Wednesday, November 4

Getting to the bottom of Vélib vandalism

The New York Times takes a rather pessimistic view of the future of bike-sharing in Paris:

"Just as Le Corbusier’s white cruciform towers once excited visions of the industrial-age city of the future, so Vélib’, Paris’s bicycle rental system, inspired a new urban ethos for the era of climate change."
That is: an idealistic vision that has come crashing into reality ... the problem of vandalism in this case.

The reasoning behind this indictment is not the popularity of the program - it attracts between 50,000 and 150,000 trips a day depending on the season - but the costs dealing with the vandalism and theft. Thousands of the bicycles have been damaged, including 80% of the initial stock of 20,600 bicycles. Apparently, dispossessed residents of the Parisians suburbs have come to view these bicycles as symbols of the glamorous lifestyle of central city that they are barred from. This leads to resentment.

A couple of responses:

First of all, the Le Corbusier analogy is off. Vélib promoters may have been overly-optimistic about human nature in the implementation of the program, but the radiant city was a terrible idea at its core that was disastrous to the extent that it was successfully implemented.

Second, the 80% destruction figure is less shocking then it may seem. The Vélib program was initiated in July of 2007, meaning the initial bikes have been in constant circulation for over two years. Surely, one would hope for a life span of more than two years from most of the bikes, but a certain number would need to be replaced anyway based on wear and tear from hundreds of different individuals.

Third, while the Times reports that these bicycles are treated as "accoutrements of the 'bobos,' or 'bourgeois-bohèmes,' the trendy middle-class," this isn't inherent to the technology of bicycles by any means. Motorists in the early twentieth century were pejoratively known as "joyriders" because they were typically affluent and out on a recreational drive. As motorcars became more democratized in use, and older vehicles could trickle down to poorer households, this image has somewhat faded. Paris has recently expanded the program to 29 surrounding towns with 4000 more bicycles. There is no reason the image problem could not be change in time as the program is expanded to a broader cross-section of the public.

Paul Demaio sees one solution to Vélib's troubles in drawing those who are most angry into the program itself,
"Instead of ad campaigns telling people to respect the bikes, JCDecaux and the City of Paris should be using the bikes to respect the people, if they aren't already. The very same individuals who are damaging the bikes should be employed by JCDecaux to repair them. Until the super high unemployment rates decrease, the social unrest will continue and bike-sharing as a representative of the City will be a pawn in their battles."
Sure, a bicycle-sharing program cannot solve French unemployment, but it could be a catalyst for positive social change beyond the direct function of proving low-cost transportation. And even a gradual shift in the image of Vélib could go a long way in resolving the vandalism issue.


Anonymous said...


happyidiot said...

FYI ... any number of public programs to give away free bikes met a similar fate. A '"credit card" as security, like a car rental, would solve the problem at some expense to accessibility for the "poor."