Commentary: freewheeling in Paris: the French offer lessons in bike sharing.

Author:Hirn, Johannes
Position:COMMENTARY - Bikes belong

Washington, DC, residents wondering how the nation's first bike-sharing operation might work can take a few lessons from the Paris program, Velib', which was launched last summer. Paris' program provides thousands of sharable bikes to commuters, tourists and students, whereas Smartbike DC has started small in its launch this month, with 120 bikes available at 10 spots in the city. The bike-sharing bug seems to have caught on. Healthcare company Humana has teamed with the nonprofit Bikes Belong to bring 1,000 free-to-use bikes each to the cities holding the Republican and Democratic National Conventions--the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul), Minnesota, and Denver, Colorado, respectively.

When the conventions end this fall, 70 bikes each will remain in those cities under the Humana program called Freewheelin', which first launched at the company's headquarter city, Louisville, Kentucky. The free, public bikes are parked at solar-powered kiosks. And cities across Europe have had success with their small-scale public-bicycle operations, but none have yet matched the bike-sharing passion of Paris.


Paris City Hall asked JC Decaux--the company behind most bike-sharing schemes in Europe--to deliver 20,600 bikes, one for every 100 inhabitants. About half of the bikes were put in service on July 15 last year for the launch of Velib'. And with the numbers gradually increasing, visitors to Paris are assured to see the sleek gray bikes zooming past them as soon as they step out of the subway.

While weighing in at a hefty 49 pounds with all their equipment--basket, lock, kickstand, LED lights--the bikes provide a smooth ride. Some tweaking of the tire pressure was necessary to accommodate for the Paris cobblestones while avoiding possible punctures. But even though they pass through the hands of six different users every day, the Velib' bikes show no sign of abuse.

Most users hold a 12-month pass worth 29 euros. But a mere euro suffices to turn someone into a Velib'ist for 24 hours, provided his or her credit card is accepted (American Express is your only chance if your card does not have an electronic chip). Whether one chooses to subscribe for one day or one year, they are allowed an unlimited number of rentals at no extra charge, provided each rental lasts less than 30 minutes.

Would-be riders simply have to locate a bike stand--with four times as many stands as subway stations, finding a bike doesn't require walking more...

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