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Free Ride?

News & Features | November 23, 2009

Paris may be one of the most iconic cities of the world, and, in the eyes of many, it has become inseparably intertwined with certain images. The Eiffel Tower. Chic wardrobes. Tiny coffees and crusty baguettes. And bicycles.

Famously known as the finish line for the yearly Tour de France, the city of love has also put in place a far-reaching and thoroughly developed bicycle rental system. Residents can rent bicycles from hundreds of stations around the city, providing an inexpensive and low-carbon way to travel. The company Velib’ established the program about two years ago, dotting the city with 20,600 sturdy bicycles, which, after the program’s startup and maintenance fees are included, cost around $3,500 each.

Sadly, human nature has proven detrimental to the system, which has seen 80 percent of the original bicycles stolen or damaged. Many of the bikes are popping up on the black markets of Eastern Europe and northern Africa. Others have been found hanging from lampposts or floating down the Seine. To make matters worse, bikers have popularized the art of “Velib’ extrême,” to the expense of the bikes. Vélib extremists have plastered their exploits, which have included riding the Vélib bikes down steps, into metro stations and on BMX courses, all over YouTube.

The assaults on the Velib’ bicycles, which seem to cater mostly to the middle class, may expose a less glamorous underbelly of Parisian society, where social tensions incited car burnings in its suburbs in 2005.

Professor Robert Russell, who teaches courses on environmental law and policy in the Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning Department at Tufts, notes that programs such as the one in Paris have still come a long way from earlier bike sharing systems of the sixties, seventies, and eighties. “Essentially, cruddy bikes were scattered around the city, and people were advised not to steal them, just, you know, thinking that they were so clunky, they wouldn’t disappear,” he said. “But in everywhere from Portland, Oregon, to various places in Holland, they ended up in the river . . . Probably teenagers participated heavily in destroying them.”

Russell explained that efforts to make society’s habits more eco-friendly always bear some risks. “There are always unintended consequences whenever you try to manipulate at least part of a system,” Russell said. “In the environmental area . . . we’re always manipulating part of the system, and that inevitably produces problems. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try our best.”

Boston might be the city to pioneer a similar bicycle rental system in the United States. Next spring, city planners intend to lead the nation’s first city-wide bike-sharing system in the hopes that Boston’s lower theft rate will prompt better treatment of the bikes than seen in Paris Planners hope that the endeavor will put more cyclists on the streets and help change the attitudes of brassy motorists who often display near-indignation towards cyclists on the road today. Between 1,000 and 3,000 bikes will be stocked in stations 300 to 400 yards apart, located at heavily frequented areas such as subways, bus stops, and tourist landmarks. Riders will be able to purchase annual subscriptions to the program for around $40 or day passes for about $2.50. Bikers could have unlimited rides of less than 30 minutes, and anything over that would be charged an extra hourly rate. The developers hope to make helmets available for $6 at local stores.

Russell considered that while bike sharing would make the lives of students on college campuses easier, the logistics might prove more burdensome than for a large city. “Would it work at Tufts? I actually don’t think so,” he said. “Not because Tufts is populated by kleptomaniacs, because it isn’t, but that there’s just a general entropic force . . . Somebody would ride their bike off campus, and it would get stolen, somebody would come onto campus and steal some bicycles.” In addition, Russell pointed out that Tufts would not be able to employ enough bicycles to justify the expensive anti-theft measures that city-wide programs use.

Bike-sharing programs are not the only endeavor that the environmentally aware have petitioned for in the hopes of making carbon emissions a point of individual concern. Russell said that initiatives have already been attempted in Europe to assign carbon emissions credits to corporations, which they could in theory buy and trade from each other, thus making reduced carbon emissions a matter of a company’s personal interest. But Russell said that the beginnings of these programs have also proven rocky.

In order for bike-sharing to work smoothly, city dwellers may need a shift in attitude towards communal use of property. But this sort of change in paradigm could make for not only a cleaner environment, but also for a healthier and more convenient lifestyle.