Editor’s note: This is the second part in an occasional series of dispatches from Europe from Leah Shahum, the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, who is on sabbatical there.
I’ve visited Paris four times in the past 25 years, but it was not until a recent trip a few weeks ago that I really saw this fabled city the way I wanted to. For that, I credit bicycling and Paris’ much-publicized Vélib’ bikeshare program. On two wheels, I was able to move beyond the total tourist track to explore neighborhoods and find nooks and crannies filled with local cafes and funky shops that were not listed in my guidebook.
Much has been written about Paris Vélib’. Started in 2007, it is now the second-largest bikesharing system in the world with about 25,000 bikes spread among 1,800 stations. (It is second in size to the 50,000-bike program in Hangzou, China.) Since Vélib’ began just three years ago, it has provided about 80 million bicycle trips in Paris.
While Vélib’ has incited some criticism over vandalism and theft problems, the overwhelming story so far seems to be one of success. The system has helped coax more Parisians back onto bikes and has convinced local leaders to build out an impressive and growing bicycling infrastructure that, in turn, has encouraged even more Parisians to try bicycling for transportation. Not to mention that it has launched a worldwide race by other cities eager to replicate its success.
When I arrived in Paris a few weeks ago, I had not done much homework about the actual mechanics of using the Vélib’ system. While I wanted to check it out, frankly, I was skeptical that this media-darling system would work as well as advertised.
My Vélib’ experience wildly exceeded my expectations and has helped me realize that politicians’ fervor for bikesharing can transcend the flash to achieve substance. I believe it is worth the time and energy for San Francisco and other North American cities to invest in similar systems.