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Paris bike-system vandalism: Urban myth or not?

November 1st, 2009 · 22 Comments

A couple of people have alerted me to the fact that there appears to be another round of media stories appearing about vandalism to Paris’s bike-share system. A story from the New York Times that appeared last week repeats many of the same themes as one that appeared on the BBC a couple of weeks ago.

This happens to be of local interest because Vancouver is still looking at importing this bike-share system here. (Though there won’t be a test run during the Olympics. City manager Penny Ballem squashed that idea, saying it would be expensive and impractical, given the like unfavourable weather and transportation complications during the Games.)

So it’s important to know whether this is really going to work when it gets here, or will all the bikes end up in False Creek. At least one writer has doubts about whether the situation is really as bad as Decaux makes it out to be.

And I have to say that when we were in Paris in June (and when a friend was there in July, cycling absolutely everywhere in the city on the Velib bikes), I saw no sign of rampant vandalism. There were always rows of immaculate-looking bikes lined up everywhere we went, hundreds of people riding them, and no signs of carcasses hanging from trees or lampposts.

One other little media tendency makes me wonder about this story, which is the penchant for pooh-poohing anything that seems too new-agey, socialist, idealistic. Media types just love those stories about the utopian dream falling apart: the commune started in bliss where everyone has ended up hating each other; the backyard chicken farms that have turned into avian horror stories; the early childhood education program that produced gang members.

So, bottom line, I’m not convinced yet this is more than hype with an agenda.

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  • Jack the Bear

    Your story illustrates one other aspect of media behavior – the tendency to mine each other for story ideas – as a former working publicist I always found it interesting to watch the press ‘interest’ gather once you had one story nailed down – it was as if they were doing each other’s laundry.

  • Bill Lee

    A blog, and we know we can’t trust them, talked about the earlier
    BBC story in February with several U.S. English links on the same
    Thursday, February 12, 2009

    The public journalism site The Examiner (soon to be a Vancouver version
    and which pays $1.65 for a hyper local story according to some accounts )
    talks about the NYT story and examines its bona fides and gives a few links
    to American media versions. It does mention the renegociation, or rather
    re-opening of the J.C. Decaux’s Paris Velib contract. J.C. Decaux is the
    lovely firm that promised Vancouver street furniture and is now taking
    benches and shelters away.
    November 1, 7:51 PM Bicycle Transportation Examiner Adam Voiland

    … more

  • Bill Lee

    …. [Cont’d. from previous entry to avoid the 3-links-you-must-be-spam filters on FaBula’s blog ]

    And the Decaux numbers in the NYTimes story were given earlier in October
    in the major French business daily Les Echos back in early October in discussing
    the battle between the City of Paris and J.C. Decaux over the costs of the contract
    for the velibs. [ The article is in the language of the angels, French, you
    tete-carres, get with it. You might paste the link into
    and get a very bad translation, but I’m sure that Mlle Bula will help you along later. ]
    These are ten year exclusive contracts with top-up conditions for fees and use
    beyond some criteria. And the resulting advertising spaces are not being rented
    as they thought they would be because of the Great Recession.
    La facture salée du Vélib’ [ 09/10/09 }

    And our local bike correspondent for Bike Europe ( ),
    Mr. Chris Keam, will no doubt weigh in with more details from Paris

