Saturday, October 31, 2009

Malheureux Vélib' !*

In general, I'm a big fan of bicycles—unlike cars, they're economical, they emit no noxious odors or gasses, parking them takes almost no space and they're a great form of exercise. Catherine and I had a brief visit with friends staying on Fire Island this summer where the only means of transportation allowed, other than walking, is bicycles. We had a lovely, relaxing ride one morning through a couple of the townships there (it's not as far as it sounds since the towns butt right up against one another—less than two or three miles, I'd guess). In fact, we had such a good time that I've found myself pausing frequently to look at the price tags at Busy Bee Bikes, a couple of doors down from our building.

At the same time, I find many (but not all) bicyclists to be obnoxious: they speed (if you're passing taxis in New York, you're going too fast), they sail through intersections against the light while they weave perilously between pedestrians in the crosswalks, ride on the sidewalks, park their bicycles wherever and however they like (especially problematic at night when they aren't always easy to see—Catherine hurt herself pretty badly earlier this year trying to get past a clump of them on our block), and have no qualms about taking up precious sidewalk space. Busy Bee is especially bad about this last point because their wares are parked every day in two rows with only a narrow pathway between them—and that is frequently blocked by someone who has stopped to talk with one of the repair people. The air of sanctimony these particular cyclists give off doesn't do them any favors either: why they believe they're more environmentally-conscious than me, the pedestrian, is positively baffling.

In spite of my divided nature (or perhaps because of it), I've been an avid follower of stories about the Vélib' program in Paris. I love the idea of renting a bicycle for those short trips (the time limit per rental is 30 minutes); at €1 per day, it's even cheaper than a one-way subway fare.** So I was greatly disappointed to read that 80% of the bicycles in the program are missing or unusable these days. The cause is not surprising: they're stolen to be sold on the black market in emerging nations or taken by teenagers who either destroy them performing stunts or just vandalize them as a form of social protest.

It would be easy to say that it just isn't worthwhile to continue the program since the expenses are still greater than the advertising revenue that is supposed to support it. To their credit, the company running the program, JCDecaux, hasn't given up yet: they're continuing to explore ways to deter the thieves. I've no doubt they'll never be more than partially successful—as my father likes to say, locks are made to keep honest people honest—but I do hope that they'll find a way to make stealing the bikes difficult enough so that it's less worthwhile.

The joy-riding teenagers, on the other hand, are a more difficult problem. While I obviously don't condone their behavior, I don't believe they should be dismissed as mere hoodlums who are ruining it for everyone: it's disingenuous and it ignores the reality that, over the last 40 or more years, central Paris has become the domain of the wealthy and the comfortably middle-class, beyond the means—financially and geographically—of the poor and immigrant peoples. I don't believe that it was intentional racism or classism on the part of the urban planners who created the peripheral cities (banlieues) where these people must live (at least not by all of the planners), but it's not surprising that the inhabitants see it that way. Is it any surprise that these young men have no respect for this easy target, a symbol of bourgeois society they will probably never be able to enjoy? Simply making it more difficult to steal the bikes probably won't be enough of a deterrent to these underemployed and disenfranchised youths.

I hadn't intended for this to become a social commentary (except for my criticism of scofflaw bicyclists). More than anything, I hope that Decaux can find a way to make the Vélib' system work. As much as I loved riding the Métro, I'm curious to see if it will enhance one of my favorite cities in the world to navigate its winding streets on two wheels; I suspect that it will just make me appreciate more how relaxing it is to explore Paris on foot.

*Unfortunate [or Poor] Vélib'!
**Currently $2.25, unless you're
on a pass; since I often walk to and from my work and since 90% of what Catherine and I do is less than a 30-minute walk from our home, I don't ride enough to make a pass worthwhile.


Gaby said...

the free bike thing didn't work in amsterdam either:

and i agree with you on the bike terrorism. unless i'm a cyclist that day and pedestrians who walk out in front of me or generally hang out in bike lanes annoy me. or car drivers open their car doors or pull out of parking spots without looking for bikes annoy me. or i'm a driver that day and pedestrians who scare the hell out of me because they come out of nowhere or walk slowly on purpose annoy me... :-)

Barry said...

That's not about being a cyclist, pedestrian or motorist: that's about being a New Yorker!


Thanks for the link.

JuL said...

I don't know where you got that figure of 80% of Vélibs being missing or unusable, but it's just rubbish.

I use it regularly, and although damaged Vélibs (in most cases by normal usage, nothing to do with vandalism) are certainly an issue, it doens't mean the system is not working. It is very rare that I don't find a least one suitable bike at at station when I need it.

JuL said...

Ok I read the article from the NYT. The sentence "80 percent of the initial 20,600 bicycles stolen or damaged" is misleading, because most of these bikes have since been replaced.

And once again, most of those damages are not intentional.

Barry said...

Thanks for that correction, JuL: clearly, I didn't read the article carefully enough. It's good to hear from someone who actually uses the system that it's working so well; as I've said here before, I love the idea of Vélib and I'm avidly rooting for its success. A friend of mine who goes regularly to Paris used it this summer and had only good things to say. I look forward to trying it for myself... as soon as Catherine and I can scrape up enough scratch to get ourselves back to Paris!

JuL said...

Another obvious mistake from the NYT : the $3,500 cost of a Vélib is pure fantasy. The publicly announced cost is €400, about $600.

I thought the NYT was a credible newspapers, but they don't seem to check their facts anymore...

Barry said...

Thank you again, JuL: it is amazing that the fact-checkers and editors allowed so egregious an error to be printed. It makes me think that the $3500 must include all of the related start-up costs averaged out to a "per bicycle" amount: the cost of the bicycle, shipping the bicycle, the cost of the rack, the installation of the rack and its electronics, etc.; I find it hard to believe that they pulled that number out of thin air. It doesn't change the fact that it makes the article incredibly misleading and the inept fact-checking is really inexcusable. At the very least, the author and editors owed us the courtesy of telling us how they arrived at the $3500 figure, since it obviously didn't take you very long to find the actual cost—are they not objective about this or is it just laziness? I know that newspapers are hemorrhaging traditional readers (and therefore ad income) these days and I understand that that requires a certain amount of cost-cutting, but if "the Paper of Record" can't get the facts straight on so simple a story, it is undermining its overall credibility on matters that are much more important.