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An ambitious public-bike-rental scheme called Velib is celebrating its second anniversary this month in Paris. While the bikes have transformed the city, they've also proven to be as popular with vandals as they are with commuters.
There's no doubt about it: Parisians have taken to Velib. In just two years the chunky gray bikes have been used for more than 50 million trips and have become a part of the cityscape. As many as 20,000 of them now flood the streets of Paris. The first half-hour's rental is free, and the charges are reasonable after that. Users can take a bike and return it at any of the city's 1,000 bike stations.
Businessman Charles Andre de la Hogue says the bikes have become part of his life.
"I use Velib regularly to go to and from work," he says. "My office is 10 minutes away, so by bike, it's very convenient. I'm very satisfied with Velib."
Velib is a contraction of velo — French for "bicycle" — and liberte. Surveys show 94 percent of Parisians consider the program a success, despite some initial glitches.
But what has surprised everyone is vandalism: 16,000 bikes have been replaced because of damage or theft. Tires have been slashed, frames smashed, chains cut. And 8,000 bikes have been stolen.
Police have retrieved about 100 Velibs from the Seine River. But the fate of most of the missing bicycles is unknown.
Albert Asseraf works with the advertising company JCDecaux, which operates the bike scheme for free in exchange for billboard space. He says company officials were taken aback by the vandalism.
"Every Velib is ridden about 10,000 to 12,000 kilometers a year by about 10 to 12 different riders a day," he says. "So there's a normal wear and tear that our repair teams take care of. But it's true — we greatly underestimated the willful damage inflicted on the bikes."
The bike scheme was supposed to cost the taxpayers nothing. But now the Paris City Council has agreed to cover $500 of the cost of replacing each damaged bike — an estimated expenditure of $2 million a year.
A publicity campaign has been launched to call attention to the problem. Ads with a catchy tune and the jingle "All for one bike, one bike for all," play on television and the Internet. And the city has been plastered with posters that show a cartoon Velib being roughed up by a thug. The caption reads: "It's easy to pick on Velib, it can't defend itself."
Despite the unexpected damage to the bikes, Velib is still a huge success, says Paris City Council member Gildas Robert.
"Because of Velib, the number of bikes on the streets of Paris has risen 30 percent," he says. "Velib has got people buying their own bikes, too. The city is changing. The traffic is diminishing and people are driving more carefully. Velib is helping in the mayor's strategy to reduce pollution and get people on bikes, especially for short trips."
I've taken my own Velib for a spin, and the drivers do seem to share the road better. But only halfway down the street I realized my right brake didn't work and the bike lock was cut. So I changed bikes at the nearest Velib stand.
That's where I ran into Belgian student Stephanie Loquet, who gave me a tip for my next ride.
"Before you take your Velib, you have to check the tires," she says. They could be flat. "You have to check the brakes. You have to check the gears. You have to see if the steering wheel is still pointing forwards instead of to the side. So really, it's like a full check-up before you can take the bike."
Parisians have many theories about the vandalism. Some say it's youths taking revenge on the bourgeois bohemian class that use the Velibs. Others chalk it up to the disagreeable character of Parisians.
It's true that a similar scheme in Lyon has suffered none of the same destruction.
"Velib was supposed to make urban travel more civilized," lamented the daily newspaper Le Monde in an editorial. "Instead it has increased uncivilized behavior. No one expected that."
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