Sunday, November 1, 2009

Bike-sharing Meet Reality, Reality Meet Bike-sharing

An article in The New York Times, titled "French Ideal of Bicycle-sharing Meets Reality" discusses the problem Paris has been having with vandalism and theft of bike-sharing bikes with 80% of the initial bikes having been replaced. Data has been hard to come by, however, Velib' is an outlier in terms of theft and vandalism in a bike-sharing programs due to social unrest in the Parisian suburbs. Until recently, the suburbs have generally been a place in America, where those who can afford to leave the ills of the city, have fled. In Paris, however, the suburbs are a place for those who cannot afford to live in the luxury of the city.

There's technology and
demography. I'm not aware of problems with JCDecaux's technology working poorly in other cities that use their system, so demography is the key issue. There's a great deal of social unrest in Paris' suburbs as sociologist Bruno Marzloff stated in The New York Times article. A European Working Conditions Observatory report highlights just how bad things are in France's suburbs with "the unemployment rate... between 35% and 54% for men, between 40% and 60% for women, and between 30% and 50% for young people."

Instead of ad campaigns telling people to respect the bikes, JCDecaux and the City of Paris should be using the bikes to respect the people,
if they aren't already. The very same individuals who are damaging the bikes should be employed by JCDecaux to repair them. Until the super high unemployment rates decrease, the social unrest will continue and bike-sharing as a representative of the City will be a pawn in their battles.

Outside of the social unrest factor, bike-sharing is a good value for its expense. If you calculate the cost per trip of moving a person by bike-sharing, foot, transit, and car, I'd put my money on bike-sharing being the most cost efficient at moving a person per mile. The cost of building a mile of track or asphalt for the other vehicles is expensive, compared to that of what a bike needs.

In this calcuation you would need to include the public health benefits in terms of decreased medical expenses due to increased activity, lowered emissions, and increased productivity as folks can spend their time where they want to be, rather than stuck in traffic. Cities spend hundreds of millions working on these issues and bike-sharing leverages benefits associated with each.

You would also need to include in this calculation how much positive publicity Paris has garnered from around the world for their bold bike-sharing innovation. It seems as if everybody has heard about "those bikes in Paris" even if they don't know what Velib' or bike-sharing is. The value of this publicity alone has got to be in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. France continues to remain at the top of the list of countries with international tourist arrivals, according to the World Tourism Organization, and it's likely that many of these visitors are visiting Paris and are one of the up to 145,000 trips per day that are made on Velib'.

So I'd say that even with a high vandalism and theft rate that bike-sharing is too important to Paris for it to shutter its program. Bike-sharing isn't the problem, it's part of the solution, if we let it be.

image credit: Guardian


spiderleggreen said...

yeah, I think you're right. The Parisians need to solve their social/race problem.

I always wonder where these stories come from. Who benefits?

Kai Carver said...

There's a great deal of social unrest in Paris' suburbs

The Velibs were all, until recently, in the city, not in the suburbs. You say the vandalism is caused by people coming from the suburbs into Paris. Do you have any evidence for this, except a poorly researched NYT article? By comparison, the cars that were set on fire during the famous riots and the cars which continue to be set on fire on a nightly basis are pretty much all located in the suburbs. So unhappy youths stay at home when they vandalize cars, but go to Paris to break bicycles? Maybe, but there needs to be a bit more explanatio for why this would be the case.

The very same individuals who are damaging the bikes should be employed by JCDecaux to repair them.

Wow that's genius! Problem solved!

Vandalism is a serious problem in Paris's system. Maybe it's unique to Paris. Maybe other cities also have problems. Lyon? Barcelona? Maybe the vandalism comes from the suburbs. Maybe Parisians are less civic-minded than, say, the Swiss. Or maybe there's some other reason.

Maybe the solution to vandalism is to hire kids from the suburbs to repair city bikes. Or maybe it's not, because kids from the suburbs are already being hired to make repairs, and anyway the number of jobs repairing Velibs is tiny compared to the general population.

And maybe you don't really know what you're talking about in this blog post.

Kai Carver said...

Velib' is an outlayer in terms of theft and vandalism in a bike-sharing programs due to social unrest in the Parisian suburbs

By the way you may want to correct the spelling for "outlier".

And: really? Surely theft was a huge problem for the initial wave of "utopian" bicycle-sharing programs, where a bunch of bikes were put out there for public use, and they all disappeared in short order.

Maybe this problem has been solved everywhere else but Paris, where as is well-known youths run around rampaging and setting fire to things all the time.

I'm sorry, but your post really does a disservice to serious and substantive discussion of real issues with large-scale bicycle-sharing problems.

Anonymous said...

I think the article is well-founded. The woes of the social problems afflicting the City of Paris is certainly a primary and contributing factor to the rate of theft and vandalism on the Velib system.

Kai Carver said...

Hum, I didn't really expect my comments to pass moderation, so sorry they're so strongly worded. I should say I discovered your blog only a few days ago, and am overall quite happy to read and learn from it, my above comments notwithstanding. :-)

Mom said...

I enjoy your blog. I also have a few thoughts on this post:

1) Lyon and Barcelona have NOT had the same level of problems with vandalism as Paris. This problem is unique to Paris but would probably also be a problem in New York City, for example.

2) JCD has had a very difficult time recruiting and retaining qualified workers. When I toured the system in 2008, the employees I saw represented a range of ethnic backgrounds. (The problems in Paris/Paris suburbs are racial. France doesn't track race since everyone is "French" (including anyone who wants to be and is from their African colonies even if they have never been to France until now). Without statistics, there isn't any mechanism to ensure racial equality.) JCD struggles to hire and retain qualified workers. period.

3) A fine point, but not all American Cities are city=poor/suburbs=rich. Here in San Francisco, it is more like Paris where the City is significantly expensive; suburbs vary.

All this having been said, I don't have a solution for this problem either. France needs to address their issues of social unrest but ensuring racial equality, but that has nothing directly to do with bike sharing. When I rode the bikes in 2009, 2008 and 2007 in the City and the suburbs, the bikes I came across were mostly broken in 2007 and 2006 in the City Center, and mostly fully functional in 2009 everywhere I found them. Given that my experience does not support the claims of the NYT article, I believe the NYT article is simply inflamatory.

Greg Spencer said...

We've heard about Velib's vandalism problem from its inception.

Be that as it may, Velib continues to go from strength to strength. It started out with fewer than 5,000 bikes, and the number today is well above 20,000. The system was expanded from the city to the suburbs this past summer, a move above and beyond initial expectations.

JCDecaux never reveal how much money they're making or losing on the system, but from what's been reported we can fairly assume it's been a gold mine, if not when considering Paris in isolation, then certainly in the global picture.

JCDecaux this past year announced it had made 100 million individual bike rentals worldwide and that it was the world's market leader in bike sharing operations. The company achieved this on the back of Velib, which is its signature, gold-standard program.

The vandalism and the societal problems behind it are a shame, certainly. But they're not a threat to Velib. Not only is the system too important to Mayor Delanoe's ambitions to civilize transportation in Paris, it represents too much in terms of prestige for JCDecaux. As they've said about the big Wall Street brokerage houses, Velib's simply too big to fail.

Micheal said...

I follow your blog for a long time and must tell you that your posts always prove to be of a high value and quality for readers.