The capital of France may be known as "The City of Lights", but for the countless commuters and other travelers stuck in its typically horrendous traffic, it may as well be known as "The City of Brake Lights". The only things hotter than the tailpipes on the cars idling in traffic jams, are the tempers of frustrated Parisian drivers.
To help alleviate the worsening congestion, and to get more people out of the traffic lanes and into the bicycle lanes, the city government has developed a bicycle sharing program named Velib', a combination of the French words velo (bicycle) and liberté (liberty). The program is designed to make Paris more green, and to expand the bicycle culture in the city — in other words, to make the metropolitan area better reflect the love of cycling evidenced by the country's Tour de France.
On 15 July 2007, Mayor Bertrand Delanoe and other ecologically-minded dignitaries officially launched the Velib' program, as a follow-up to his 2001 campaign goal to cut down on traffic congestion within the city. In addition to this new bicycle program, the city government has eliminated most free parking lots, raised parking tickets fees, converted two-way streets into one-way streets, and replaced some car lanes with bicycle lanes and wider bus lanes.
The Velib' program works similarly to that of other major European cities, such as Brussels, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Vienna: People will be able to pick up and drop off bicycles at Velib' parking stations throughout the city. Initially, there were a total of 10,648 bicycles available, and 750 stations. Program directors intend to increase that to 20,600 bicycles and 1451 stations by the end of 2007. Velib' is a 24-hour self-service program, in which people unlock the bicycle of their choice, at any parking station, by swiping a card through a reader.
A bicycle does not have to be returned to its original station, but can be checked in at any station. Thus, once you have a pass, you can use the bicycles throughout the day, without having to find a place to lock a bicycle, or worrying about losing your own bicycle to theft. As long as you do not keep any one bicycle for more than half an hour, all of your day's usage is free.
The total cost to the rider is a combination of the cost for the pass and for the time that a bicycle is checked out. People can choose a one-day card for 1 euro, a weekly card for 5 euros, or an annual card for 29 euros. Application forms for the annual card are available at hundreds of locations throughout the city. Apparently, regular travel cards can also be used.
The first half-hour of use is free, i.e., included in the flat fee for the pass itself. The next half hour costs only 1 euro; the third half-hour costs 2 euros; every half-hour after that costs 4 euros. The fee structure is intended to encourage people to use the bicycles mainly for quick trips around town, thus freeing up bicycles for more customers, and keeping them in fast rotation.
The bicycles themselves are designed for utility — durability, safety, and comfort — and not beauty. Each has a heavy-duty, unisex frame, as well as splash guards, a headlight, back and side reflectors, a bell, a wireframe basket, and a locking mechanism — useful when not close to a docking station. Because the bicycles are heavy and have only three gears, some customers noted that they are not easy for going up hills. They may not be as flashy as the ultralight professional bicycles favored by competitors in the Tour de France, but they are fairly rideable, and likely will last long enough to provide dependable service for many travelers over the years.
One question is whether or not the Velib' program will amount to nothing more than another government-sponsored scheme that ultimately goes nowhere, or truly becomes a successful part of the city's transit system. Some believe that the program faces some tough challenges. For instance, Paris has never been known as a bicycle town, and still only has 230 miles (371 km) of bicycle lanes. The city has two million people, with almost 12 million in the metropolitan area, but only 150,000 bicycle owners.
Another question is whether this new program will have a positive environmental impact. Not only are Parisians well known for their love of driving their cars, but the Velib' bicycles are impractical for most if not all long-distance trips, for which people will continue to drive cars or take taxis.
Safety may be another issue. Cycling in Paris, like driving a car there, is not for the timid or the easily distracted, and it's certainly not for the typical tourist, who may be juggling a camera with one hand, trying to ride an unfamiliar bicycle with the other, and gawking at the scenery — with little attention paid to the small and nimble European cars leaping forward to take advantage of any gap in traffic. In addition, safety helmets are not included with the Velib' bicycles, none are available for rent at the parking stations, and it is unlikely that most tourists would be bringing their bulky helmets from home. Nonetheless, city authorities claim to have put a great deal of emphasis and planning into rider safety, by creating bicycle routes throughout the city, and providing every Velib' subscriber with a safety pamphlet.
Bloggers and other online commentators seem to be of the opinion that the system is easy to use, but that it can be difficult finding an available bicycle, because they quickly became the craze when introduced. On the day of the program's launch, Velib' attracted quite a lot of attention and interest, with people lining up to obtain passes and try out the bicycles. First-time users had generally favorable comments, and complimented this new service that may help The City of Lights shine a bit brighter.