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Few bikes and no cars to share: Paris's summer of discontent

Video by Catherine CLIFFORD

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2018-07-31

The sudden demise of the Autolib’ electric car-sharing scheme and the continuing trials of its bike-sharing sibling Velib’ have left many Parisians feeling the city has turned back on a decade of trailblazing progress.

At the stroke of midnight tonight, the last of the battery-powered Autolib’ cars will switch off for good, ending a pioneering programme that was meant to revolutionise transport in Paris. Seven years after its launch, the car-sharing scheme has been abruptly axed, saddled with a mountain of debt neither Paris officials nor its private operator Bolloré are prepared to pay. The fleet’s more than 4,000 silver hatchbacks will no longer whiz around town like mosquitoes on the prowl. There will be no more of the cricket chirping, designed to warn pedestrians of an oncoming Autolib’, that left drivers feeling it was August on the French Riviera, even in winter.

Much has been written about Autolib’s deteriorating service: the dirty cars, creaking doors and homeless people sleeping inside (when users forgot to lock the vehicles). But for all its flaws, Autolib’ remained hugely popular, with more than 100,000 year-long subscribers and an approval rating of over 90 percent. The cars were easy to hire and fun to drive, with a simple, attractive design. In a city where parking is a perennial headache, they guaranteed a space upon arrival (provided you booked in advance). Sometimes you ended up with one of the bright-red Utilib’ cars, with no back seats but a larger boot, and it felt like having your own mini-Ferrari. It helped that the cars were designed by Italy’s Pininfarina, whose long list of creations include the legendary Ferrari Testarossa.

“I feel abandoned, it’s like losing a friend,” said Fabrice, a 24-year-old trainee chemist, as he plugged his silver Autolib’ into one of its 3,200 docking stations one last time. “It’s madness to own a car in Paris, but with Autolib’ I had my own vehicle whenever needed. It was an incredible idea. I used it to go to work, pick up friends, move stuff around or visit my parents out in the suburbs where public transport doesn’t reach.

It is now up to the courts to decide who of Bolloré or Paris city hall should carry the blame and bear the cost for the car-sharing scheme’s untimely death. More worryingly for mayor Anne Hidalgo, the Autolib’ fiasco comes as its older (and once far more popular) sibling Velib’ is only slowly recovering from a mind-bogglingly dysfunctional change of operator that very nearly killed the whole venture, bringing the daily number of bike journeys from well over 100,000 to less than 10,000. Eight months after its botched relaunch, the future of Velib’ is still uncertain.

Liberté

Contractions of the words auto, vélo (bike) and liberté (liberty), Velib’ and Autolib’ were once the pride of the French capital’s Socialist administration and the envy of millions of visitors who flock to Paris each year. As residents of Lyon and La Rochelle would point out, Velib’, first launched in 2007, hardly invented bike sharing. But the Paris scheme gave the concept a global platform, inspiring similar programmes in cities around the world – though les Anglo-Saxons, of course, ditched liberté in favour of the prosaic names of banks.

Strictly speaking, neither Autolib’ nor Velib’ were public services. But they were initiated, subsidised and overseen by Paris city hall, and trumpeted as standard bearers of the city’s green credentials. The lib’ services offered an alternative to traditional public transport, but in a complementary way. One could ride a Velib’ to work in sunshine and take the metro home if tired, tipsy or in rain. They also had that rare quality of connecting Paris with its suburbs, though only Autolib’ ventured deep into the banlieues (suburbs), and primarily the affluent ones. To left-leaning supporters, they were evidence of the power of public policy to dramatically improve everyday life, long before app-based private ventures changed the way people go about transport

“Velib’ meant liberty to me,” said Roger Tacite, a 50-year-old decorator from the northeastern suburb of Pantin, who finally succeeded in taking out a bike on Tuesday after “months of struggling with the new system”. He added: “If you have your own bike you have to take it home, whether it rains or snows. With Velib’, instead, I do whatever I like.”

Original sin

Velib’s launch more than a decade ago spearheaded the transformation of one of Europe’s least bike-friendly cities into an emerging cycling hub, backed by the Paris city council’s ambitious (though not always successful) plan to carve out bike lanes from the city’s heavily trafficked streets. While Paris still has a long way to go to match northern Europe’s model cycling cities, it already boasts some of the finest bike lanes on the continent, with riverside views only it can offer (making Velib’s current woes all the more infuriating).

The scheme had its flaws, of course. Velib’s failure, real or perceived, to provide an equal service to poorer neighbourhoods of Paris and surrounding areas has stuck to it like an original sin one sociologists have blamed for record levels of vandalism and theft. The bike-sharing programme is hardly luxury material. With annual subscription costs as lows as €28 per year, it remains significantly cheaper than comparative schemes in other large Western cities. And yet studies show it is overwhelmingly used by young professionals living in the city centre. Somehow, liberté never quite translated into égalité, let alone fraternité.

As for Autolib’, there is no doubt it failed to deliver on its stated ecological aim of reducing the number of polluting vehicles. Very few car owners gave up their vehicles to opt for the silver hatchbacks. Instead, the scheme brought more traffic, and new drivers who would never have considered buying a car, onto the already congested roads of the French capital.

Macron’s dream

Analysts say the travails of Velib’ and Autolib’ are evidence that their model, which relies on fixed stations or docks, is already behind the curve. Sooner or later, alternatives will spring up. Some already have, like the app-operated, free-floating bikes imported from China, which can be picked up and dropped off anywhere you like, adding to the clutter on the city’s narrow pavements. E-scooter start-ups have adopted similar models, and several car firms are mulling plans of their own. Some have already gone bust, or pulled out of Paris citing record levels of vandalism. And of course there are Uber and its competitors, which some blame for stalling Autolib’s momentum.

“Paris has never had such a rich and diverse offering when it comes to shared and electric mobility,” Hidalgo tweeted earlier this month, with more than a little nerve.

Long a fierce critic of President Emmanuel Macron, the Paris mayor has nevertheless embraced his dream of the unfettered start-up economy, in which nimble little companies rise and fall overnight but always push the technology forward. Some will find the perpetual novelty liberating. For others, it feels like a decade of homegrown liberté has been stamped out.

Date created : 2018-07-31

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