PARIS (Reuters) - It’s summer in Paris and the French capital is preparing to offer bikes for anyone who wants to take a ride.
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.
Work on “Velib’” (short for ‘free bike’ in French) is just starting, but it is already sparking enormous interest.
The concept evolved from utopian bike-sharing programs in Europe in the 1960s, aimed at reducing the use of cars and cutting down on traffic congestion and air pollution.
The most famous case was Amsterdam — a flop because bikes were either stolen or too beaten-up to ride.
Now, many cities are giving it a go again by partnering up with advertising firms that will provide bikes equipped with anti-theft systems in return for city-wide advertising opportunities.
In the residential 15th district in southwestern Paris, a parking spot next to a corner cafe is being adapted to become home to a fleet of sleek, grey bicycles.
“I think the program is a good thing, and it will help reduce the number of cars on the street,” said Jean-Michel Bourdet, who owns a nearby video store.
“I used to ride bikes all the time, but they all kept getting stolen. Now I’m going to start riding again,” he said.
In an effort to prevent thefts crippling the network, Velib’ bikes will be equipped with a lock and an alarm that will sound if the bike is not returned to a station. There will also be a security deposit that riders will lose if their bike vanishes.
Velib’ is part of a wide-ranging plan drawn up by Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe to encourage residents to leave their cars at home and reduce both the pollution and the gridlock that often snarls the city’s broad boulevards.
“We hope car use will diminish and that people will opt to take a bicycle or the bus,” said City Hall spokeswoman Gwenaelle Joffre, who is overseeing the project.
She said Delanoe’s plan was aimed more at locals than tourists looking to take a ride along the banks of the Seine.
“Our program is for people traveling short distances, from point A to point B,” Joffre said. “It’s for people who don’t want to take the bus. They’ll take a bike instead of taking the metro and transferring.”
Renting a bike is simple: cyclists choose a bike and insert a pre-paid card or credit card in a terminal to unlock it from the station. When they are done, they lock it up at any station.
If a bike is used for less than 30 minutes, the credit card will not be charged. Every half hour after that costs 1 euro ($1.33). Weekly rentals cost five euros and yearly rentals just 29 euros.
To help riders navigate the streets, maps and safety manuals in several languages will be available at every station.
How Paris will cope with this flood of new bikes is not clear, but Joffre saw no problem because the city has 371 km (230 miles) of cycle paths.
Raphael Bohkobza, a salesman at Au Reparateur, a popular bicycle repair shop that sells used and new bikes in the centre of Paris, wasn’t so sure.
“It might be a big mess,” he said, worried that there could be a jump in road accidents and noting there is no law in France forcing riders to wear helmets.
“Normally, bike rental agents are people. Now it’s machines. What if people are drunk and are renting bikes? It can be dangerous,” he said. “Also tourists who don’t understand the system might cause problems.”
In 2006, France was the fourth largest cycle-buying country in the world, according to the National Council of Professional Cyclists. Part of that may be a “Tour de France effect”— long-distance bicycle riding is a popular sport here.
But many French also took to cycling during a crippling month-long transport strike in 1995 — and the habit stuck.
Velib’ is paid for by JCDecaux, Europe’s largest outdoor advertising firm, in return for more advertising around the city.
It first launched the program in 2002 in Vienna and in the Spanish cities of Cordoba and Gijon. Today the service can be found in cities such as Brussels and, since 2005, Lyon, France’s second largest city.
“Lyon began with 2,000 bikes and we’ll be increasing to 4,000 bikes,” said Agathe Albertini, JCDecaux vice president of communications. Other cities such as Mulhouse, Aix-en-Provence, Marseille and Besancon have signed up and more are watching.
But the Paris project is very ambitious and will show whether major cities are ready for a two-wheel revolution.
“It’s very impressive,” Joffre said. “Paris will become the first world capital to have so many bicycles freely available.”