[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CagYn9-7jQ&hl=en&fs=1&] Saturday's New York Times ran an unassuming yet provocative piece on the Parisian bike-sharing system, the Velib. It seems that Velib bikes have become the scapegoats for the underlying class-tensions that persist between the modern center city and Paris's suburban banlieusards. Of the 20,000 bikes that made up the original Velib fleet, some 8,000 have been stolen and another 8,000 rendered irreparable the NY Times reports. Moreover, vandalism is on the rise, in 2008 incidences of destructive vandalism to the Velib fleet increased 54 percent.
Obviously, this destruction is problematic from a maintenance and provision perspective. Paris is now digging deep in its pockets to reimburse JCDecaux, the advertising company that presides over the Velib bike sharing service; JCDecaux reports that it repairs as many as 1,500 bicycles per day.
Putting the financial implications of this abuse aside, the reporting hints at the daunting nature of the challenge at hand, the challenge to create new, accessible, egalitarian city services, extending new degrees of mobility to all city residents. In the article Bruno Marloff, a sociologist who specializes in transportation, describes the phenomenon as "an outcry, a form of rebellion...There is an element of negligence that means, 'We don't have the right to mobility like other people, to get to Paris it's a huge pain, we don't have cars, and when we do, it's too expensive and too far."
Velib is is unique in that it is the largest bike sharing system of its kind with 20,000 bikes in circulation and just under 1,500 docking stations. Since its inauguration, it offered up over 63 million unique trips, changing the way many residents and tourists experience point to point. And, in the city center where these stations are placed every 300 meters or so, indeed, it is quite convenient. For those living outside Paris, however, the system falls short and in this sense, the service itself might be perceived as exclusive or privileged.
Moreover, the city or JCDecaux might have reserved the Velib bike service for Paris residents instead of extending the service to tourists [bikes are readily available to everyone, simply swipe a credit card and pay a small fee] as fending off tourists during tourism season is annoying enough without having to wrest your bike from them on your morning commute; unlike Paris, Barcelona boldly limits its bike sharing system to city residents by introducing an annual subscription model and a 3-4 day delay in the registration process.
Online, in teh comments section of the NY times, readers were eager to condemn residents for the dubious behavior, condemn the city itself for providing a service which is not without its imperfections, condemn the phenomenon itself as an enigma or capitalist culture.
Neither here nor there, filtering one's perspective through any of these enigmatic lens cuts the real problem short and makes it easy to draw incomplete conclusions. During a plenary session in Taiwan this last month, I whitnessed two urbanists debating the role of services in shaping city identity. While one party was eager to dismiss them as symptomatic of our urban experience, the other bearishly declared that in modern society, city services are the cornestone through which city identity and connections are made. The case of Paris's Velibs only serves to bolster the latter planner's claim.