Monday, March 30, 2009

A thing so slight:

The medium is the message with the Paris public bike project

Eric Britton, Editor, World Streets, Paris, France

Automobiles are often conveniently tagged as the villains responsible for the ills of cities and the disappointments and futilities of city planning. But the destructive effects of automobiles are much less a cause than a symptom of our incompetence at city building. The simple needs of automobiles are more easily understood and satisfied than the complex needs of cities, and a growing number of planners and designers have come to believe that if they can only solve the problems of traffic, they will thereby have solved the major problems of cities. Cities have much more intricate economic and social concerns than automobile traffic. How can you know what to try with traffic until you know how the city itself works, and what else it needs to do with its streets? You can't."

- Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities , 1961

A bicycle? Two spindly wheels held together by a frail metal frame and launched into wobbly motion with some kind of bizarre arrangement for your willing feet to move you from A to B. First introduced in yes! Paris almost two hundred years ago (1817 model just to your right), the bike been around for something like a century and a half and has had its moments of glory and its moments of ... neglect.

So why should it be that as we move toward the end of his first decade of this new century I should be taking your time to talk about something that is so small, so trivial, so out of date, so surely meaningless in an age in which the problems of our daily lives of our planet are enormous and in many ways crushing us to the mat? To get a feel for that, let’s start with a quick look out the rearview mirror.

A glance back:

In order to make any sense of what an eventual renaissance of the bicycle might make in our daily lives and in our cities, it will be useful for us to have a quick glance back to recall what happened the last time a rolling beast of metal and rubber appeared on the scene of our daily lives.

Remember? There we were living and working, going to school in playing in cities and towns across America, and getting around in our daily lives on our feet, occasionally by bicycle, and as often as not by some combination of buses, trams and trainings. Of course there were also cars, but these were not really available to most of us, at least not when the beginning of the car era started to shape up. What happened?

As prosperity reared its supposedly beautiful head in the wake of the Second World War, more and more people started to have a new transportation option in the form of their own car. It was, just about everyone said, a great and wonderful thing.

And then, slowly and without our really being quite aware, they started to change a lot of things in our daily lives and in our cities. The story has been told many times and perhaps never better than by our dear Mrs. Jane Jacobs, but the essence of it is that the main contribution of this new bit of technology is the manner in which it has transformed and in a huge number of cases virtually gutted our cities. Pulling them apart with seven league boots that simply don’t fit into the perimeter of our cold cities. So in case after case the city fell apart and moved “out of town”.

Marshall McLuhan told us decades ago that the medium was the message, and indeed that turned out to be the case with cars. We got the message so that if you look around it's not very hard to figure out what that message was.

True auto-mobility

Then one day, with little fanfare a transportation revolution started to get underway, and if you have not heard a great deal about it till now, stay tuned because this is a message that one way or another is going to get in some form to just about every city of any size in North America, and indeed in many other parts of the world.

The new message is the “City Bike”, or Public Bicycle System, which is probably today the fastest growing transportation innovation in the world. They could not be more simple.

The basic principle is that a city creates a new kind of public transport system, this one based on free (or almost free) bicycles which you can pick up at many points around the city, ride to get you where you want to go, and then leave it off in another handily located station.

Today there are more than one hundred such new systems underway, with the most famous being the huge new system brought to Paris in the summer of 2007 under the name Vélib’ (roughly free bike), of which there are more than 16,000 currently in service and with 20,000 targeted this Spring (2009). Other large systems are in operation or underway in Barcelona, Lyon, Rome, Berlin, and in North America there are several dozen cities looking carefully at this idea, with a major project about to come on line in Montreal in the weeks ahead..

What is interesting about these revolutionary transportation systems is that . . . they work! Think of them as small, perfectly clean one-person buses that you can pick up where you want, when you want, leave when you want, and go where you want. Personal Rapid Transit. True ubiquitous auto-mobility at last.

Come to Paris (or Barcelona, or Lyons, or or ) and have a look for yourself.

Or, if you don’t have a ticket, you can always check it out at World City Bikes at The Public Broadcasting System of the United States broadcast a film on Vélib’ and The Greening or Paris in December 2008. You can pick it up on line at, click Webcast, then Paris. A trailer for the program is available at

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