Troubled bike rental scheme in Paris


in Economics, Politics, The environment, The outdoors

Leaves and colour

In a previous post, I mentioned the bicycle rental schemes that have already been deployed in some cities and which are being contemplated elsewhere. The theory is certainly an appealing one: making a fleet of bikes available for visitors and residents to rent at reasonable prices, encouraging sustainable transport, exercise, and an appealing urban character.

Unfortunately, the scheme in Paris has run into significant difficulties with theft and damage. Over half of the original fleet of bicycles has been stolen, and 1,500 a day require repairs due to abuse or vandalism. The company running the scheme has told the city that, since the theft and damage costs are so much higher than expected, the original financing agreement based around free advertising space is not adequate.

The outstanding question is how such abuses can be curbed without undermining the value of the whole scheme. For instance, credit card holders could be required to make a deposit equivalent to a bit more than the value of the bikes (about 400 Euros each), which would be refunded when the bicycles are returned. That would, however, exclude anybody who didn’t have access to that kind of credit. It also wouldn’t necessarily deal with the problem of vandalism. Strong public pressure to treat the bikes well might help protect them, but it is a difficult thing to encourage – especially since the kind of people likely to enjoy abusing bicycles are also the kind of people more mild-mannered citizens are unlikely to publicly challenge.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. February 11, 2009 at 11:06 am

It’s a bit Orwellian, but you could put cheap speed and acceleration sensors in the bikes and then track down places where people are using them abusively.

R.K. February 11, 2009 at 11:21 am

Are they having similar problems in other cities that have tried this?

If not, what makes Paris different?

Milan February 11, 2009 at 11:25 am

The linked BBC article says:

“The scheme was modelled on one in Lyon, which appears to have been less troublesome, and has been extended to other cities in France.”

The Netherlands has lots of different community bike programs.

oleh February 11, 2009 at 11:27 am

I am a big supporter of cycling, and in particular these programs which were introduced in some of the European cities. I am hoping that it could be introduced in my city of Vancouver. With our relatively mild winters and congested downtown and inner core and hopefully enlightened populace, it could work.

The problem does not seem that it was lack of interest. The article reports there were 42 million users in 18 months in Paris . The bikes were used 10,000 km a year which I expect is about ten times the annual mileage of the average bike.

However, a number of factors including the vandalism and theft has made the Paris scheme unsustainable in its present form.

I hope there have been more sustainable programs in other cities which we could model, and see if and why it has worked elsewhere.

I would support:
1. Active prosecution and punishment of the vandals and thieves which would require a supportive citizenry in assisting the capture of the vandals and thieves.

2. Potentially greater public subsidy of the program as an extension of
subsidies to public transit.

I wonder how successful the other programs are and if someone living in a city with such a program such as Amsterdam or Vienna could comment on the program in your cities. I am afraid that the lack of success in a high profile city such as Paris could dampen the introduction of such programs elsewhere which would be unfortunate.

oleh February 11, 2009 at 11:42 am

From Wikipedia on Bike Share programs regarding the Toronto experience

“A similar program, BikeShare, operated by the Community Bicycle Network (CBN) in Toronto from 2001 to 2006, was North America’s most successful community bicycle system. BikeShare was designed to attempt to overcome some of the theft issues by requiring yearly memberships to sign out any of the 150 refurbished bikes locked up at 16 hubs throughout central Toronto. At its height over 400 members could sign out a bike from any hub for up to 3 days. The hubs were located at stores, cafes and community centres where the staff would volunteer their time to sign bikes out and in.[7] The major failing of such more secure community bike programs was that it required a lot of administration, but could only charge users a portion of the overall costs. Over 80% of its operating costs had to be covered through grants as users were unlikely to spend more than $50 per year for a membership. By 2006 CBN was unable to secure enough private and government grants to continue operating BikeShare[8]. BikeShare was very popular and did not have any major problems with theft or loss, but without a secure source of funding it was not possible to operate.”

If this Wikipedia excerpt is accurate, I am disappointed that an apparently successful program in Toronto was not sustainable or continued.

