'I think there is a good future for this type of system...'
October 8, 2007 8:01 PM   Subscribe

A new generation of bike rental is here, where you pick up the bike where you start your ride and drop it off at the destination. Vélib' and Vélo'V are the high-profile, wildly successful products of the JCDecaux ad firm in the cities of Paris and Grand Lyon. Velib' provides 10,000 bikes for cheap hourly rental beginning this past summer. In exchange for fully underwriting the €90 million of expenses, JCDecaux wins exclusive rights to all the city's billboards. JCDecaux' rival Clear Channel beat them out of the gate by a couple months, opening Bicing in Barcelona to similar success, although at a smaller scale.

These are far from the first bike shares. JCDecaux has older programs in Austria and Spain and Clear Channel started theirs in Stockholm and Oslo - but this may be the newest and biggest version of an idea that dates back decades. The successful operations require not only a well-designed urban program but also the massive cash outlay that only freewheeling multinationals can provide, for better or worse. The U.S. might not be completely left behind: San Francisco may sign with Clear Channel and Chicago's rumored to be talking with JCDecaux.
posted by ardgedee (17 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There’s also Austin’s Yellow Bike Project, which, as far as I can tell, is a non-commercial endeavor.
posted by tepidmonkey at 8:11 PM on October 8, 2007

And Portland's Yellow Bike Project.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:16 PM on October 8, 2007

I'd love to see this actually happen here in San Francisco. One problem certainly is the number of hills here. How many gears do these bikes have?
posted by vacapinta at 8:35 PM on October 8, 2007

The successful operations require not only a well-designed urban program but also the massive cash outlay that only freewheeling multinationals can provide, for better or worse.

Tons of cities have yellow bike sharing programs that may not be as large in scope, but also aren't funded by massive media conglomerates looking to cover every blank public space with advertising. I'm not advertising-phobic by any means, but I'm not exactly a fan of supporting Clear Channel with my tax dollars, either.
posted by chrominance at 9:24 PM on October 8, 2007

One problem certainly is the number of hills here.
They had the same problem in Paris (from the 'cheap hourly rental' link above) - "The bike station on top of Montmartre, meanwhile, was constantly empty, while the bikes at the bottom of the hill gathered dust in the sun, unused."
posted by tellurian at 12:03 AM on October 9, 2007

There are also call-a-bike (there's a number you call, it charges your cell phone account) in Berlin. Run by the train company, DB. Makes sense, no? The let-down is there's no train whistle on the bike, you have to make that noise yourself. And then people look at you funny.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:25 AM on October 9, 2007

Lyon is pretty damn hilly as well, and they had 'bike-trucks' that transported bikes from popular destinations to the empty stations. It worked well though, because it was mostly hilly around the edges (suburbs) and flat in the centre, so everyone would commute inwards during the day, ride the bikes around the centre while they were there, and then ride the bike home uphill if they could, or else they'd get redistributed outwards overnight by the trucks.
posted by jacalata at 12:40 AM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've been hearing reports on bike mailing lists from people who've been in Paris recently, and Velib is an enormous success there. Standing at any moderately busy intersection in the middle of the day, you'll see 10 people on bikes, almost all of them Velibs.

They went from 0 Velibs › 10,000 in a week or two. They'll be doubling that soon.

Probably won't ever happen on anywhere near that scale in the US. There's no city here I can think of with the size, the climate, the terrain, the density, and the attitude to make it feasible.
posted by blasdelf at 1:15 AM on October 9, 2007

> Tons of cities have yellow bike sharing programs that may not be as large in scope, but also aren't funded by massive media conglomerates

That's true, and I found a lot of examples while researching the OP. And I didn't mean that this is only possible through private-sector largess (which is how what you quoted reads to me, too) -- something that never comes for free and rarely even for 'free', as the companies' contracts with their respective cities ensure they will lose money on bikes but earn it back when the books close -- usually with more than merely goodwill capital.

The Yellow Bikes share a descent from the Provos and their free bikes in Amsterdam, something I've known about for years but for which there's very little available on the Web in English (see the 'dates back decades' link in the OP). The yellow bikes really merit their own post.

What I found interesting in these links is the evolution of a civic program as a byproduct of the public-image competition CC and JCD are in. JCD is currently in the lead - Vélib' has received an immense amount of press while I have only heard of Bicing on a mailing list and discovered Vélo'V while doing research on Vélib'. I don't even know what JCD's bike program in Vienna is called -- the only mentions I've been able to find online are as backgrounding in stories about Vélib'. Not even the bike commuter bloggers seem to know about it, and that's a pretty well-informed network.

What seems to have boosted Vélib' into the top ranks is not only the size of Paris and its place as a global media center -- all good for public relations -- but the massive scale at which Vélib' was launched. It seems to be proving that usefulness is intimately linked to availability, and if any station runs out of bikes (or cannot accommodate more bikes at popular destinations), the whole system loses momentum. Or, in other words, success is measured entirely by the quality of consumer convenience at all points. JCD gave Vienna 900 bikes and it seems to be plenty. Paris will soon have 20,000 bikes and it's not considered sufficient.

