Bikes Invade Paris as Eco-Friendly Transportation

Tourists and locals seen pedaling around Paris as bike rental program begins.

Aug. 6, 2007 — -- Every summer the City of Lights is transformed into the city of bikes as the Tour de France descends upon the city's famed Champs-Elysees. But this summer, scads of sweaty internationals are being spotted pedaling down Paris' tiny streets and grand avenues.

No, they're not the last remaining cyclists from this year's tarnished Tour de France, but rather tourists taking part in the city's new communal bike program.

The program, Vélib, which gets its name from the combination of the French words for bicycle, "vélo", and freedom, "liberté," is this summer's big hit in the French capital.

Like many bike co-op initiatives, this new service allows users to take a bike from one location and drop it off at any one of the 750 stations located throughout the city.

To rent a bike, users can reserve one online or at any of the stations, using a credit or debit card. The fees range from a one Euro ($1.37) day pass and a five Euro ($6.89) weekly pass to a yearly pass for 29 Euros ($40).

The Vélib program is really designed for short-term rentals. The first half hour is free, but the second and third are not. Users get charged one Euro after 30 minutes, and the cost doubles with each half hour after that.  For example, two Euros after an hour, four Euros after an hour and a half, and so on…. Users must also pay a 150-Euro security deposit not only in case of damages, but also to ensure the safe return of the bikes.

Pedaling Through Paris

With 10,600 sturdy grey bicycles in circulation, modest rental prices, and docking stations that provide access in eight different languages, Paris city officials are hoping the initiative will not only reduce congestion, but also provide people with more environmentally friendly transportation.

It seems both Parisians and tourists are taking advantage of the program. Since its launch a little over two weeks ago, Vélib has already seen almost half a million rentals. And, with the addition of 10,000 more bikes and 700 more stations in the next 12 months, city officials anticipate at least 200,000 regular users by year end.

Parisian Olivier Bioret has already gone for a spin on one of Vélib's vehicles and plans to make use of them more often.

"It's a real pleasure -- when, like me, you don't have space enough in your flat to have your own bike -- to be able to discover, to cross Paris and not have to take the subway," he said.

Making Money, Going Green

The brainchild of Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, a Socialist and longtime green activist, Vélib is just part of his plan to reduce car traffic and, thus, lower emissions by 2020.

Aside from its environmental benefits, Vélib is also being touted as a way of infusing millions of euros into the city.

Although all proceeds from Vélib go toward the city, the bikes, docking stations and maintenance are paid for by the outdoor advertising company J.C. Decaux, in exchange for their exclusive use of 1,628 billboards owned by the city.

Albert Asséraf, the drector of General Strategy at J.C. Decaux, believes bikes are the next revolution in city transportation.

"We really think that it's very clean way, a sustainable way, to make transportation," he said.

Paris is not alone in its attempt to profit from the power of the pedal.

Across the globe, cities such as Barcelona, which started its bike-share program in March with 1,500 vehicles and 100 stations, and New York, which launched a five-day trial program sponsored by the Forum for Urban Design last month, are embracing bicycles as a way to cut back on both traffic and pollution.

However, it remains to be seen whether people's acceptance of these programs is simply a passing fad or whether this movement has the power to take root and transform the face of public transportation around the world.

Like many citydwellers across the globe, Maxime Berthemey, a native of Paris, relies on public transportation to get around. It is on people, such as Berthemey, that Vélib and other such initiatives depend.

"I don't own a car, but I hope that people who do will choose to take bikes instead of their cars for short distances. I think that's the idea and I hope that's going to work," he said.

For now, it seems the French have adopted a new credo: "I think, therefore I bike."