  • The NY Times has set a new record for obliviousness. $3500 for a 50 pound steel bike? That’s $7000 retail since they buy 1000 of them at a time. From Hungary which is a relatively low-income country. If DeCaux is a serial liar, their claims of damage and theft are also totally bogus probably. The $600 they get from the French government is probably their real cost, so they lose nothing. 1700 billboards is a lot of advertising. The more bikes they lose, the more money they make. This obviously fictional or simply mistaken number, $3500, was stated as a fact in the article without a particle of skepticism.
    If there is a requirement that you establish your identity before you can be given control over this expensive piece of equipment, how are these bike disappearing without a trace? Aren’t the credit cards of the renters being charged $3500 to replace this thing? If you spent a fortune to make the bike weigh a ton, just to discourage theft and vandalism, and this is the result, what are you doing? If there are phony credit cards and phony identities etc. involved, aren’t these serious crimes, as is a theft of anything worth thousands of dollars? None of this computes, not even in the least.
    Another unquestioned “fact” in the story concerns charges: that holding onto the bike past the first ½ hour cost only a few bucks more, too little to even quantify. Actually, if you keep that bike for more than two hours it’s going to cost you about $12 an hour. If you can pay $2 for a Times, I guess that is practically free, an insignificant sum.
    DeCaux deserves credit for waking the world up to the possibilities of bike sharing, but ever since they pioneered the concept of urban billboards with cigarette ads directed at children and cheap drafty bus shelters to display them, 35 years ago, they have become the masters of image over reality and the manipulation of advertising-supported media, like the Times, and malleable or corruptible politicians. Wayne Barrett exposed their machinations decades ago in the Voice and they have seized on another sad gap in our transportation choices, long dictated by Auto and Oil interests, to give us some not very good but still welcome after all these years, improvements to our transit infrastructure.
    We can do so much better. And so can the Times in alerting us to the agenda of the Billboard and Advertising industries. Or maybe they can’t because their own interests are too closely tied to those of their subject. Too bad for them, as they crumble their credibility. Much worse for us, as we search in vain for the facts we need to make sense of this world.

    I wrote this and discovered that the Times had closed its comment page abruptly after 150 comments were registered, many critical of the Times’ story.

  • L’il Rural Lib

    The velib system has been a total disaster.

    At least the NY Times reports.

    ‘NY TIMES — The latest French utopia (Vélib’, Paris’s bicycle rental system) has met a prosaic reality: Many of the specially designed bikes, which cost $3,500 each, are showing up on black markets in Eastern Europe and northern Africa. Many others are being spirited away for urban joy rides, then ditched by roadsides, their wheels bent and tires stripped.

    With 80 percent of the initial 20,600 bicycles stolen or damaged, the program’s organizers have had to hire several hundred people just to fix them. And along with the dent in the city-subsidized budget has been a blow to the Parisian psyche, as not everyone shares the spirit of joint public property promoted by Paris’s Socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoë.

    At least 8,000 bikes have been stolen and 8,000 damaged so badly that they had to be replaced — nearly 80 percent of the initial stock. JCDecaux must repair some 1,500 bicycles a day. The company maintains 10 repair shops and a workshop on a boat that moves up and down the Seine.

    It is commonplace now to see the bikes at docking stations in Paris with flat tires, punctured wheels or missing baskets. Some Vélib’s have been found hanging from lampposts, dumped in the Seine, used on the streets of Bucharest or resting in shipping containers on their way to North Africa. Some are simply appropriated and repainted. “

  • I think it’s worthwhile to read the full NY Times article (rather than base one’s viewpoint on the excerpt posted above) and the second link provided by Frances before forming an opinion.

    I tried out Montreal’s Bixi system in September. The only damaged bike I saw had lost its rubber hand-grips but was still usable. The bikes I tried were a bit varied in terms of their level of maintenance but none were unusable or unsafe. Can’t beat the price. $5 for the day, providing no trips are longer than a half-hour.

    I’m glad to see Paris working out the bugs in the system before Vancouver goes forward with a public bike share program. How we are going to deal with the provincial helmet law will probably be the biggest stumbling block for Vancouver public bikes.

  • Blaffergassted

    GPS technology could help track down any stolen bikes. That is until such time as someone starts stealing the GPS systems.

  • CBC’s DocZone did a piece on Velib (as part of an episode on the bicycle), and they mentioned the bikes are frequently damaged – but didn’t say anything about it being as bad as the NY Times does. The episode also mentioned that Montreal’s Bixi bikes were made stronger and more durable than Velib, learning from the issues Paris was having.

  • IanS

    I saw a shared bike system in Ortiga, in Sicily last summer. The bikes seemed to be in good shape and I didn’t see any lying broken or abandoned anywhere. Of course, I didn’t see any used either, but riding a bike in those narrow, crowded streets would have been very difficult.

