Posted on 01 March 2012  | 

Traffic breakthrough with bicycle sharing

In just a few years Paris has built the largest bike-sharing system in the west. Parisians love their Vélib', with its more than 20,000 rental bikes distributed between 1,800 stations, some 300 meters apart. It is a cornerstone of a plan that has already reduced car traffic in the city by 20%. The system has also spread across the world like wildfire to hundreds of cities, indicating an international breakthrough for urban bike sharing.

cycling, bike-sharing programmes, public transport, congestion, air pollution

Bike sharing and bicycle rental have their roots in the Dutch counter-culture of the sixties, and have since then evolved with many variations (see also Amsterdam). Due to problems of vandalism and theft, their success was limited. The 1990s saw the rise of “smart systems” with electronic, camera-monitored locks and personal cards. Copenhagen, and subsequently other cities, built up large, publicly financed systems for borrowing with low costs and specially designed bikes. Nor was this a complete success – costs were high and the bicycles, designed not to be interesting to thieves, were not very attractive to residents and were used mainly by tourists.

Breakthrough with Vélib'
It was only with the introduction of the Velo'v programme in Lyon that the pieces fell into place for a bicycle-rental system. In a short space of time bicycle traffic in the city increased fivefold. Two years later the model was copied in Paris and the Vélib' caught on. The initial 7,000 bicycles and 750 rental stations expanded the following year to 20,600 bikes and 1,450 stations respectively. According to Parisian authorities, there are currently 1,800 stations, no more than 300 metres apart, which are open around the clock.

The Vélib' borrowing model combines aspects of former systems. It is cheap, but not free: a day subscription costs €1.70; a week costs €8; and a subscription for a year costs €29. The first half-hour of riding is free upon subscription, and you are entitled to make an unlimited number of changes – turning in and then checking out a new bike – during the subscription period. If you do not turn in a bike after the first half hour there is, in addition to subscription costs, a fee of €1 for the second half-hour, €2 for the following half-hour and €4 for each additional half hour.

Financed through advertising
It is a “smart system” with electronic monitoring and standardised IT-based stations with credit card payments, which allowed investment in reasonably advanced and attractive, three-geared bikes. If the bike is not returned in on time or is damaged, a fine is automatically charged to a user.

And Vélib' is a large-scale public-private system, financed through advertising. Paris has signed a contract with JCDecaux, which means that the advertising company bears the full cost of Vélib in return for exclusive control over a certain number of billboards. The model is actually just a development of the company’s previous contracts for bus stops. The feasible funding model is perhaps the main reason for Vélib's success. Problems of theft and vandalism have haunted Vélib' too. As many as 80 percent of all bikes which were put out on the streets the first two years needed to be replaced with new ones.

Plan to reduce car traffic
Vélib' is one of the cornerstones in Parisian Mayor Bertrand Delanoës’ ambitious plan to reduce the city’s car traffic by 40% by the year 2020 without introducing congestion charges (see also London). At his election, he inherited one of the most congested traffic systems in Europe. In addition to Vélib', during Delanoë’s term the city has improved public transport through the two programmes Green Quarters and Civilized Places. The measures include reduced parking facilities, increased number of bus and bike lanes at the expense of private car lanes, and an improved public transport in the suburbs. Le Mobilien, a BRT type network of rapid bus lines with dedicated lanes, has been installed, as has a new network of trams (see also Guangzhou and Perth). Delanoë had come half way by 2011; within a couple of years Parisian car traffic was reduced by 20%. The next project, due to be opened by the end of 2011, is Autolib', a car-pooling programme of some 3,000 electric cars financed in a similar way as Vélib' (see also Oslo).

Spreading everywhere
Vélib' was the spark that ignited a wildfire of urban investment in bike-sharing systems these past few years. By 2011 the trend had spread to more than three hundred cities. Some of the larger programmes – with more than 5,000 bicycles – are in London, Barcelona, Montreal, Boston, Guangzhou, Beijing and Hangzhou. Most of these have financing systems similar to that of Vélib'. The largest is Hangzhou's, with 50,000 bikes.

Ben Fried, "How Paris is Beating Traffic Without Congestion Pricing", Streetsblog, April 22 2008,

Ben Fried, “Reports of Vélib’s Demise Greatly Exaggerated”, Streetsblog, February 12 2009,

Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute, 2009, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, First edition, W. W. Norton & Company,

City of Paris, Vélib',

”Bicycle sharing system”, Wikipedia,

"Lyon: An overall vision for transport - Urban Mobility Master Plan", Sustainable Cites,

Key data are retrieved from the UN World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision,
The vélib or “vélo libre” is a public bicycle rental programme in Paris.
© Boris Doesborg Enlarge
Map Paris
© WWF Enlarge

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