by Alice Alech
– France –
When the Tour de France started in 1903 as a stunt to promote a sports newspaper,
no one realized then that this bicycle race would turn out to be the biggest annual sporting event in the world. Today, another cycle race is taking place in France; major cities are hastening to adopt a collective bike scheme, a mode of transport which is proving to be affordable, workable and most importantly, produces zero C02 emissions. Cycling is beginning to play a major role in sustainable transport in France.
As an experiment, in 2005 the beautiful historic city of Lyon introduced a street bicycle rental system starting with a fleet of 1,000 cycles. The initiative’s success was phenomenal. Today, the Vélo’v network (velo – bike, ville – town) provides around 4,000 cycles throughout Lyon for its 473,600 residents. You can’t miss the 34O rental stations—they‘re at street corners, railway stations, metro stations, tourist attractions—using the same color scheme as the Lyon transport system. The robust bikes are distinctive and practical—silver frames with red rear wheel guards, a handle bar basket and bell.
Anyone over 14 can buy a prepaid Vélo’v smart card. After signing up and getting your confidential code, you simply swipe your card, pick up your bike and cycle off. At the end of your destination, you return your bike to the closest Vélo’v station and insert the bike into the specially designed cycle racks where they lock immediately. The racks then check the bike’s tire pressure, gears and lights, sending the data to the control station. If there is any malfunctioning, the bike is taken out of circulation and repaired before being rented again.
Three different registration options are available: long term (one year) and short term (seven days or a single day), and residents who use the city’s public system can use their Técely pass which covers buses, tram, and metro. The first 30 minutes are free for all users and rates then vary depending on registration type. The most a user will pay per hour is 2 euros.
To combat theft and ensure the safety of the bikes, subscribers have to leave a hefty deposit of 150 euros ($194.80) as well as their credit card details. And yet accessibility is proving to be a potent motivator: unlike public transport, you can hire a bike 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Each bike in Lyon is rented around 10 to 12 times per day.
Carol Baussor, an English language teaching consultant who has been using the system since it started feels much healthier and in touch with nature. “I feel so energized in the mornings, so much fitter. My bike ride takes me along the Rhone River, then through the Parc D’or with the zoo enclosure. Seeing the animals out in the open early in the mornings is so uplifting—I have a totally different [view] of the city,” she enthuses.
Although two wheels can never fully replace the car, bicycles are ideal for short distances especially in big cities like Lyon where traffic is congested and daytime parking difficult. A three-kilometer distance takes a cyclist just about twelve minutes, while using a car in heavy traffic takes at least 27. Then motorists have the additional problem of finding somewhere to park.
Carol likes the system so much, she got rid of her family car, renting one only if they need to get out of the city. “Parking in Lyon is not easy and besides, my Vélo’v gets me to my destination much faster than public transport,” she explains.
Business and Community Benefit
The Vélo’v service is a collaboration between the Grand Lyon Company, the Urban Community of Lyon and Cyclocity, a division J.C Decaux, SA—one of the biggest advertising and street furniture operators in France. Decaux installed and runs the bike program in exchange for the right to rent advertising space on bus shelters, billboards and other outdoor advertising spaces—an undeniably lucrative deal, for everyone involved.
Decaux‘s sustainable transport pilot test was such a success in Lyon that the company invested about 82 million euros (US$115 million) and launched the Vélib’ program (velo and liberté, meaning freedom) in Paris. In July 2007, more than ten thousand bicycles were installed in 750 stations throughout the city and the advertising company obtained a ten-year contract with Paris. Decaux financed and launched the bicycles in exchange for the exclusive use of 1,600 billboards, giving the city the user fees obtained from the bikes, but the company refuses to disclose how much the advertising contract is worth. Nathalie Delebarre, a spokeswoman for Decaux says, “We never give any amount. The business model works with a balance between advertising in street furniture and installation and maintenance of the bikes.” Bike Europe reports an estimated revenue of $60 million euros for the 10-year life of the project.
