiles to the public. Thus, the Delanoë administration focused on revitalizing local life and public spaces, by converting acres of roadways and parking spaces into pedestrian space, bike lanes, bus ways and tramways. The administration also created a program named “Espaces Civilisés” (or “civilized spaces”), which permitted the city to improve and widen sidewalks, to plant trees, and build bike ways.
These plans allowed Parisians to retake the streets. The Vélib’, in addition to other actions - the “Nuit Blanche ,” the tramway, “Paris Plage ,” more bus lanes - is part of a “populist plan .” It was presented by the Delanoë administration as a fifteen-year Mobility Plan. Its objective for 2020 is to reduce traffic by 40 percent, reduce green house gas emissions by 60 percent, increase transit capacity by 30 percent and raise non-automobile transportation mode share from 78 to 83 percent.
Vélib’ was one component of this new mobility and urbanism plan. It was essential for the Delanoë administration to create a simple and useful system for every mode of transportation. Parisians and those commuting into the city from the Parisian suburbs are already used to using more than one mode of transportation in their daily commute: For example, they use the bus and the subway, or a bike and the subway, and sometimes, they even mix and match, biking in the morning and returning by subway in the evening.
Before implementing a bike sharing system in the city, the transportation administration studied the two programs already in place in France: Lyon and Rennes, where the experience of a bike sharing program wasn’t yet conclusive. From their successes or failures, the administration was able to adapt and improve a system for Paris.
The implementation of Vélib’ in the city was the most important initial decision; choosing the locations of the stations and the numbers of bikes were the second essential decisions that the administration had to make. The Vélib’s planners performed a six-month survey that calculated the number of inhabitants per district and the numbers of bikes and stations needed in this area. They decided to begin the program with a minimum of 10,000 bikes: only “en masse” could the benefits of the program be immediately obvious. It was a significant thought because had there not been enough bikes or stations to begin with, people’s confidence in the system would have been compromised, and the program would have failed almost as soon as it had been launched. The quantity and immediacy of this quantity constituted a major reason for the success of the Vélib’ initiative. In addition, these large numbers of bicycles were applied on a limited scale, with application on the neighborhood scale and not the entire city. In other words, only certain subway stops were targeted, enabling all users of that subway stop to implement the program.
The budget of course is a quintessential component of the success of the program. The City of Paris wasn’t able to finance a system as huge as Vélib’ alone. So the city made a deal with the company JC. Decaux, an outdoor advertising and street furniture multinational . The public/private alliance assured the essential imposition of the initiative on the city.
In the sixties and seventies in Paris, urbanism plans were made to please automobilists. Cities were designed for cars and not pedestrians or bicyclists. In 2007, Paris’s urban planning professionals decided to make the streets more accessible for everyone creating more bikes lanes and providing a separate bus lane. It gave more options for Parisian commuters to choose between cars and urban public transportation. The goal was to educate car users to become bus, subway or bicycle users. Delanoë administration took this initiative further: to offer more types of transportation to the city’s denizens. Thus 400 kilometers of bike lanes were added in Paris (bike pathways or lanes shared with buses) . If a street was not a major road, they lowered the speed to 30km/h from 50km/h so no specific construction was needed for bicyclists.
It wasn’t enough to provide just the modes of transportation, but it was also necessary to create the pathways through which the bikes could travel. The city had to create streets, bridges, and bike lanes to accommodate the new bike users. Creating new pathways was especially difficult in Paris, especially in the first years: automobilists – drivers, cab drivers or deliverers – complained because they lost off-street parking or room on the streets. It was especially frustrating for them for they did not see many cyclists at first; however, now with the growing number of bike users in the city, this problem no longer exists.
Vélib’: How It Works?
The new self-service bike scheme allows a person to pick up a bike at any station (automated and self-service) in the city and drop it off at any other. Prices are variable depending on one's needs: there is a one-year subscription or a short-term subscription for daily or weekly usage (1 euro for the day, 5 euros for 7 days and 29 euros for a year). For short-term users, in addition to paying the subscription fee, they have to pay a security deposit of 150 euros to help guarantee the return of the bikes.
