le roi du mobilier urbain
Over at The Guardian, Mike Seaton the Bike Doc, reports on profit-driven community bike plans in the European Union. Seaton's the in-house bike fanatic whose memoir of a ten-year obsession with amateur cycle racing, The Escape Artist, contains moments of high drama as he describes the pain and exhilaration of life in the saddle. It also includes passages of deep sadness as he abandons competitive cycling to cope with the terminal illness of his wife, Ruth.
15 March 2007: Jean-Claude Decaux, though semi-retired at 69, is the founder of JC Decaux, Europe's "number one outdoor advertising company" (and number two in the world). He was ranked by Forbes magazine at 154th in its 2006 world's richest list, with a net worth of $4.2bn. Not for nothing does French newspaper Libération refer to him as "le roi du mobilier urbain" - that's "the king of street furniture" to you. And the latest bit of street furniture to catch his eye for its commercial potential is the bicycle.
Two years ago, in his home town of Lyon, JC Decaux teamed up with the city authorities to launch a radical new bike-rental scheme. Dubbing the system Vélo'V (now more catchily rebranded as Cyclocity), JC Decaux was essentially updating earlier efforts at bike pools with improved technology to overcome the problem of theft and ensure a return on investment.
Thus, what began with the 60s, anarchist-inspired White Bike Plan in Amsterdam, where bicycles were provided by the city, unlocked and free for public use, was reinvented as an electronic swipe-card subscription service with a less utopian motive.
But if it gets people on bikes, then all well and good. In May 2005, JC Decaux installed 2,000 bikes, deposited at 175 drop-off points in France's second-largest city. Within weeks, 20,000 people had signed up for the scheme, which makes the first half-hour of use free. The number of subscribers has since risen to 60,000. Up to 16,000 rentals occur daily, equivalent to each bike being used by 15 people, who, on average, travel 1.7 miles in 17 minutes. Or a total distance of 25,000 miles every day. A good result, you would think.
What has got slightly lost in all this is whether bike pools really work. Invariably greeted with initial enthusiasm, these schemes often fail down the road: the bikes are heavy and not much fun to ride, and end up being poorly maintained, vandalised or stolen. The risk is that "visionary" local politicians end up footing the bill for an expensive white elephant foisted on them by the operator, while the local bike trade suffers in the meantime from the publicly subsidised competition.
So, the question not yet answered is whether it's really true that people are not cycling just because they don't have a bike to hand.