Today, Paris is equipped with 20,600 bikes and 1,450 stations each around 300 meters apart in prominent areas, covering the entire the city. The program, however, has faced some serious difficulties in the capital – theft and vandalism.
Decaux announced in February this year that at least half of the bikes they started off with were vandalized, while 7,800 bikes disappeared. According to the BBC nearly all the original bikes have been replaced at a cost of 400 euros ($519) each and City Hall is now agreeing to contribute to repair and replacement costs.
Despite these challenges, Cyclocity is expanding into other major cities, operating now in Marseille, Lille, Nantes, and Toulouse. The program has also encouraged many city dwellers to get their own bikes.
Recognizing this new bike awareness, Philippe Prignent and his associates created Pignons sur Rues (Wheels on the Road) for bike owners in Lyon. Their association covers all aspects of cycling including teaching cyclists of all ages how to ride efficiently and safely. Philippe is enthusiastic about the cycle movement.
“We have a well-equipped workshop where cyclists come to learn all about repairs and maintenance. In 2005-2006, we had 600 members who used our workshop facilities and this year we already have 1,300,” he says.
He feels that local politicians and planners are on the right track but need to recognize that Lyon must be more equipped for the growing number of cyclists. “Parking should be extended to all cyclists, not only to Vélo’v users. Public transport should provide for those who need to use both bike and public transport to get to their destination, and of course we need more bike paths,” he explains.
Health and Environmental Benefits
Besides the obvious business advantage, the program’s main objectives are to reduce pollution and create health benefits. Everyone knows that all standard cars on the road burn fuel and produce carbon dioxide while bicycles emit no pollution at all. But how much pollution does the cyclist inhale?
In February, Air Parif, a non governmental organization responsible for the management of air quality monitoring in the Paris area (Ile de France), published the results of a study conducted last summer. Surprisingly, it found that cyclists are less exposed to polluted air than motorists. And, if cyclists use dedicated bike paths, distancing themselves from the main arteries of auto traffic, they reduce their air pollution intake by up to 45%.
The Agency for Environment and Energy Management offers another compelling argument for adopting the bike as a mode of transport: while cycling 10 km per day does not emit any pollution, a car releases 700 kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year for the same distance. All told, nearly 300 million trips are taken by bike in France every year using these bike-sharing programs. That’s a huge savings in the country’s annual carbon emission. And in even more practical terms, one car park space can park 10 bicycles.
Thankfully, more bikes on the road do not necessarily mean more accidents. Motorists everywhere are learning to be more considerate, helping cyclists feel less threatened by dangerous driving.
According to FUBicy (French Federation of Bicycle Users) the number of accidents involving cyclists dropped in France by 30% between 2000-2005, compared to a 15% reduction in general accidents involving all forms of transport (bicycles, motor bikes, cars trucks). In Lyon where cycling increased by 80% in two years, FUBicy reports that the risk of accident per cycle ride was 1.7 times lower in 2007 than in 2004. Statistics for Paris show similar results: In July 2008 there was a 70% increase in cycling compared to January 2007 with only a 21% increase in accidents.
Making Way for the Revolution
The French have always been keen cyclists; it is not uncommon to see groups of enthusiasts pedalling their way through the countryside on the weekend. Cycling is affordable and environmentally friendly, however, for truly efficient and safe use, urban planners must think long term in their current policy-making. More bike paths and parking spaces are vital in all towns and cities here, so that residents will feel safer and more encouraged to ride.
France’s “Sustainable Development Week” took place in April and it seems that every effort is being made to raise public awareness on sustainable development. Decaux’s contribution is considerable—it has successfully renewed the image of bicycles and promoted sustainable transport for short distances, registering 40,232 members and 6,459,690 locations by the end of 2008. Undoubtedly this is encouraging news for the movement, however, for the sustainable development of France, this must be a way of life. Pedal power must have new meaning.
Alice’s article is part of our focus on Sustainability & Responsible Stewardship. – Ed.
About the Author
Alice Alech was born in Guyana, educated in the United Kingdom and has lived in the Caribbean and Australia. She is a freelance writer living in France.