Thinking about the price and the utility of Vélib, Céline Lepaut, Vélib’ Project Manager at the Department of Roads and Transport decided that Vélib’ should be used for functional rides and not for a stroll or a pleasure ride . This explains the price and the free first 30 minutes – because it’s the average time that a Parisian needs to travel by bicycle from his place to his office; in short, it makes Vélib’ a functional means of transportation. As a result, in the first two months of operation, 92 percent of the trips lasted less than 30 minutes .
In our time when the price of gasoline increases, it’s obvious that the price to use a bike sharing program is cheap.
In addition to the “day trips,“ Vélib’ is also used for night trips. In Paris, the subway stops working at 1 a.m. and the bus system is not as efficient during the night, so the bike-sharing program is a great alternative for Parisians at night. 25% of the bicycle trips are made between 8pm and 3am in Paris.
Regulating the System
The city’s hills defined one of the first problems that the system encountered. In general, people bike down, but don’t use bike to go back up; therefore, in the early morning, there were not enough bikes at the stations at the top of the hills. It was literally an ‘up-hill battle’ that the Vélib’ managers had to think about.
The regulation of the system is very important to assure the success of the program. A map system has been created to reflect the inventory of bikes in each station: empty, half empty, or full. The regulators are also able to anticipate the flu; of course it is not an exact science, especially when tourists start to use the bikes, but they are able to at least monitor the system so that it is useful to Parisians
To regulate the stations, small trucks shift bikes from full to empty stations. They recently had the idea of giving 15 additional minutes free for each person who would take his bike back to an empty station – most of the time, on one of the hills.
The regulation also implicates the maintenance of the system. Vélib’ bikes are designed so they can handle 10,000 kilometers in a year. Thus, these bikes are used a lot and even if they are built to last, they may be damaged. If a bike is defective, it remains automatically locked on its stand. A repair garage for Vélib was created on a barge on the Seine River. The employees of this barge repair an average of 30 bikes per day. The damaged bikes are brought on the Seine River docks and stocked in bike sheds.
Bicyclists in Paris
With the new bike sharing program, Paris’ Transportation department noticed a big increase by people using their own bikes. The Vélib’ and the creation or addition of new bike lanes in the city allows bicycle users to feel secure biking on the streets with the automobiles and pedestrians. In fact the numbers of private bicycle sales increased significantly in the city.
The almost instantaneous doubling in the number of cyclists because of the launch of a bike sharing system has an impact on the other road users. Bicyclists become more visible and their safety obviously improves. In Paris, the car drivers had to change their behavior. They had to be more careful driving in the city with all the bicyclists and were obliged to learn how to interact with them.
Moreover the number of accidents involving cyclists has remained stable between 1995 and 2005, despite a significant rise in the number of users .
A New Attitude
In the popular attitude, the image of bicycle was outdated and equivalent to social regression. It was in fact negative, and a synonym for the past. It was essential for the Delanoë administration to change this image. Vélib’ actually did it: after the first six months, users were happy to be part of a “community” and have the “Vélib card.” It even created human interaction. The Parisians are known not to be very friendly communicative but with the Vélib’, people really began to speak at each other at the stations. The stations are now real poles of cultural exchange. Vélib’ permitted the come-back of sociability in a big city and is now a new means of social interaction.
Furthermore, the Vélib provides users with the opportunity to think differently: they were able to see the city and the urban space differently. In addition, it was without any doubt the beginning of a new “eco-attitude”. Even if 10,000 bikes can’t reverse global warming, users inevitably have become more aware about environmental issues. Good! Vélib is an awareness-rising instrument. In general, a bike-sharing program helps the environment and improves social differences. Depending of one’s social rank, the ability to purchase a car is not a given, but with Vélib’, with a bike, more people are have access to a mode of transportation that is less expensive.
Finally, the incredible success of Vélib’ is visible in the numbers: in 2007, there were 20,700 bikes and 1,451 stations. Paris could have eventually 50,000 bikes (26 million bike rentals and nearly 200,000 subscribers per year). The urban and transportation improvements and traffic restraint measures led to a decrease in private vehicle traffic by 20 percent between 2001 and 2006. Over the same period, air quality had strongly improved in Paris. Thus it shows that this new bicycle-based mass transit system is now part of the city’s identity as well as the ambassador of a new vision, a vision of a sustainable city and a new attitude for the future.
