Vélibgate: The rise and fall of Paris’s bike-sharing program

Ludovic Marin, AFP | Velib’ users take a brief break on the Trocadero Esplanade near the Eiffel Tower in Paris on Febuary 25, 2018

With the help of its pioneering bike-sharing scheme, Paris was once on its way to becoming the world's No. 1 bicycle capital. But a change of operator has left the hugely popular Vélib system in tatters, and it could cost Paris’s mayor dearly.


On January 1 this year, Parisian bike enthusiasts were meant to wake up to an upgraded version of their beloved Vélib bike-sharing system. Smovengo, a French-Spanish consortium who in April, 2017, beat former operator JCDecaux to nab the €700 million public tender, had vowed to improve the system and had set out to implement not only better and safer bikes, but also modern hi-tech electric models.

Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo, whose 2014 election to Paris city hall largely rode on her plans to promote green transport alternatives to make the City of Light more environmentally friendly, was more than enthusiastic about the plans, hailing it as a “real development”.

Six months into the highly anticipated “Vélib Second Generation” program, the situation can only be described as chaotic. Out of the 1,400 stations that were forecast to already be up-and-running in Paris and its suburbs, less than half – or 670 according to the Vélib workers' union SAVM – have now been installed. Out of these, some 400 stations are currently running on batteries rather than electricity, meaning they quickly run out of juice and the rack of available bikes end up blocked, and effectively, unusable. French media has dubbed the Vélib debacle “Vélibgate” and social media is awash with anecdotes and testimonies of what is widely seen as a failed, and ultimately very expensive, Paris city project.

Users of the system also complain of the malfunctioning of the bikes themselves: Broken seats, defective screens, and on top of it all, deactivated access cards, as well as a mobile app that keeps on crashing.

“I haven’t been able to take one [bike] out in four months, since early January,” one frustrated Parisian told FRANCE 24 last week.

His exasperation was shared by two other Vélib users. “This is the fifth station we’ve tried and either there aren’t any bikes or we can’t take them out,” they said.

Faithful subscribers ‘deserve a medal’

At the end of 2017, the self-service bike system recorded an average of 110,000 daily uses. At the end of April, that number had dwindled to just 30,000 uses per day, illustrating the actual access and availability of the bicycles.

Since Smovengo took over as the operator of the scheme, the SAVM says the number of subscribers has dropped significantly, from 290,000 to 220,000. French broadcaster BFM TV, however, claims the drop is as much as a third.

Twitter user Dimitri dmt answered that claim, saying that “The 2/3rds staying [with Vélib] sincerely deserve a medal.”

Some are even advocating for a mass-unsubscription protest. A.-P. Lemaistre, who appeared to be a former Vélib user, last week tweeted a screengrab of the uninstall option on his account, saying: “Finding comfort where it’s possible”.

Smovengo, which has already been hit by a €3 million penalty fine for problems, has partly blamed local electricity provider Enedis for the station construction delays, accusing it of moving too slowly in connecting the bike racks to the Paris power grid. Enedis has refuted these claims, however, saying that many of the stations simply don’t fulfill the technical and safety requirements in order for them to be connected.

After pressure from the City of Paris, the company has now been ordered to reimburse users for the first three months of the year.

Angry mayor

Earlier this week, Hidalgo issued a statement, bluntly saying that the transition to the new Vélib was “going badly”.

“Since the start of the year we have been confronted by a series of unacceptable disappointments. Parisians, who are very attached to these self-service bikes, consider that the system they loved has been ruined. We must have a service that works, as fast as possible, to regain users’ trust,” she said.

On Thursday, after a Wednesday night meeting with Hidalgo, Smovengo’s CEO Jorge Azevedo then held a Paris press conference where he presented an “emergency plan” to salvage the scheme, admitting to journalists that the current situation was “bad and unacceptable”. Among the solutions, Azevedo promised that 3,000 of the existing 9,000 bicycles would be replaced by May 8, that no more battery-run stations would be opened and that the existing electric bicycles would be temporarily removed to avoid stations from being rendered powerless. He insisted that the 1,400 stations once promised to Parisians would gradually be put in place “once the functioning of the service has stabilised”.

Meanwhile, not only Vélib’s popularity, but also that of Hidalgo’s, has taken a serious beating because of the new program’s set-back. In an opinion poll conducted by Ifop-Fiducial and published by French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche at the end of March, 58 percent of Parisians said they were unhappy with the mayor, a 10 percentage point drop compared with a year earlier.

With just two years left of her mandate, Vélibgate has so far proven to be a costly political gamble for the bike-share supporting mayor.

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