    Another way to look at things: even if the exchange bikes do get stolen or go missing, that might result in a drop in privately owned bikes being stolen, which is a plus IMO.

  • Joe Just Joe

    This is not my area of expertise. To me install a GPS appears to be an expensive bandaid solution. Could most of the problems not be engineered out? I’m thinking along the lines of using square tubing for the seats so they don’t work on other bikes. Use wheels with abnormal spacing so they wouldn’t fit other frames, Even the tires could be made an odd size so they aren’t transferrable. The frame sould be constructed of steel instead of alumium making them less desirable for selling. As these are destined for short trips the extra weight should not be a large issue.
    I would love to see this program tied into a Translink smartcard, so that it would encourage people that are just outside walking distance to take transit, it should also reduce the amount of bikes on the transit system.

  • The last two comments are some great creative solutions to the “being stolen” problem. If I remember right, when I was in grad school in Tucson AZ in the mid 1990s the city tried a shared bike program, that died quickly when all the bikes were stolen. They used donated, second-hand bikes for the program and painted them fluorescent orange.

    Investing in some “non transferable part bikes” and even some cheap GPS locators for them might help keep them in circulation.

  • evilfred

    helmet law = bike share fail

    there is no way this would EVER work if the helment law stays in place

    nobody is going to want to use the lice-ridden helmet of the last person to use the bike!

  • MB

    Judging the number of helmetless riders I see these days the law is not enforced very well.

    I believe Decaux has roving collection vans and fully equiped maintenance barges on the Seine where all manner of replacement and repairs can be made quickly in the heart of Paris.

  • Allen Langdon

    Hi Frances,

    My wife and I were in Paris this summer and used the Velib the entire week we were there. In short – we loved it! Once you understand how to use the system and the many bike lanes in Paris then you can cover a lot of distance in very little time. It was really amazing to bike around the city and be able to see so much more then we would have by foot or by going through the underground system. I can see why it has become so popular in other cities I have visited like Brussels and Montreal.

    While there were one or two occasons where we had to take a bike back and grab another one, it was usually because of some routine maintenance issue such as a flat tire or broken seat. I would say we visited over 50 velib stations while we were in Paris and only saw one case where a bike had been vandalized to any great extent.

    On the positive side, I was truly amazed by both the sheer numbers and diversity of people using the system. There were tourists, housewives businessmen, students, artists and just about every type of person imaginable using these very clunky but practical bikes. Not only that, we found people using them at every time of day from early in the morning while we had breakfast until late at night when we were walking back to our hotel from the local bar or brassiere.

    Finally, if there was one problem that did come up from time to time it was that it was sometimes hard to find a bike at the nearest station. There were a number of times where we went to a station only to find there were no bikes. However, because there’s always a station roughly 300 metres away, we were usually lucky to find a couple of bikes at the next station over.

    If the system is that popular, I would think that this lends more credibility to the suggestion that JC Deaux is engaged in some PR to negotiate a better deal.

    From my experience, it’s an abosultely wonderful way to go. Long live the Velib!