WHAT ARE THE BIKE SHARING PROGRAM POSSIBILITIES IN A CITY LIKE NEW YORK?
During a panel discussion , Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City’s Transportation Commissioner, asserted the fact that that the Bloomberg administration was inspired by the different bike sharing programs launched in Europe, and most particularly by the Vélib’. To further corroborate this enthusiasm, Mayor Michael Bloomberg visited Paris in September 2007 and discovered the Vélib’ system on his own. Mr. Bloomberg commented: “You try to see whether it fits, and some parts of it will, but it may very well give you an idea to do something totally different .” The interest of the administration for cities with bike sharing programs is part of a much larger vision, which is the “sustainable city”. The vision that cities don’t have to be designed for cars anymore and that we may rethink the urban space differently to improve quality of life is essential for the sustenance and vitality of any American city.
In this vein, last year, the Bloomberg administration launched PlaNYC, a long-term sustainability initiative. This strategic plan includes infrastructure revitalization, street safety , a more robust transit system, a redefinition of the purpose of the streets as public spaces, the reduction of the environmental footprint and carbon emissions by 30 percent for 2030. This new urban transportation policy will also improve mobility and will increase the choice of transportation . Since New York City is relatively flat with dense development, it makes the city ideal for cycling. The DOT wants to install safer and more well-connected facilities, as well as promote bicycle parking to increase bicycle usage. It will also double bicycle commuting by 2015 and triple it by 2020.
The results are already convincing: there was a 55 percent increase of the bicycle community in one year in New York ; however, cycling still accounts for less than 1 percent of all commuter trips in New York City. Right now the bike is just an alternative way of transportation, but the Department of Transportation (DOT) wants to make it part of the network. The DOT wants to accommodate more and more urban public space for buses, pedestrians and bikes and thus approach the streets as vital public spaces. Following the examples of Paris, the DOT launched in 2008 new programs to enjoy the city, “Summer Streets.” The “Summer Streets” initiative closed five miles of streets to motor vehicles for three consecutive Saturdays in August. Another initiative, “Bike the Falls” was organized in conjunction with NYC Waterfalls project. Also, new bike pathways have been created since 2007 and the DOT plans to complete installation of 200 bicycle lane miles by 2009.
DOT also hopes to have a new infrastructure ready for a bike-sharing program: racks, bike shelters, bicycle lanes, protected on-street lanes. It must be noted that to date there exists no official documentation regarding the project of launching a bike-sharing program. That said, Janette Sadik-Khan didn’t hesitate to say that “this is not a matter of if but a matter of time”, explaining that it wouldn’t be exactly the Paris model, but it would be a more adaptable model like the one that will be launched in Montréal in April 2009 .
New York’s Department of Transportation has sponsored some initiatives that have grown in the city to implement a bike sharing program at a much smaller scale and with success: the NY Bike-Sharing Program and the Governor Island Bike-Sharing Program.
The NYU Bike Sharing Program
Three NYU students received a $13,000 grant from NYU Sustainability to develop a small bike sharing program for NYU students. There are 30 bikes and 2 stations. People register online and at the station; they unlock a box with the key of the bike they reserved. They may use it for free for three hours per weekday and 6 hours per weekend. Already, 120 people have registered (without any advertising on the campus).
Governors Island Bike-Sharing Program
The island size is big enough so as to be too large to make it comfortable for commuters to walk from place to place. For this reason, Ellen Cavanagh of the Governors Island Preservation & Education Corporation, visited Paris for 3 days to find a way of transportation adaptable on the island – as cars were banned from it. She loved the idea of a bike sharing program and after finally finding a sponsor; they were able to propose a 1 hour-free bike for each visitor (not an automatic system). Visitors really enjoy this new way of discovering and exploring the entire island. Ellen Cavanagh is already thinking about the creation of bike parks and the design of bike paths for the island.
