Decades of attempts at making bikes free and easy to share in urban settings—such as in The Netherlands; Portland, Oregon; Madison, Wisconsin—indicated that there’s no such thing as a free bike. Most of the steeds were eventually stolen or strewn into canals or otherwise rendered useless. But forcing riders to pony up a deposit and/or pay a fee for using a bike beyond a set amount of time (say, a half hour) has led to some success in places such as Lyon, France, where the Velo’v system introduced a means for using smart cards and specialized bikes and locking racks to combine convenience with security.
In Paris, the two-year-old Velib system boasts an astounding 20,600 bicycles, which are stored at more than 1,450 stations and checked in and out using a payment and smart card system similar to the one designed by Velo’v.
Velib had proved a resounding success until early this year, when a BBC article highlighted a growing problem with thieves, vandals and riders who were taking the bikes down staircases and onto other unfriendly terrain—some of whom were posting videos of such on YouTube. It said that 7,800 of the original fleet of 15,000 bikes were already MIA.
Meanwhile, mayors the world over—including San Francisco’s Gavin Newsom, who checked out the Velib system last summer—have been announcing plans to build out bike-sharing programs of their own. Last weekend, Bixi, the provider of a bike-sharing system in Montreal, offered a demonstration of its bike-sharing system in Golden Gate Park. But how will these new schemes get rolling under the specter of bike-sharing lawlessness?
It might all be a matter of spin. Two days after that BBC article was published in February, StreetsBlog issued a post entitled Reports of Vélib’s Demise Greatly Exaggerated. The post quotes Denis Baupin, Paris Deputy Mayor for Transportation, thusly: “Decaux is using media sensationalism in order to obtain more money from the city of Paris.”
Baupin was referring to JCDecaux, the provider of outdoor advertising services and the so-called street furniture (bus shelters and automated public toilets are two examples) on which the ads are printed. In Paris and a number of other European cities, JCDecaux implements the bike-sharing program and pays the bike-rental fees to the city, in exchange for the rights to advertising space.
StreetsBlogger Ben Fried posited that by working to generate “sky-is-falling press coverage” about theft and vandalism, JCDecaux was perhaps looking for leverage to seek more financial support from the city to operate the Velib system. The city already pays JCDecaux 400 euros for every bike stolen in excess of four percent of the total fleet each year, he says, but he figures that based on the number of Velib users, the replacement costs that the city coughs up for missing bikes is a small percentage of what it’s bringing in from user fees. So given that, and the hit that advertising revenue is taking during the global recession, one could imagine that JCDecaux would want to seek more favorable terms for its bike-sharing systems.
Plus, a transportation policy wonk notes in Fried’s piece that the rate of theft that JCDecaux cited averaged out to about 15 stolen per day, which, given the huge ridership, is “Hardly a fatal blow.”
But even if the allegations of spin-doctoring are true, bike-sharing programs have a lot of maturing to do. Even bikes that haven’t been vandalized often end up looking that way, thanks to heavy and frequent use. Though they are designed to withstand the rigors at least 12 different riders each day—many bikes suffer flat tires, poorly working gears, brakes and broken chains. Frequent Velib users in Paris say they’ve learned to inspect each bike they use very carefully before rolling off.
In order to keep the bikes in good working order and costs down, these bikes are going to have to be built even tougher—without becoming heavier.
In San Francisco, the plan is to start with a bike-sharing pilot program that will offer just 50 bikes located at five stations erected on private property (thanks to a multi-year injunction on bike program expansion in the city that bars new biking infrastructure on city property).
But the bigger issue facing cities that are looking to launch bike-sharing programs may be the dire advertising market. As ad profits fall, the free ad space might seem less and less appealing to JCDecaux or Clear Channel Outdoor, the billboard company with whom San Francisco is supposed to partner to manage its bike-sharing program, in a manner similar to Paris and JCDecaux’s arrangement. (Clear Channel already runs a bike-sharing program in the nation’s capital, called SmartBikeDC.)
In fact, Bloomberg reported last week that JCDecaux might be looking to buy Clear Channel Outdoor. It also said that JCDecaux’s first-half profit “dropped 96 percent as advertising on billboards, buses and other vehicles fell.”
Given all this, SF might want to start considering alternative models for funding a bike-sharing program…and it might also consider shopping around for some bomber bike locks.