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Paris Bike Share In Peril


Paris was one of the first large cities to experiment with a bike sharing system when it introduced Velib more than a decade ago. Velib had been a huge success and a point of pride for the city, until this year, when it changed operators and almost collapsed. The Paris mayor has given the new Velib operators until this fall to get their act together. Well, it's fall. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Philippe Bohly is trying to unlock one of the colorful new Velibs from its dock. The businessman says he's been riding the bikes to work every day for the last several years and can't imagine going back to driving his car or taking the metro. Bohly says despite Velib's recent troubles, the system has improved a lot in the last two months.

PHILIPPE BOHLY: (Through interpreter) Before August vacation, there were no bikes here, and you had to walk to a lot of stations to find one. At least now there are bikes.

BEARDSLEY: For tens of thousands of Parisians, Velib is a vital mode of transportation in their traffic-choked city. So when a new transport consortium won the Velib contract with a plan for electric bicycles, people were enthusiastic.

SIMON LABOURET: We were very excited with the new operator. There were a lot of promises, a new bike with high technology and new features.

BEARDSLEY: That's Simon Labouret of Paris in the Saddle, a cyclist advocacy group. Labouret says the new company, Smovengo, was a big disappointment.

LABOURET: It was a disaster for biking and a disaster for mobility in Paris.

BEARDSLEY: Bikes were broken or unavailable. The docks that held them were out of order. Daily Velib use plummeted from 100,000 trips a day to a couple thousand. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said she was giving Smovengo just a couple of months to get things on track. The company hired crisis manager Arnaud Marion, who became Smovengo's new CEO. Marion says the first mistake was changing Velib operators with no lead-in time.

ARNAUD MARION: It was, I think, crazy to do that because you have to build new stations, and our stations are all electrified docks that allow electric bikes to be charged for the battery.

BEARDSLEY: Things continued downhill over the summer. Marion says on top of its technical problems, the company struggled with bike damage and theft, notorious in the City of Light.

MARION: Unfortunately - because I'm French and I'm a Parisian - this is a town of incivility, and it's a pity, of course. And so we had, at the beginning of the season, 3,000 bikes which were stolen or destroyed.

BEARDSLEY: Marion says the new Velibs now fit snugly and lock properly in their charging docks. Trips have now risen back up to nearly 40,000 a day, and he says the new Velibs, unlike the old ones, are available in the Paris suburbs.

MARION: You have to think about all these people who have to move from the suburb to Paris, and they want to use a clean bike or electric bike. And we have docks and stations, roughly 40 percent outside Paris.

BEARDSLEY: Back at the Velib station, Philippe Bohly is still trying to unlock a bicycle.

BOHLY: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Finally, one becomes available. "This one told me no a minute ago," he says. "It shows you should never give up faith in Velib."

BOHLY: (Laughter).

BEARDSLEY: And with a laugh, he rides away.

Bonne route.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.