Is Vélib's provider crying wolf?

By Richard Peace | Monday, February 16, 2009 12.36pm

A rash of recent internet stories have portrayed Paris's public bike hire system Vélib - previously generally acknowledged as an outstanding and popular success story - as on the verge of collapse due to vandalism and theft. 

Velib's own figures do indeed show significant losses to theft and vandalism:  the current operating fleet is made up of 20,000 bicycles but 7,800 bikes have gone missing since the scheme's inception with 11,600 vandalised. This doesn't mean a fleet reduced to nothing - there is a rolling programme of daily repairs and replacements. 

The scheme is run by French advertising company JCDecaux, on behalf of the City of Paris. Lately JCDecaux executive Rémi Pheulpin's condemnation of his own company's system has been much quoted in the French press, “It is simple, all the income is for the City of Paris and all the expenses are ours…If we want the Vélib to keep going we will have to change the business model.”

There is also, supposedly, a new craze of 'Vélib Extreme' - riding the hire bikes down the steps of the undergound and the like, complete with YouTube footage.

But many professionals from within the world of public transport schemes and some within the City of Paris government have questioned the motives behind Monsieur Pheulpin's statement - indeed it does not seem to square with the known facts.

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The company has a ten year contract with the City and in return for taking on the organisation and expenses of the Vélib programme it receives a share of the public hire fees collected by the City and has rights to exploit advertising space in some 1,600 advertising hoardings around Paris.

The actual revenues Decaux receives under this agreement do not appear to have been made public.

Denis Baupin, the City politician who introduced Vélib said “Decaux is using media sensationalism to obtain more money.” 

Paris resident Eric Britton is a regular Vélib user and managing director of transport think tank New Mobility Partnerships - as well as being a  Ph.D. level economist.  He believes Vélib's own figures on theft and vandalism should be seen in the context of the incredible amount of usage the system gets and the health-enhancing benefits it brings; “The figures mean an average of around 15 thefts a day out of 80,000 daily uses. It's like skinning a knee.” 

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