December 6, 2012 5:02 am

Pedal power

Velib' bikes©Charlie Bibby

“Paris sera toujours Paris,” sang Maurice Chevalier in the 1930s.

But while Paris will always be Paris, it has also been changing. The French capital has been leading the way in personal mobility, as the bicycle-sharing Vélib’ scheme, launched in 2007, has demonstrated its ability to transform urban public transport.

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“Vélib’ ... really put bike-sharing on the map,” says Paul Demaio who runs MetroBike, a consultancy based in Washington DC. Similar schemes already existed in smaller French cities, but the Paris scheme became a global showcase for the concept.

In the years that followed, the number of bike rental systems being set up soared. A UN report last year said that the number of schemes worldwide more than doubled between 2007 and 2010 as cities such as Dublin, Monaco, Montreal, Valencia and Toyama caught the cycling bug.

However, while most of the systems launched in the late 2000s were greatly inspired by the Vélib’ example, this does not seem to be the case any more. As well as improved technology, business models are changing.

The advertisement-backed schemes that have largely prevailed across Europe, operated by outdoor advertising specialists in return for discounts on the price of concessions, are no longer the most dynamic segment.

“There is a lot of business model diversification in the US,” says Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Institute of Transportation Studies’ Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, who reckons that no fewer than 20 new schemes will have been launched in the US this year alone. This has been made possible by new bike-sharing systems sold and operated directly by bikemakers themselves. They have enabled promoters, usually but not exclusively city councils, to consider different funding models.

Montreal’s Bixi scheme, launched in 2009, quickly became a benchmark in technology, while London’s Barclays Cycle Hire project, set up in 2010 and using the Bixi hardware, features a new source of funds: the designation of a major sponsor. “There has been a lot of progress and pioneer systems are now a little old-fashioned,” says Martti Tulenheimo of the European Cycling Federation.

Some analysts now talk about a fourth generation of bike-sharing systems – Vélib’ and its siblings were already considered the third generation – which, for example, could feature docking stations powered with solar energy, greater integration with other public transport networks, GPS tracking and electric bikes.

“Vélib’ is still a quite recent system,” replies Albert Asséraf, executive vice-president at advertising company JCDecaux, which operates the scheme. Asséraf also says that some improvements have been already been made. One of them is Allbikesnow, a smartphone application that enables users of any of the 25 schemes operated by JCDecaux around the world to locate the closest available bike or space.

Possible ties with Autolib, the Paris car rental scheme started in October 2011, are also being looked at by the city council. The two schemes are run by very different operators (Bolloré, the French industrial conglomerate, in the case of Autolib), but they share the same approach to urban mobility. Autolib gives city-dwellers access to 1,800 electric vehicles available in 700 stations across greater Paris for very short rides. Building bridges between the two systems is thus appealing.

Evolving the Vélib’ system would require a political push. One constraint of the advertisement-backed model is that contracts with local authorities last for a limited time, which discourages heavy new investment once a scheme is up and running. Moreover, as fees paid by users (JCDecaux only gets a share) are only a tiny portion of the revenues generated through advertising, there is little incentive to boost rental figures.

Benoît Beroud, founder of consultancy Mobiped, thinks the milestone for Vélib’ will come in 2017, when the 10-year agreement between the Paris and JCDecaux comes to an end. By then the political landscape and the city’s priorities could be different, But Vélib’ has become such an emblem of the city that “it will be very difficult for Paris not to have it”.

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