Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Happy Birthday Vélib': Now you are two

Well here you are dear child, already two years old and for such a young thing you have certainly been very active over these first 730 days. And all that while learning to speak to your visitors in English, Spanish, German and Italian, as well as French. Quite an accomplishment for a two year old. But that's not all.

More than 50 million rides, going on three hundred thousand annual pass holders, and finally the full complement of 20,000 bikes on the streets. And as if that were not enough, here you are already venturing out into thirty surrounding towns and suburbs to give each of them Vélib's of their own. You turned out to be too good a present for Paris to keep you for itself.

You, and the Paris and JCDecaux teams that make you work day after day, have been busy continually fine-tuning your bikes, maintenance procedures, station locations, software, like redistribution and everything else that it takes to make you an appreciated partner of Paris's first-rate, internationally competitive, affordable new mobility system.

Few of us really understood at the beginning how important you were going to be, and I bet that even you did not fully appreciate the extent that you would become part of a major transformation process. And the degree to which you would become world known.

And those of us who hop on your bikes every day – our editor for example estimates that he has made more than 2000 trips, most of which worked out very well – are in a pretty good position to appreciate your contribution. It is not that you are perfect, oh no! but certainly good enough that for many of us you have become a part of our daily mobility solution, an almost always agreeable part of our day to day lives. You don't have to be absolutely perfect, almost perfect will do just fine.

A trained Vélib’ user (it was you that trained us dear Vélib’) has a whole series of backup strategies just in case we do not find a working bicycle at the first station or a parking slot when making a mad dash for a transit connection -- and for still somehow getting wherever it is we need to go when we need to get there. We love you most of all, but if the rain is too hard, the snow is falling, or we cannot find that bike, we have a workaround. That is part of our partnership deal with you.

And now let us have a look at your 2009 birthday gift.

This is an important day and we have been giving this a fair amount of thought over the last weeks, and when you give a gift you really want it to be useful, and used. And of course the best gifts are the ones that can be shared.

We would very much like to come up with a present this year that would help you to deal with the problems associated with your nice bicycles which are too often being vandalized or stolen. As the world knows, those are big numbers and really do need attention and ingenious ways of dealing with them. But that is sufficiently challenging that we have to back off this time and can only promise to give it thought we would share ideas from many parts with this as they come in.

So our gift this year is one that we hope you will like. We want to help you with what is probably your Number 2 operational problem, smoothing the distribution of bikes over the system. Here is what we propose.

A sketch plan for using small financial incentives for getting and improve distribution of bikes throughout the system.

We are well aware that smoothing the redistribution process is not one that is unique to Paris and that is a fundamental structural problem that needs to be dealt with just about everywhere in a strategic manner. So here is our gift proposal. By the numbers:

1. We propose you introduce an overlay software system to provide small financial incentives for anyone who parks a bicycle in a station which is empty (or almost empty). Which will also apply to anyone who picks up a bicycle from a station which is full (or almost full).

2. In other words, make us the users and the beneficiaries part of the solution.

3. This process can work of course only where there is a basic logistics/financial system which will support it. But in your case Vélib’ we think you have in place just about everything you need to make this one work. (And many of your brothers and sisters in other cities should be able to do this as well.)

4. The idea is to automatically credit a specific sum to registered users who provide these valuable services. There are several key details which need to be figured out before going ahead, which include the following:

5. What exactly should be the sum awarded to participants? One Euro, two, three? Well that will depend on balancing (a) what works as an incentive on the one hand, and (b) the costs you presently have to bear for manual distribution.

6. What exactly should be the "station threshold', i.e., should the award be made only to those who add a first bike to an empty station, or should it be also made for second and third bikes being brought in? And ditto for freeing places in a full stand? This the operator will be well-positioned to figure out, and in any event by nature of the flexibility of the underlying logistics system, this can be played with and fine-tuned in the early stages of the project.

7. Behind all this, it is useful to have precise information on the cost of physically moving a bike at present. Our own best guess, not only for Paris but for the more than a dozen other systems that we have visited and observed, is that this has to run on the order of four Euros per bike, plus or minus 2. But this of course the city and the operator will know.

8. Such payments will of course be made only to people holding annual passes, However it may also be worth considering whether a special arrangement might be set up in which users register for the program and the financial incentives that go along with it.

9. An advantage of this approach, which we might call "dynamic redistribution" as opposed to physically lugging the bikes around, is that it is a continuous process, with all the advantages that this entails

10. One final advantage that comes to mind is that something like this increases the feeling of public ownership of the system, which in itself is one of the tools you need to fight against the problems of bicycle theft and abuse. It will not deal with all aspects of that challenge, but it is one of the many small steps that can be taken to drive down those numbers to something which is financially and socially tolerable.