The upside of corporate-sponsored bike share is the necessity for JCD and CC to keep their systems in tip-top shape, because any decay in the bike share infrastructure will reflect immediately on them. The downside is free-market capriciousness. JCD and CC can each choose to hand off the operations to third parties or the city after their goodwill campaigns are done, after which the systems can decay through costcutting, fall into neglect or be dismantled outright, leaving unusable bikes and abandoned check-in stations littering the sidewalks. I hope that doesn't happen.
posted by ardgedee at 3:35 AM on October 9, 2007

Also, there's a little room at the back of each depot where seat sniffers bid to get first whiff as bikes are returned. This lowers your costs as a rider and benefits a surprisingly robust but typically hidden portion of society.

About hills: use trucks to take loads of bikes to high points in town for when they are needed, or make rental very cheap at low points, or start an exercise club at the bottom of the hill (ride up, run down, ride up, run down...).
posted by pracowity at 3:39 AM on October 9, 2007

Starting in the 60s Jean-Claude Decaux built a large business by creating bus stops that could accommodate adverts: passengers would get shelter from the rain, city councils would get somebody to fix the glass for free when it got smashed and advertisers got a captive audience of waiting passengers and (on the other side) passing motorists. Monthly rental of an "adshell 6 sheet" costs between GPB 100-600 in volume.

The bike idea seems at least as clever as this: the media owners, city councils, advertisers and cyclists are all bathed in the wholesome light of apparent greenness. The novelty value boosts the value of the media space. Meanwhile the media owner can collect money from, probably, ALL the other parties. Finally - if somebody vandalises or steals a bike you can just invoice whoever hired it.

A smart trick would be to make it a little cheaper to rent a bike at the bottom of a hill than at the top.
posted by rongorongo at 3:51 AM on October 9, 2007

Probably won't ever happen on anywhere near that scale in the US. There's no city here I can think of with the size, the climate, the terrain, the density, and the attitude to make it feasible.
oh, I wouldn't be so quick to denigrate your cities and throw up your hands in despair. I suspect that some of the East Coast cities like Boston, Philly or DC would take to this program rather well.

I was in Paris in late August and was really happy to see so many Velibs running around. Pretty much 90% of the bikes that I saw in the city was a Velib, and they were ridden by a decent mixture of errand-running locals and tourists.

The bikes are decently designed urban cycles with a front basket for groceries or a briefcase or purse, internally geared seven speed rear hub, dynamo front hub with headlight, kickstand and integrated lock. About the only thing that seemed to be missing were adjustable handlebars.

I didn't get an opportunity to ride one (you needed a smart chip credit card to unlock a Velib, and I had my own bike that I brought along to ride in the 16th Paris-Brest-Paris) but in general they seemed to handle like a decent urban hybrid. Not the fleetest creatures on the street (though a guy who wanted to race against me on the Rue Rivoli would've argued otherwise) but speed isn't that important in a highly trafficked city like Paris.

The thing that I most like about the idea of bikesharing programs is that it addresses a couple of the biggest obstacles that city dwellers have towards owning a bike -- storage and maintenance. I have a lot of friends who say that they'd like to use a bike and get away from public transportation, but punk out because their apartments are too small or they'd be intimidated by having to learn how to change a flat tire. But that all goes away when you use a public system with its own salaried mechanics.

Of course, there's also the fear of navigating urban traffic, but a successful and profligate bike share program indirectly addresses that by getting more bikes on the road, which adjusts driver behavior and proves to pedestrians that, indeed, bikes can share the road with cars and buses and trucks without incurring a plague of accidents. One of my most enduring memories of the Paris trip was watching a seventy year old guy riding a Velib through the heart of the Arc De Triomphe rotary, mixing it up with taxis and lorries with carefree grace as the drivers parted ways around him.

You might say that there are no cities with the attitude that makes a bike share feasible. I'd say that the bike share will change a city's attitude if given the proper resources.
posted by bl1nk at 4:54 AM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Deutsche Bahn has the Call A Bike program in Germany
posted by cotterpin at 4:55 AM on October 9, 2007

Lyon is pretty damn hilly as well ... oh, sorry, we've already been over this, haven't we ...
posted by From Bklyn at 5:42 AM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

oh, and of course, the other hidden benefit of a bikeshare is that it provides replaceable platforms for urban freeriding
posted by bl1nk at 6:33 AM on October 9, 2007

w/r/t Lyon and it's hills, the bike program isn't designed for long distance commutes. The cycles are concentrated in the downtown areas, you take transit into the core and then use the bike as the solution to the last mile problem that plagues all public transit systems. The bike is never really used in a hilly area, that's what buses/subways are for.

And in Lyon the first half hour is free. You get off the Metro, get on the bike pedal the mile you need to go and return the bike, no charge.
posted by Keith Talent at 8:37 AM on October 9, 2007

Keith: that's mostly the case, but I lived at the student residence out near St Just - still only about four bus stops /a funiculaire from Perrache, and with Velo stations, but up some hills so steep that some sidewalks were stairs. Everyone wanted to ride down to uni in the morning, but very very few could ride back up that afternoon. I'm really just mentioning my own experience of the usage patterns.
posted by jacalata at 9:12 AM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

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