On a recent weekend trip with friends in Paris, l spent a whole day using the famed velib ( short for free or freedom bikes in French ) bike scheme in the city and it was certainly a joy to use as a tourist. Not surprisingly while on my bike l imagined how a similiar scheme would work in London.

Last summer the Paris authority launched the Velib bike scheme, depositing 20,000 heavy duty bicycles in 750 or so special racks around the city and anyone who wants one simply swipes they travel card and pedals off wherever they want to go. Subscribers must pay 29 euros ( £ 20 ) a year, give their credit card details and leave a 150 euro credit deposit. This buys half an hour’s pedalling a day and a card to lock and unlock bicycles from automated stations spaced every 300 metres in the city centre. Visitors to Paris can buy a daily velib card for 5 euros. The bikes have already been borrowed 1.2 million times, that is on average 6 journeys a day largely short ones.

Nowhere is the project being watched with greater interest then in London itself with the previous mayor having asked Transport for London to develop similiar plan for London and bring together several schemes across the whole of the city. In many ways an investment in such a scheme would be a much better initiative to encourage cycling then bringing the Tour de France back London again, as l’m not convinced that bringing an elite sport actually gets people on their bikes.

It was also immediately apparent some of the problems the bike hire scheme was having in Paris. For example to was clear that some stations were more popular for bike hire then others like those at low-level stands rather those at higher levels. Thus one would have to have a major exercise each night to move the bikes around. When you did find a bike it was often punctured and not roadworthy, so maintenance is a key issue as well. At present in Paris, the advertising company JC Decaux provides all this for free-advertising in Central Paris but it will be interesting to see how long this continues. Moreover it is suspected that useage will be seasonal, that is the real test will come with the end of summer and return of the winter months.

A number of ” free-bike” schemes have been road tested in London like the OY bikes in Hammersmith & Fulham three years ago. Here the bike could be hired for 30 minutes with a £ 10 registration fees using the OYbike call centre. It’s biggest issue was its geographical coverage as it was restricted to the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham and for any scheme to be successful it would need to cover the whole of Central London. Surprisingly in University towns like St Andrews and Cambridge when it was tested all the bikes had been stolen in the early pilot schemes. And in cities like Southampton and Bristol lack of cooperation from rail operators was felt not to have helped the bike hire schemes.

That said it would be great to see a comprehensive bike hire scheme in London learning from similiar exercises across the world and not just Paris. On my return to London after the weekend trip to Paris, l was reminded that the original bike hire scheme in Europe was in Barcelona with their Bicing cycle scheme achieving over 90,000 subscribers, 2 million hires, 960 reduction in CO2 emissions and the scheme being extended to cover all the city districts in 2008. It sounds to me that I should take my next private research trip there!

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