Will Paris' Bike-Share Program Work in S.F.?

The Parisian bicycle share program S.F. hopes to copy could be une bonne idée – or it could bring the nightmares of parking in the city to cyclists.

By Joe Eskenazi


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“I’ve got a bike/
You can ride it if you like/
It’s got a basket, a bell that rings and things to make it look good./
I’d give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it.”
-- Pink Floyd, “Bike,” 1967.

Glancing at song lyrics such as those above, it’s really no surprise that, a few short years after Pink Floyd’s debut, front man Syd Barrett was an obese mental patient who would spend the rest of his days puttering about the family home.

And yet when it comes to being a borrower or lender of bicycles, Barrett may yet have been on to something (shine on you crazy diamond indeed).

European cities, notably Paris, have pedaled out large-scale bike-sharing programs – and, with the notable exception of all things Jerry Lewis, if the French break out a new toy, San Francisco wants one as well.

In Paris’ “Velib” program (a combination of the words “vélo” – bicycle – and “liberté” – guess what?) users lay down a small deposit ...

and can pick up one of 10,000 bicycles at more than 750 stations with the swipe of a card, ride wherever they wish, and drop it off at another Velib depot. The first half hour of riding is free and thereafter hourly (or daily/weekly/monthly) rates apply.

If only for the hardship of undertaking “fact-finding missions” to Gay Paree, I’m certain San Francisco officials will continue to look good and hard at transplanting this program to our hillier and more litigious City by the Bay. But, with only enough of a budget to cover the monthly Comcast bill, I undertook a fact-finding mission of my own, and fired off a few Velib-related e-mails to every Parisian I know.

The responses were très intéressant; this is a program that is making people’s lives better. But, if San Francisco doesn’t improve on some of the Parisian system’s quirks, we will be importing a service that also drives its users mad -- and giving cyclists their own taste of what a joy it is to park a car in San Francisco.

First the good: Hélène Aubault, a 21-year-old university student, notes that Velib was a handy way to get around Paris during last week’s crippling general public sector strike (French transportation and other public sector workers strike often enough that, in my second-semester conversational French class at CCSF, our textbook actually instructs us how to say “I will arrive two hours late; there is a general strike.”).

The bike service is cheap, often convenient and popular across all levels of society. “Everyone talks about it. In the Metro, in the street — It is incredibly trendy,” Aubault wrote.

“It touches everybody, but I noted there were especially young people (high school and college kids). I think the phenomenon crosses social boundaries. In the Metro, I've heard a group of hoody kids saying that 'Velib were really fashion.’ They were showing off about it. A few days later [I heard] the same speech, at the entrance of a Parisian high school close to my University. I don't quite understand so much excitement. Like bikes didn't exist before!”

Yet the service’s popularity has served as something of its undoing. Aubault noted that the Velib stations at popular Paris locations (such as near her university) are always full; it’s like trying to find a parking spot on Union Square. And while the first half hour of a Velib rental is free, if you can’t find a parking spot the meter starts ticking. Aubault’s sister, Alexia, noted that she recently saw a man roaming through the city in the wee hours of the morning while barking into his cell phone that he’d just spent an hour and 40 minutes finding a parking spot for his Velib cycle.

Although the Velib bicycles are equipped with GPS-like devices and trackers, nearly 300 of the clunky and distinctive vehicles have been stolen in a matter of months. In the French online newspaper Rue89, multiple readers reported they’d called Velib to report stray bicycles discarded about town — yet subsequently noticed the bikes sitting around for weeks before employees came by to collect them. Clearly the service is not running like a Swiss watch. But I’m sure no San Francisco transport agency would behave this way.

Finally, Parisian bike rental agencies are not pleased (and it’s a good bet their San Francisco brethren will feel similarly). With a half hour’s free ride, thrill-seeking riders are juggling cycles, riding and ditching their way across town on the cheap.

That doesn’t sound like a great way for a city-provided service to make money or encourage safe behavior. But it does sound like a wonderful bit for the French equivalent of Jackass (“L’âne”). France’s Steve-O (“Etienne-O”) could grab a Velib and attempt to pedal furiously through all 20 arrondisements without spending a centime. And if he’s run over by a bread truck or beaten senseless by a mob of striking workers in the process -– well, c’est la vie!


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