Reality Proves a Setback for Parisian Bike Rentals

In my recent Q&A with Ryan Chin, of MIT’s Smart Cities research group, we talked about the similarities between his team’s proposed Mobility on Demand systems and the Vélib’ bike-share program in Paris. Basically, Mobility on Demand will be a souped-up version of Vélib’–using electric vehicles instead of bicycles and a sophisticated fleet-management system that incorporates GPS tracking. But developing the vehicles and pioneering the software is only part of MIT’s challenge, as an article in last Saturday’s New York Times made abundantly clear.

In “French Ideal of Bicycle-Sharing Meets Reality,” Steven Erlanger and Maïa de la Baume write:

[T]his latest French utopia has met a prosaic reality: Many of the specially designed bikes, which cost $3,500 each, are showing up on black markets in Eastern Europe and northern Africa. Many others are being spirited away for urban joy rides, then ditched by roadsides, their wheels bent and tires stripped.

With 80 percent of the initial 20,600 bicycles stolen or damaged, the program’s organizers have had to hire several hundred people just to fix them.

Eighty percent stolen or damaged. And this in Paris! Imagine what would happen in New York, where bicycle theft is as common as neurotic kvetching.

Fortunately, the city of Paris and the Vélib’ backers are pressing forward with the program despite these setbacks. One hopes that as the bicycles become less of a novelty–and, perhaps, less symbolic of bobo privilege–the vandalism will recede. Otherwise next-generation projects like MIT’s are going to face a tough slog when they finally hit the streets.

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