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Paris turns toward the two-wheeler

Bike rental plan launched to reduce traffic, pollution

Riders used new bicycles provided by Paris City Hall around the Eiffel Tower yesterday. Riders used new bicycles provided by Paris City Hall around the Eiffel Tower yesterday. (LAURENT BAHEUX/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

PARIS -- A city notorious for aggressive drivers was transformed into a giant bicycle-friendly zone beginning yesterday as part of an experiment being closely watched by US cities, including Atlanta and Austin, Texas.

Across the City of Lights, 750 bicycle "stations" have been set up where 10,648 three-sp eed bicycles, all equipped with electronic locks, can be rented as part of an ambitious scheme designed to draw urbanites from their vehicles.

By January, more than 20,000 bicycles will be available at 1,400 stations.

"The idea for now is really to reduce traffic and also pollution by getting people to use a bicycle," said Celine Lepault, head of the project launched by Mayor Bertrand Delanoe. "A long way down the line the idea might be to close off Paris to cars, and this may be a first step."

The service, financed by JC Decaux, the world's second-largest outdoor advertiser, is called Velib -- a combination of "velo" and "liberte," the French words for bicycle and freedom.

It is modeled on a successful scheme launched two years ago in the central city of Lyon, where about 50,000 people out of a population of 445,500 are now subscribers.

The hope is that as many as 200,000 people will be participating each day by the end of the year in Paris, a city of more than 2 million people.

But results won't come easy.

While the city boasts a growing 230-mile network of bike lanes, Parisians are famously brash drivers who are fond of their cars. When they are coaxed onto bicycles, they rarely wear helmets or pay attention to traffic signals.

"We know that people who already ride bikes here are not very disciplined," Lepault said. "But we will teach the people to respect red lights and rules of the road."

She said the sheer number of cyclists expected to be on city streets would force motorists to be more considerate.

Lepault admitted that similar schemes have been tried in other European cities, including Brussels, Amsterdam, and Cophenhagen, with mixed results.

"This idea has failed elsewhere simply because there were not enough stations, which is why we're making sure people here will never be far from a station," she said.

Velib is being watched with keen interest by city planners and bike enthusiasts in the United States who are eager to transform the way residents get around.

"We have all been watching Paris very closely to see how their arrangement works out," said Fred Meredith of Manchaca, Texas, editor of Southwest Cycling News, which is published by the Austin Cycling Association.

"In Austin, there is dialogue on the subject and our mayor is on record as committing Austin to becoming as close to carbon-neutral as possible through several programs," he said. "But he has yet to propose rental bikes as any part of the solution."

One scheme that has been tried in Austin, Atlanta, and elsewhere is the Yellow Bike Project. It lets people freely borrow donated bikes for short rides and return them to designated dropoff points.

"But the bikes generally disappear just as quickly as the project can get the bikes onto the street," Meredith said. "The bikes' value is perceived as zero, so people think it is OK to do anything they wish with them."

To prevent that from happening in Paris, participants will have to buy a membership. Rental stations are equipped with ATM-style panels that take credit cards and give instructions in eight languages.

A yearlong pass is $40, while a one-day pass costs a euro, about $1.36. The membership puts a temporary charge of about $200 on the user's credit card so that they can be charged for bikes that aren't returned. Bikes are also equipped with alarms that go off if they aren't returned.

The system is designed mainly for short-term users. The first half-hour is free.