  • Higgins

    Are you done on this subject, guys? Bike sharing is happening in Vancouver as we speak. Have you ever returned to your parked $2000, 12 speeds “Corvette RED” BMX bike only to find a polite note instead, thanking you for offering some poor soul the opportunity to sell it for enough money, at an undisclosed but venerable pawn shop, for a meal & drink (plus the 12% Vancouver gratuity) and a pack of smokes?
    Then, good for you; you are already sharing!
    And please, please, stop comparing yourselves with the Europeans, there is no way you’ll be living the way they do because you are here and they are waaay over there. So, start living like the North Americans, that’s what, brought you here in the first place. I from all the people would know that ’cause I’m from Europe! It’s nice in Copenhagen, if you are David Suzuki on a Global Warming Viagra tour, or in London if you are the spielhosen Mayor holding the biggest ever joint of BC bud that crossed the Atlantic, for the cameras.
    100 years ago when they replaced the horse with the bike they did it because they were too poor and not because they were environmentally friendly. People in China or India (the most bikes per capita) are biking because that’s what they can afford to ride on their 15 cents per hour wages. So that you stupid schoolgirl can have your yoga combo suit for $78 from Lululemon. And one other thing, they are simply too many! As for Amsterdam and their world renowned “black bicycle leaning on the side of the bridge crossing the Rijnkanaal” postcards, well, they are saving for that Euros 5 slice of Pizza (as of this summer) at lunch plus the Euros 3 for a coffee with a twist, or for a well deserved and very legal joint in one of the numerous street Coffee shops (did you know that the joints are sold in threesomes?)…
    Go ahead now, look at yourselves, this is what you want to become?
    Maybe it will put some reasoning into you. With the debt looming over Vancouver and long after the Olympic Circus has cleared the air we’ll probably be reduced to bike anywhere and everywhere anyway. Now, you take care!

  • evilfred

    ignoring the crazed ramblings of the head in the sand global warming denier above…

    the helmet law is NOT unenforced. it is selectively enforced when cops are feeling mean or need to meet a quota or something. i know numerous people who have been ticketed for it. it’s also likely the kind of thing they’ll ding you for out of spite. i thought selective enforcement was illegal?

  • Frothingham

    @Higgins Lovely Post! and so was the one by @Allen Langdon .

    A real treasure herein this evening!

  • Higgins

    “Remember…a developer is someone who wants to build a house in the woods. An environmentalist is someone who already owns a house in the woods.”
    Dennis Miller
    Which one is it you, evilfred? Is it also true that all you round holes do, is sit around a round table all day long debating round issues? I thought so.

  • Vlad the Inhaler

    Higgins is the MAIN MAN … er woman.

    So I take it your street isn’t shady.

  • Bill Peg

    I really encourage us all to not jump past the two Canadian cities that are using Bixi…. I’ve used it many times in Montreal, and it can be used by residents and tourists alike.

    What is really great about the BIXI is that the stations can be plunked down anywhere, they are solar powered and can be reorganized as needed.

    We could imagine a West End/Downtown/Kits trial, where we have the density and short haul potential that makes this very useful. What did we reorganize the Burrard Bridge for other than this?

    Paris is great, but this is a real Canadian example and success story .. being exported to Boston and London to boot.

    Take a look, take a ride. It is truly amazing to have the freedom of a easy to access bike in the city.

  • “100 years ago when they replaced the horse with the bike they did it because they were too poor and not because they were environmentally friendly. ”

    Actually, the horse was phased out because as cities became more dense there was big problems with feeding and caring for the increasing number of horses required for transport of goods and people. Also, rising incomes made horse ownership available to a larger segment of the population. Cities were essentially being swamped by horse manure.

    Here’s a link to a New York Times article on the topic.

    Unfortunately, automobiles were the preferred solution because they were seen as easier to store and polluted less. Too bad we didn’t just go for bikes and better transit then, we would have saved a lot of money, resources, and lives, but hindsight is 20/20.

    Drowning in pollution and nowhere to put them… sounds kind of the auto-centric city of the present day!

  • “Go ahead now, look at yourselves, this is what you want to become?
    Maybe it will put some reasoning into you”

    Actually, The Bicycle Thief is about as good a promotion for bikes as any. For those who haven’t seen it: A father in Italy is able to gain employment that is impossible for him until he has a low-cost means of mobility. When it is stolen, he faces the moral dilemma of stealing a bike himself so he can feed his family, or losing his job. The modern corollary might be the ongoing loss of our public transportation and the offloading of travel costs to individuals, leaving them ever-poorer as they struggle to make car, insurance, and gas payments so they can get to and from work. The real bicycle thieves in today’s world could well be the governments that beggar public transit options and fail to provide safe ways for people to walk and bike in cities, while shoveling money into an obsolete technology such as the internal combustion, private automobile. Thankfully, Vancouver City Council made a step in the right direction today with the continuation of the protected lanes on the Burrard Bridge.