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Paris Notebook: The Vélib’

Velib Stand.jpgDartmouth has had several failed experiments with free bicycle plans; it seems students would rather throw bikes into the Connecticut or into the woods, or pilfer their seats, rather than safeguard them for the community. Little surprise there for political philosophers of a skeptical bent. However here in Paris, technology has ridden to the rescue in the form of a community bicycle system that does not depend on intrinsic human honesty: the Vélib’.

Velib.jpgLinked by the Internet, there are Vélib’ bike stations all over Paris, putatively never more than 300 meters from each other. The stand outside our apartment has slots for 40 bikes. You can sign up for a year-long plan for €29 ($38) or for shorter-term agreements, and from then on you have the right to take as many half-hour rides for free as you wish. If you keep a Vélib’ for longer than 30 minutes, Velib Bike.jpgyou start to pay progressively steeper rental fees, though you can repeatedly return a Vélib’ to a rental stand and immediately rent it out again by swiping your personal Vélib’ RFID card over one of the bike stands and releasing a new bike.

The bikes themselves seem ungainly, but they are surprisingly nimble and functional: three speeds, an always-on LED headlight, a luggage basket in front of the handlebars, handbrakes (often of limited utility due to wear) and an adjustable seat. A good number of the bikes seem out of commission at any given time: that which can be broken will be broken either by intention or excessive use. One hopes that future generations of bikes will benefit from this experience. All in all, this much used and widely liked system seems destined to be with us for a good while.

Note: For those of you whose French I professor taught you that the French word for bicycle is “bicyclette,” please erase that erroneous fact from your mind. The French universally employ the word “vélo” (rhymes with “halo” but with the accent on the first syllable).

Addendum: The Vélib’ system is the biggest free bike system in the world. It was modeled after the Vélo’v project in Lyons, France, though that system had other, smaller-scale precursors. Since then a number of cities have followed on, including Montreal, Copenhagen, Luxembourg City, Dublin, London, Minneapolis, Melbourne and Ottawa. Free bike systems are currently planned for Boston, Washington DC and Mexico City. A friendly Dartblog reader informs us that the Minnesota system, Nice Ride Minnesota, has an attractive website.

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