Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The End of City Bikes: Vandalism, Theft and the End of the World

State of play: Vélib’, Paris Winter 2009

After several rounds of misinformed press panic attacks concerning vandalism and theft of public bicycles in Paris, set off by an article that appeared in the Parisian on 2 February ( propose we take a couple of minutes to check out the reality of the situation and reflect together on what it means both for the Paris project -- and more generally for projects being planned or already in place in cities around the world. Because there is relevance there also.

Let us first have a look at the main reported figures which are to the best of my information pretty reliable ballpark numbers.

• 15,000 Vélib’s on the street in Winter 2009 (to go up to the contracted 20,000 in the Spring)
• 1200 stations currently in operation (not 1451 as originally announced ???)
• 42 million users (between 15 July 2007 at the end of 2008)
• Daily trips: anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 and on occasion more (depends on weather, strikes, holidays, etc.)
• Ave trip time: a bit more than 20 minutes
• Ave trip length: say 5-7 km.
• Daily repairs - ca. 1,500 (huge variations depending on weather, usage, etc.) - ca. 80% of which handled in stations by travelling maintenance teams Something like 2-300 have to be taken to repair shops
• 7,800 reported disappeared over 18 months
• Estimated cost of a replacement Vélib – ca $500
• 11,600 reported vandalized in the same.
• Work force - ca. 500
• Vélib receipts paid to the city of Paris (year 1) ca. € 20 million
• Who pays for lost and damaged bicycles: JCDecaux (Mainly, some participation by the city)
• Number large publicity panels enjoyed by JCDecaux - 1600

“End of Vélib” – Tragic death scenario as reported by press

Now that several of us have gotten busy to correct the somewhat, shall we say, misinformed spate of newspaper articles that reported apparently on automatic pilot concerning the "forthcoming demise" of Vélib in Paris (reference ), I think that the air has now been cleared and that we all have a more balanced appreciation of what this means

My best on this is that JCDecaux found themselves in a situation in which they were losing about twice as many bikes as they had originally planned for. Maybe a bit more. And while this certainly poses an accounting dilemma for their public bike unit, Cyclocity, the company overall is certainly doing well with their end of the deal through the revenues generated by the 1600 publicity panels, placed in strategic areas around the city.

In this particular case I do not think this is a life-threatening problem for Vélib, since it is in the clear interest both of JCDecaux and the City to make sure of this project moves along as smoothly as possible. I am confident that they are going to find ways to deal with this problem (and in fact there are all kinds of ways as far as I am concerned which I hope they will be thinking about and prudently implementing). We will just have to see how smart that they can be with this one. And if we consider the consistent flow of adjustments and improvements that they have introduced throughout the system over the first 18 months to rectify problems and improve performance, we have to be at least moderately optimistic about their chances here.

Reflections on vandalism and theft:

If your thinking about creating a public bike system in your city, you have to have a good feel for how public property is treated. Good indicators are public phone booth (if there any left), bus stops, vandalism on public transport, graffiti, etc.

For those who are surprised at the vandalism rate in Paris over this last year, we need to bear in mind that the stands and the bicycles are widely distributed over all social areas of the city, including some rather tough ones. The city and JCDecaux are to be congratulated for making sure that the bikes are available in all parts of the city. That is important.

Let us also bear in mind that over this last half-year plus, the circumstances of the economy and social unrest here have not been all that easy. There are problems with jobs and worries about the future. And these are probably strongest in the group of young unemployed males which in some parts of the city and climb up well above 30%. This is not a formula for social peace. (Nor is it one for public bicycle piece.:

Consider all those little bikes, once they are worked free from the stations, legally or by force, they then are out there on their own with no oversight or protection. Not surprising at the time of some social unrest, and giving the ubiquitous nature of the bikes, we are going to have problems with both theft and vandalism. That comes with the territory.

To put this into perspective let us take a look at how all this works out on the streets of Paris on an average winter day. 15,000 bikes out on the street, providing something like 100,000 trips spanning a total of more than half a million km, carbon free kilometers, LL with mostly minor maintenance problems on 10% of them (but not all at the same time since they are being repaired regularly throughout the day). This should not be very surprising t if you take into consideration that those bikes are being used by people of different skill levels, different weights, and different levels of caring. And once again most of those problems that do crop up just require a few minutes of maintenance and adjustment. If you are someone who bikes in the city and park your bike in public on a regular basis, this kind of constant tinkering will not be unfamiliar to you, even though you take good care of it because it your own bike.

On an average day something like 15 of those bikes will be stolen, one in 1000. And this is before any kind of remedial measures have been put into gear. Given the level of public service, health, and environmental advantages that they provide, I would say that 1/10 of 1% is not an impossible number to deal with. And that half a million carbon free kilometers for people who have to go from A to B when and as they want. is a pretty good deal for all concerned.

The bottom line for your project:

If you are planning or starting to put into service a new public bike system in your city you are going to have to give a lot of thought about the social environment in which they are going to appear. You can "play it safe" and try to cordon off your bikes into some "safer" part of the city. But if you do that you are going to miss the whole point, the fundamental point which is behind the system, which is that they are instruments for moving toward a fairer and more just society for all.

If your city has problems with youth unemployment and degradation of social infrastructure, you are going to have to figure out how to deal with that in your project. Likewise if you have gangs, you are going to have to face this directly and somehow figure out how to work them into the fabric of the system. You do not have to give up, and you will never be able to run away, so these are the kinds of issues which have to take into account from the beginning.

But hey! you can deal with it. You and the community behind you. It is teamwork, you see.

For the rest, keep your eye on Paris and see how they work this out.

Eric Britton,
Paris, 19 Feb. 2009


I may not be a great fan of on-street advertising in public places but I am a great fan of JCDecaux for what they have done in my city to create a new mobility environment that no one can miss. I hop on one of their free bikes anywhere from 2 to 6 times a day, and have fact relegated my own bicycle to much more occasional use in the past when it was my daily companion. Not to worry, we use the different bicycles for different reasons.

As a frequent user I have seen problems with the bikes come and go over the year and a half since the project got underway. There have been periods in which there have been real visible problems with chains, graffiti, the baskets, tires, or distribution of bikes, etc., But it is my impression that when I go to the nearest they stand today (there are four within 100 m of my house) I am a well serve client. Sure there can be times in which a given station one will not have a bike ready for me, but a short trot over to the next and there you go.

Better yet, before leaving home of office I click to my favorite informal Vélib website at There I can see in advance where the nearest free bike is, and at the same time check out to make sure there will be a parking spot for me available at my final destination. There are other ways to do it but this Is mine and it works.

Thanks JCDecaux. Thanks Paris.

Eric Britton
New Mobility Agenda, Paris

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