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Paris's pedal power sets free uncivilized behaviour

A new self-service bicycle called Velib ("free bike" in French) is seen in Paris June 13, 2007. By July 15, the city plans to park 10,648 bicycles at 750 stations and nearly double that by 2008, with riders able to take bikes from one station and drop them off at another.

BENOIT TESSIER/BENOIT TESSIER/REUTERS

Since the city's Vélib' bicycle-sharing program began nearly two years ago, Alexandre Wente has made a point of cycling from his apartment to his office at least once a week.

The trip costs him nothing, other than the aggravation of seeing how others treat the free bicycles.

"I've seen bikes with just the frame left, but docked at a Vélib' station," said Mr. Wente, a 32-year-old real-estate salesman.

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"I've seen the baskets twisted partly off. I've seen kids ride them down stairs to the river," he said, as he unlocked a bicycle from a station near the Place Léon Blum in southeast Paris. "It's like people can't help themselves."

As it approaches its second anniversary, the Paris Vélib' bicycle-sharing program is proving as popular with thieves and vandals as it is with commuters.

With some 20,000 bicycles available free for short trips in the city, and another 3,000 being stationed in the suburbs, the Paris program is one of the most ambitious of its kind.

The chunky bicycles have become part of the city landscape, with nearly 1,000 bicycle stations servicing most neighbourhoods and an average of 78,000 trips taken each day. Nearly a quarter of a million people have subscribed to the program, meaning they can unlock a bike using their public transit pass, rather using a credit card for a deposit.

Parisians have clearly taken to Vélib'. They are also taking the bicycles, and wrecking them, at an unanticipated rate.

The bicycles, at 22.5 kilograms, were built to be sturdy. But they are not indestructible or, apparently, bound to Paris.

Since the program started in July, 2007, 8,000 of the bicycles have been stolen, and nearly 1,400 people were arrested for Vélib' theft just last year.

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Police have retrieved about 100 of the purloined bicycles from the depths of Paris canals and the Seine River. Some have been spotted on balconies. There have been reports that a few turned up, mysteriously, on the streets of other European cities. But the fate of most of the missing bicycles is unknown.

At the same time, 16,000 bicycles have been vandalized.

Some of the damage is benign. Pictures of Vélib' bicycles painted bright pink can be found on the Internet.

But, as can be seen on a stroll through any neighbourhood, other bicycles have been left on the sidewalk or at rental stations crippled by broken chains, missing their tires or baskets and defaced with graffiti.

The advertising company JCDecaux, which operates the program in exchange for a 10-year contract for city billboards, said that the damage from vandalism is so extensive that half of the vandalized bicycles have had to be replaced.

"It's a real problem to manage, and it's very costly for Decaux," said a spokeswoman for the city said.

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Vélib' is a contraction of the words vélo , or bicycle, and liberté , or freedom. The idea behind the program, like that of others like it across Europe and North America, was to reduce automobile traffic in Paris and take pressure off the overloaded bus and subway system.

The threat of losing the €150 ($235) security deposit for renting a bicycle was supposed to deter theft. But, Ms. Véron said, sometimes the bicycles are not properly locked back into the station when they are returned, leaving them to be stolen by someone coming along afterward.

Some people also lock them to lampposts while running an errand, an unintended use, and the Vélib' bicycles get stolen when thieves cut the locks off.

Vélib' was also not supposed to cost taxpayers anything, at least for the duration of the JCDecaux contract. Now, under pressure from the advertising company, city council has decided to cover €400 of the cost of replacing each damaged bike - an estimated expenditure of €1.6-million a year.

"Vélib' was supposed to make urban travel more civilized," lamented the newspaper Le Monde in an editorial last week. "It has increased uncivilized behaviour. No one expected that."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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About the Author
Foreign Editor

Susan Sachs is a former Foreign Editor of The Globe and Mail.Ms. Sachs was previously the Afghanistan correspondent for the newspaper, and covered the Middle East and European issues based in Paris. More

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