Non-Surprise of the Day

Wow, who would have predicted this (other than everybody)?

The latest French utopia (Vélib', Paris's bicycle rental system) has met a prosaic reality: Many of the specially designed bikes, which cost $3,500 each, are showing up on black markets in Eastern Europe and northern Africa. Many others are being spirited away for urban joy rides, then ditched by roadsides, their wheels bent and tires stripped.

With 80 percent of the initial 20,600 bicycles stolen or damaged, the program's organizers have had to hire several hundred people just to fix them. And along with the dent in the city-subsidized budget has been a blow to the Parisian psyche, as not everyone shares the spirit of joint public property promoted by Paris's Socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoë.

At least 8,000 bikes have been stolen and 8,000 damaged so badly that they had to be replaced "” nearly 80 percent of the initial stock. JCDecaux must repair some 1,500 bicycles a day. The company maintains 10 repair shops and a workshop on a boat that moves up and down the Seine.

It is commonplace now to see the bikes at docking stations in Paris with flat tires, punctured wheels or missing baskets. Some Vélib's have been found hanging from lampposts, dumped in the Seine, used on the streets of Bucharest or resting in shipping containers on their way to North Africa. Some are simply appropriated and repainted.

I guess I can understand why there might be some confusion. After all, it only has been for about 200 years or so that we have really understood this kind of problem in economic terms and about 4000 years that we have understood it in practical terms. Maybe the French have not heard of it because they are still debating what French word to use for "the tragedy of the commons.'


  1. Michael:

    I posted over at CARPE DIEM:

    Eric Britton said...

    Mark. Be a bit careful about what you read in the paper. I realise that you preusme that our freinds over at the NYT do their homework, and indeed normally they do. But not this time, sadly. Check it out the reality of the situation at We do our research. Eric Britton

    Eric Britton,

    While likes to mock us silly Americans and our newspapers, a search of the site didn't turn up the cost of the bike.

    I found a reference that JCDecaux planned for the bikes to cost $1,300 but not what they actually end up costing.

    Would you be so kind as to tell us what one of these bikes cost?


    From source reference:

    Not that bicycle abuse is a phantom problem. It exacts a real toll, but much of that cost has been anticipated and accounted for. Last July, the city of Paris agreed to pay JCDecaux 400 euros for every bike stolen in excess of four percent of the total fleet each year. Given the enormous popularity of Vélib -- users have taken 42 million rides since its debut -- the cost of those payments is minimal. Using the BBC's figure of 7,800 missing bikes, the pricetag for the city comes to less than 2 million euros annually, out of 20 million euros in user fees.

    "It averages out to about 15 stolen per day, out of 80,000 daily users," says Eric Britton, founder of the Paris-based New Mobility Agenda. Hardly a fatal blow. "It's like skinning a knee."

    If you do some simple math, that 2 million euros the city pays is really 3 million euros. And you also find out that the French use a 520 day calendar.

    But after going though all of reference material, one still does not learn the cost of the bike.

  2. Allen:

    No worries & no need to print this news stateside. Surely when Seattle/Denver/Chicago/Hartford/St.Louis/et al. decides to unroll their bike sharing, they won't encounter these problems. ;)

  3. .:

    The Dublin bike scheme seems to be working so far.

  4. Michael P:

    The Copenhagen CityBike projekt also seems to be working, without loosing too many bikes pr year (they are build solid, and are so ugly, that no self-respecting thief would want one)

  5. Max:

    Well, I think this is the environment and not the failure of the program. You can't make these kind of programs in melting pot environments that already have a huge crime rate (like Paris). F.e. the more homogenous environment in DAnish Copenhagen shows that a public bike scheme can work.
    Even in France, which really has a problem with "property" and its definition, there are bike programs that are working like the Velib sister in Lyon, which has yet to experience the scope of theft and vandalism that is shown in Paris.

    There are also several bike programs that are for-profit, like the Deutsche Bahn Rent-a-bike, where you call the DB Center, give your creditcard number and the bike id and they unlock it for you.

  6. Captain Midnight:

    Sounds very much like the 1994 Yellow Bike Project of Portland, Oregon. It didn't take long for the bikes to be trashed, stolen, or just dropped into the river. I love the Wiki description of it:

    The Yellow Bike Project provided nearly 400 free bicycles available for unrestricted use in downtown Portland in its first six months. Though The Yellow Bike Project inevitably suffered from theft and vandalism of the bikes, in a broader sense the Yellow Bike Project was an amazingly successful publicity generator for Portland, Community Bicycling Programs and The Community Cycling Center.

    It failed, but the publicity was good.

  7. Geoff:

    We had a scheme like this in Cambridge UK in 1993. Note that ALL the bikes went missing on the FIRST day!

    Councillor Simon Sedgwick-Jell, as leader of the City Council, pushed through this scheme, which started in October 1993.

    Bikes from the Police bike pound were refurbished and painted green by offenders doing community service. The police officer in charge of the pound said that in all his years in Cambridge he'd seen some pretty stupid things but this...

    Bike stands were erected at a number of sites around the City, along with a big "Green Bike Scheme" notice explaining that anyone could use the bikes provided they were left at another such site and not locked.

    On day 1 of the scheme a number of bikes (50?) were distributed between these sites. Within about a day all had gone.

  8. feeblemind:

    Re Captain Midnight: Yeah. I remember seeing that on the news. I marveled that anyone would be so naive/idealistic to believe such a scheme would actually work. And yet it has been tried again and again, as have many social programs, with the same end results.