To me it seems that one of the problems may have been the price set for the users was simply too low. At $50 per year, the user was paying only 20% of the cost. $100 per year (or 40% of the cost ) seems more reasonable.

Also at 150 bikes, administrative costs are spread over a small fleet. I wonder what would have happened at 300. (the Paris program had 1500).

Does anyone know of any other city that has tried it?

Milan February 11, 2009 at 11:48 am

This Wikipedia entry lists 22 current programs.

Milan February 11, 2009 at 11:54 am

Also, the Parisian system actually has 20,000 bicycles at 1,450 stations. These are located roughly every 300 metres.

According to this entry, 3,000 bicycles were stolen in the first year of operation.

That entry clashes significantly with the BBC reporting, regarding the cost of the bicycles. While the BBC listed than at 400 Euros, this Wikipedia page says: “The price per bicycle has been variously stated as $1,300, €300, or $3,460 apiece.” Perhaps the difference is that some people are referring only to the cost of the actual bikes, while others are considering the whole cost of the system, divided by the number of bikes.

. February 11, 2009 at 11:58 am

The Bike-sharing Blog

Paris’ Woes of Theft and Vandalism
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

“Even with these maintenance nightmares, the system is expanding with six new suburbs of Paris connecting to the system next month. With over 42 million uses and bikes traveling 10,000 km in a year, Vélib’ is a marvel for everyone to watch and learn.”

. February 11, 2009 at 12:00 pm

“For those new to bike-sharing, an article I wrote for Carbusters Magazine called “The Bike-sharing Phenomenon – The History of Bike-sharing” (PDF) provides a brief history of the concept from its earliest beginnings in 1964 Amsterdam as a radical movement to its latest incarnations as transit solutions to modern global problems.”

Mike Kushnir February 11, 2009 at 12:34 pm

i believe that montreal has just instituted a program. it’s in its infancy, but it should be interesting. i don’t know how popular the program will be during a legendary quebec winter though…but i’m sure that they will surprise me.

after living in paris, one thing that shocked me was a peculiarity of the french toward disobedience. this is hardly limited to the velib bike rental program, but a societal tendancy. people like to protest, get away with breaking the rules, cut in line, jump the fare barriers, etc. way more than in canada. perhaps it’s something about everyone thinking themselves both a philosopher and a revolutionary. or maybe for some, they see others like this and figure “hm…”

my thoughts:

1. paris, not lyon. paris is a macrocephaly, a city that is so big/powerful/important that it leaves the country’s second city in the dust. (think BC – greater vancouver is 2.1m, victoria is 330k.) not to say that there are no social problems or vandalism in lyon, but my guess is that, being a big city, people are just less patient and less considerate if they can get away with something – which you almost always can in france. i.e. tragedy of the commons problem, but on steroids.

2. the bikes themselves look cheap and plastic. in fact, large components of them ARE plastic. there’s not much to expect from something like that. in addition, the design of the bikes was controversial; a lot of people found them hideously ugly. thus, perhaps a reduced level of perceived value. (however, the lyon bikes appear to be identical, albeit with a nicer paint scheme, so is it the value of paint? probably not.)

3. i agree that the deposit is too low. the deposit should be higher; for those that don’t have the funds, there should be an excemption of sorts. keep in mind that there’s already a 150-euro deposit

4. not a thought, but an anecdote. a flemish guy told me why flanders is not part of the netherlands. he said, basically, a long time ago, the northern provinces chose protestantism, whereas the southern provinces chose catholicism. this manifested itself in more window-dressings in catholic houses, because your responsibility is to god: you sin, you confess to the priest, what is your business remains your business. but not with the protestants: you have a responsibility to your community, so everyone’s business is more “public.” where i’m going with this is the idea that “if nobody finds out about it (or that i did it), it’s ok.” this was used to explain the high infidelity rates in france. perhaps it has some logic here; lyon had huguenot tendencies, whereas paris was always staunchly catholic. indeed – lyon is the gateway to the alps; and switzerland has been an ideological homeland for protestantism.

so yeah. who knows. i think that a “report damage” thing would be good – you need to report damage if it’s done on your loan, or else the next person taking the bike would report it – and you would be fined. that’s similar to how my car co-op works. it requires people to look after themselves – maybe that would help some.