So there you have it your Vélib’, World Streets present to you on this important day. And hey! as we were saying, this is the kind of gift that you can both use yourself and share with the world. So do it, and our friends in Barcelona, Montreal, Seville, Rome and the more than one hundred cities in the world that have already installed their own public bicycle system. And the thousand or so cities that are looking to you dear Vélib’ for ideas, encouragement and your example.

You have been a very good girl. Thank you.

Happy birthday Vélib’!

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  1. Morten Lange, Reykjavík IcelandWednesday, 15 July, 2009

    Hi Eric,

    Wonderful piece ! But I think you should spell her name correctly, that is with an accent and an apostrophe, like Wikipedia in English does : Vélib'
    See :

    Or say something along these lines :
    Vélib' ( or Velib as we affectionatey call you in English )

    Will you be able to hand over the present in person, as it were ?

    Thanks again for your inspiring efforts !

    Best Regards,
    Morten Lange, Reykjavík Iceland

  2. Richard Layman, Washington DCWednesday, 15 July, 2009

    The basic idea is to build the robustness of the system, in this case by engaging users, to move the bikes to the right place.

    But you mean not really paying people, but building "credits" for free use later, right?

    Richard Layman, Washington DC

  3. No no, not at all. I want them to have their accounts or credit cards credited immediately for each transaction.

    My preferred deal would be to have each transaction immediately notched up to their registered credit card.

    At the very least an account with the operator that will give them a balance which they can either use as they go (i.e., to pay for an extra hour, etc.), or to pay for the next year subscription. Or alternatively to be cashed out at, say, six month intervals.

    The details on this can be worked out, but one thing I think is very important. Real money. Real incentive.

    Let the market, 21st century technology and individual initiatives with associated social benefits work for us. Hey, the New Mobility Agenda.

    Eric Britton, Paris, France

  4. Adam Cooper, Vancouver CAWednesday, 15 July, 2009

    You are a wordsmith and a poet.
    Its always entertaining to read your work.
    The latest velib piece is no different.

    Adam Cooper, B.A. Geog.(Hons), B.A. Planning,
    M.A. Planning Candidate
    CIP National Student Rep.
    Research Assistant, UBC TREK Program Centre

  5. Sam Gill, London UKWednesday, 15 July, 2009

    It definitely sounds like a very good idea. May I suggest an addition - if information were made publicly available about where the shortages/excesses were then people could actually be pretty much incentivised/paid to move the bikes at those times to those places.

    For example, you could have as you suggested an incentive which runs system-wide based on a first (or first few) in - first (or first few) out basis for a small financial incentive but then a larger one for anyone who moves bikes at the peak times to the required destinations. It would be easier to work out if we had the exact figures for distribution, but you never know you might have a great way of giving homeless people or students or just about anybody an extra bit of money!

    Sam Gill, London UK

  6. John Z Wetmore, Washington DC, USAThursday, 16 July, 2009

    Coincidentally, next week's episode of "Perils For Pedestrians" takes a look at Vélib at

    Tuesday, July 21, The Universityhouse Channel will show Episode 157 of "Perils For Pedestrians".

    --We look at the Velib public bicycle system in
    Paris with Eric Britton of New Mobility Partnerships. -

    DISH Network Channel 9411 -- The Universityhouse Channel
    Tuesday -- 9:30 PM Eastern, 6:30 Pacific

    The full content of Episode 157 which alsl includes an interview with with Jean Paul
    Lechevalier about The Rights Of Pedestrians (Les Droits du Piéton)is also available on

    John Z Wetmore, Washington DC, USA
    Producer of "Perils For Pedestrians"
    A television series on satellite, cable, and the Internet.
    DISH Network 9411 - The Universityhouse Channel
    9:30 PM Eastern / 8:30 Central / 7:30 Mountain / 6:30 Pacific
    Public Access Cable Stations:

  7. Yes, Eric's birthday message is more than (entertaining) good wishes, it's concrete ideas for improvement. Here's one related to getting bike share users involved in making the system work better: Could there be an add-on to the programming of the stations that allows for users to report bikes with problems needing attention? If the user reports that the bike at post 12, for example, needs repair, the systems operator can dispatch help, particularly if that particular bike has had a number of reports (the system keeps track of individual bikes already). An added benefit is that it involves the community of users in the care of the system, giving a greater sense of ownership.

    Christopher Sumpton
    Toronto, Canada


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