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Is Bike-Sharing Becoming Bourgeois?

Mary Catherine O'Connor | Monday November 2nd, 2009 | 3 Comments

Velib-VandalismBike-sharing programs are gaining momentum throughout Europe and even in car-loving US cities, but vandals and thieves are doing a bang-up job of chipping away at that momentum, and adding cost to the programs—especially Paris’ Velib scheme, as we’ve reported in the past.

But a recent New York Times article explores the problem with bike-sharing vandalism in Paris from another angle, saying that “resentful, angry or anarchic youth” are destroying the bikes because the bikes are “seen as an accoutrement of the ‘bobos,’ or ‘bourgeois-bohèmes,’ the trendy urban middle class,” and, as such, they “stir resentment and covetousness.”

Or at least, these are the findings of police and sociologists who are studying the trend. While some bikes are stolen and shipped abroad for profit, a great number of them are simply trashed—tossed in creek beds or dismembered and left on curbs.

The piece quotes Bruno Marzloff, a sociologist who specializes in transportation, who draws parallels between the current bike-beating and the car-burning that punctuated the riots that were staged in the Paris suburbs during 2005.

If this is true, and the growing vandalism of Velib bikes is actually a form of social revolt, it represents, at least on the surface, a great irony. After all, hiring a Velib bike for a day costs less than a ride on the city’s subway. And the whole idea behind the movement in bike-sharing is to make cities more livable and to give those without cars—people who oftentimes have meager incomes—a way to get around.

But then again, one can’t rent a Velib without presenting a credit card, and that’s a luxury that many in the Parisian subculture that Marzloff studies—largely immigrants with little income who are living outside of high-priced Paris—simply don’t have.

So are bike-sharing programs becoming bourgeois? Has the growing popularity of biking, especially among the hip urban set, made the act of tooling around of two wheels a class marker? Or is this problem with bike vandalism—which is worse in Paris than in other major cities with similar programs, such as Barcelona—just a growing pain that the programs must suffer before taking root?

There’s also the chance that it’s neither. After initial reports started surfacing this summer about the huge numbers of vandalized and stolen Velib bikes, the folks of StreetsBlog ran a post quoting Denis Baupin, Paris Deputy Mayor for Transportation, saying that JCDecaux, which administers the Velib program and uses the biking infrastructure as a vehicle for advertising, was inflating the problem and “using media sensationalism in order to obtain more money from the city of Paris.”

Whatever the underlying causes are, the fact remains that finding a decent Velib bike in Paris has become an arduous task, because so many of the bikes have flat tires or are out of service for some other reason. This means that one can’t be sure of always finding a bike to ride when one needs it. If that doesn’t change, Parisians will give up on the program. And that would be a shame.


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  • http://datillo.wordpress.com/ MIKE RUBBO

    Despite the difficulties such as the article on Velibs describes, Bike share schemes are spreading round the world at a furious pace.

    Montreal has just had a great summer with it’s 6000 Bixis on the streets, dispensed from solar powered docking stations. (Bixi means bike and taxi combined)

    Bixi is now selling its design to London, Boston, and Melbourne. But as I found when I went to a presentation on the Melbourne scheme, another huge problem looms locally, and it’s not vandalism.

    Australia is one of the few countries which give adults no choice when it comes to wearing a helmet. This has not been much of an issue in recent years. Aussie riders have got used to their hard hats.

    But I found out that there’s no way of dispensing a helmet with a Velib type bike and so, even thought contracts have been signed for Melbourne and Brisbane., no one know how to solve this helmet problem .

    In the movie on my blog, Bike Share and Helmets Don’t Mix? you see Alison Cohen who works for the winning bidder, the US company ALTA, being very candid about what they face. No one has ever brought bike share to a city with compulsory helmets.

    It would be tragic if we missed out since bike share brings a whole new population to utility cycling. Can we hope that the helmet law will be revisited, at least for this type of slow safe bike?

    The Movie is on my blog, And So To Bike http://datillo.wordpress.com/
    Mikerubbo

  • Green Journal

    Still think that France’s initiative is wonderfull. Not sure where this vandalism comes from but more countries should get involved by proposing the same service.

  • eric britton

    Denis Baupin, deputy mayor of Paris, who actaully started the whole Velib proejct here is the guy to listen to on this. If you wnat the full story, check it out at http://www.worldstreets.org. THere is a lot of mis-information floating around on this topic. It would be a pity for it to be confused with fact. Best from Paris. Eric Britton