In a time where oil prices are increasing, the bike appears as a veritable solution to transportation problems, especially in a city. It may be used alone or combined with other types of public transportation. It is less restrictive and often faster than a car. Nonetheless, it also means rethinking the use of the streets and the transit to ensure safety and mobility.
Paris’ Vélib’ is a high performance service, which enables everyone to take advantage of a practical, inexpensive and ecological means of transport 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, providing a new approach to urban mobility. Paris has so definitely become a role model for sustainable transport. It’s even now a worldwide movement in which Paris has a strong leadership.
Paris and New York have all strategy plans to implement changes in transportation habits. The strategy plans are different from one city to another. This worldwide movement enables a city’s administration to study the plan so as to adapt and improve them for their own city.
Washington, DC is the first city in the United States to have launched the first bike-sharing program, but it’s still a very small one and a few other US cities are thinking of also implementing the program (Portland, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco). Small initiatives are experienced also in the United States on university campuses. A handful of universities are implementing a bike system, like the University of New England or Ripon College in Wisconsin are providing free bikes to new students who promise to use bikes instead of cars on campuses. Emory University provides bikes that may be rented for free on the campus. St. Xavier University in Chicago unveiled the first computer-driven bike sharing system on a college campus.
The bike-sharing program is a work-in-progress on a world scale: cities launch their system, adapting it from an older one and improving it. Year after year, the system becomes increasingly adaptable for usage and a provides friendly cooperation between the cities that already have a bike-sharing with those that have an emerging one. In each case, the use of bikes in a mass-urban transit systems must be part of a larger plan regarding mobility and urbanism. These initiatives become essential components in the dialogue that addresses the inevitable struggle to assure that our cities become sustainable for the future.
As Denis Baupin, Deputy Mayor of Transportation in Paris says: “I’m convinced that people are ready for a bike-sharing program, we just have to give them the tools.”.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND WORKS CITED
ARTICLES AND REPORTS
• Diane Cardwell. In Paris, Bloomberg Eyes Bike Program for Home. New York Times. September 30th, 2007.
• Luc Nadal. Vélib’: Bike Sharing Sweeps Paris Off Its Feet. Sustainable Transport Magazine number 19. Institute for Transportation & Development Policy. Fall 2007. pp. 8-13.
• Nicolas Johnson, Ines Bel Aiba, Paris Turns Highway into Summer Beach Party With Sand, Samba. Bloomberg. August 2nd, 2005.
• Katie Zezima, With Free Bikes, Challenging Car Culture on Campus. New York Times. October 19th, 2008.
• Elisabeth Rosenthal. European Support for Bicycles Promotes Sharing of the Wheels. New York Times. November 9th, 2008.
• Elissa Silverman. D.C. Bike Sharing Kicks into High Gear. Washington Post. August 13th, 2008.
• New York City Department of Transportation. Sustainable Streets 2008 and Beyond. Strategic Plan for the New York City Department of Transportation. 2008.
MOVIES AND WEBSITES
• Documentary Paris: Vélo-Liberté which is part of the PBS series “e²: the economies of being environmentally conscious” (www.pbs.org/http://www.e2-series.com), produced by Kontentreal.
• Vélib’ Program in Paris: http://www.en.velib.paris.fr/
• Bixi Program in Montréal: http://bixi.ca/index.php?page_id=1&lang=en
• SmartDC Program in Washington, DC: https://www.smartbikedc.com/default.asp
• PlaNYC: http://www.nyc.gov/html/planyc2030/html/home/home.shtml
• Summer Streets: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/summerstreets/html/home/home.shtml
• Metropolitan Bike Sharing Programs with Denis Baupin, Deputy Mayor of Transportation in Paris; André Lavallée, Mayor of Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie, Montréal and Janette Sadik-Khan, Transportation Commissioner of New York City. November 5th, 2008.
• Bike share: from Paris to New York? with Véronique Bernard, senior producer, Kontentreal; Rosemary Wakeman, historian of urbanism in France, Fordham University; Caroline Samponaro, director of Transportation Alternatives; Ellen Cavanagh, Urban Planner, Governors Island Preservation & Education Corporation. November 12th, 2008.