Alena February 11, 2009 at 12:39 pm

when we were in Vienna, rental bikes were available everywhere and nobody seemed to misuse them. They were not the most beautiful bikes in the world; very sturdy and painted a bright fluorescent color. Running a simple advertising campaign in Paris explaining the environmental benefits to the population may create a different attitude. Leaving a deposit may also help. It is a good idea all around as having more bikes on the road makes it much more safe for bicyclists and forces city governments to create bike paths. In Holland it has become completely accepted and much more safe.

oleh February 11, 2009 at 4:31 pm

Alena and Mike,

Thank you for your insight about Vienna and Paris. While in Vienna, I was struck by the high level of aderence or acceptance of rules, or simply good maners.

I think Toronto “the Good” shares that culture. Which makes me wonder why the program in Toronto was not sustained where excessive theft and vandalism was not a problem.

I think maybe the basic problem was an undervaluation of the benefit at $50 per year. I understand the annual costs (all in ) of a private automobile is about $10,000. The annual bike membership was set at only $50 or 1/200 of the private automobile all in cost. (The $10K annual auto cost may be questionable but I like the simplicity of it)

20 cents is equal to the tip one leaves after one’s daily $1.80 Starbucks purchased with a twoniee.

I hope these community bike programs continue and foster.

Another reason is that the basic difference between riding a bike or being in the cocoon of an automobile is literally the difference between light and dark.

Magictofu February 11, 2009 at 7:27 pm

The NCC in Ottawa is planning on establishing a similar bike share system:


“Residents and visitors will be able to rent a bicycle for a few minutes or a few hours to speed up their downtown errands on both sides of the Ottawa River.”

AT February 11, 2009 at 10:37 pm

I can attest to the excellence of the system in Lyon. I’m sorry to see the way it’s gone in Paris.

Mike Kushnir February 12, 2009 at 1:05 am
R.K. February 12, 2009 at 11:31 am

Oxford should consider a scheme like this. It is a fairly bicycle-friendly city, and such a scheme could be popular with both students and tourists.

R.K. February 12, 2009 at 11:32 am

It would be a much better way to see the city than taking one of those red bus tours.

Milan February 12, 2009 at 1:10 pm

I want to thank everyone for their interesting comments.

I agree that these community bike schemes are very promising, and serve a number of laudable purposes.

I hope they continue to spread and that mechanisms for addressing the problems in Paris are found.

Mike Kushnir February 20, 2009 at 7:04 pm

re: the toronto program.

i’m not familiar with how t.o.’s system worked…but one of the advantages of the paris system is that users can tie in their bike access codes to their smartcard-equipped transit (navigo) pass – which is used by a huge proportion of the population. whenever toronto gets its presto card online (i.e. whenever the provincial government actually grants metrolinx some real power in terms of negotiating a single fare union), it would provide a great way to regulate payment.

other thing: perhaps one reason why the toronto system didn’t worked was because it was run by a co-op, with a membership list, administration, etc. bike share schemes are not like auto share schemes – because the value of the bikes is much, much lower in terms of dollars and cents, there is much less incentive to go to the trouble of registering for the service.

it’s really a system that needs to be run by a municipal/regional government. the co-operative system – as much as i love and believe in it – is not well-equipped to tackle this kind of project.

in terms of solving the problem, i’m of the opinion that most people are generally good. my guess is that minor damages (i.e. wheels that need to be trued, flat tires, etc.) are not the problem. it would be useful to discover where the damage is coming from: either parisians are extremely clumsy (unlikely), the bikes are fragile or not suited to paris (less unlikely) or the majority of the damage is being caused by a relatively small proportion of users (plausable).

another anecdote: nanterre university library does not issue fines for late materials, as it grants an advantage to users who can afford the fines. thus, they restrict borrowing privileges for those who return materials late.

perhaps the bike-hire system might benefit from a similar policy.

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