Richard Reeves

Free Travel in Paris? Well, Almost

PARIS -- Rows of iron stanchions, looking something like miniature fire hydrants, are taking root every 300 yards or so along the curbs of the city, ready for a new revolution to begin on the day after the July 14 celebrations of Bastille Day.

This is, according to a special edition of L'Express magazine, "La Revolution du Velo." The Bicycle Revolution. Official name: "Velib."

Contrary to opinion on our side of the Atlantic, the French do not think small. Work crews are everywhere, planting the devices with electronic heads ready for credit cards and city-issued pieces of negotiable plastic. The numbers: 750 stations, each with 15 to 40 high-tech stanchions, and 10,000 bikes for rent. That's for now. By the end of the year there will be 1,451 stations and 20,600 bikes.

All of this is being done to reduce the number of automobiles, noise and pollution in a city that already has one of the best public transportation systems in the world. Besides, it will be fun; take a bike to work in beautiful Paris -- at least that is what Mayor Bertrand Delanoe thinks.

Not everyone here agrees with Delanoe. Some think it will be too dangerous, particularly for young parents who take their children to day-care centers or schools during morning rush hours. The boulevards here are fast, the side streets narrow, and it's dark most of the day in winter.

Even so, more and more Parisians have taken to using their own bicycles as two-job families became more common and gasoline and diesel oil became more expensive. Right now a gallon of gas costs the equivalent of almost $8, though European cars are far more fuel-efficient than American guzzlers. In many cases, the new rental stations are next to iron stands built so that people can park and lock their own bikes or mopeds.

This is how the new system will work:

For 29 euros (which is almost $39 these weak-dollar days) Parisians can buy cards good for an unlimited number of trips for one year. They swipe the plastic, unlocking the bike, and get 30 minutes of free use each trip before returning it to a station near the job or home. The next half-hour costs 1 euro, the next, 2 euros, and the third, 4 euros. There are also one-day passes for 1 euro, plus the half-hourly costs, or weekly passes for 5 euros plus half-hourly charges.

(Eight hours on a daily pass would cost more than $60, the cost rising to discourage tourists and sightseers interested in wandering the city all day, although you could beat that charge by stopping at a station every half-hour and taking the bike for what would amount to a new trip.)

Will it work? In good weather, I think so. The bikes, built at a cost close to $1,000 each by an advertising company in return for free use of city-owned billboards, are gray and kind of clunky. But if you live 25 minutes from work -- the usual bike commuting time in Paris -- you might save a lot of money and clean a good bit of air as well.

A similar, if cheaper, system has worked for two years in Lyon, which has 350 stations, 4,000 bikes and a yearly charge of 10 euros, the free first 30 minutes and a charge of 50 centimes (67 cents) per half-hour after that. More than 95 percent of the bikes are returned in less than 30 minutes, making the program free for many users after spending the first 10 euros. The number of rented bike trips has quadrupled in that time to 20,000 a day -- the Paris estimate is 250,000 -- and now accounts for 2.5 percent of the city's transportation, eliminating an estimated 3,600 tons of carbon emissions a year. In Strasbourg, another smaller city, the system accounts for 6 percent of city transportation.

(In Amsterdam, bicycles account for 28 percent of transportation, but a free-use system in the 1970s, "the White Bikes," failed because people stole the machines. In the French systems and smaller ones in other European systems and in Australia, the cards identify the users, and police have been relatively successful in tracking down thieves and vandals.)

And so the final question: Bicycles may be too dangerous to use in many American cities, but are they any more dangerous to life and limb than vans and trucks bigger than the homes most of us grew up in before we could buy little houses on the freeways -- mobile homes with air conditioning to keep out the poisons and heat we generate by the millions? At least they're trying over here.

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