Is Bike-Sharing Becoming Bourgeois?

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.

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to www.mcoconnor.com.