Sunday, October 07, 2007

More on the Velib Story

The plot thickens. I originally reported on this new idea--what I thought was a French one--for reducing congestion and pollution in larger cities. It's called "Velib." This is the first post, and this the second.

It's basically the introduction of a new mass transportation system in Paris, whereby you can rent a municipal bicycle for a euro or two, take it pretty much anywhere, and leave it at another bike stop.

Now I learn here that this idea was actually developed by Clear Channel, a company based in Texas, back in 1998. They started it in Rennes, France. Then they went into Norway and Sweden. Then Dijon, France. And most recently Barcelona, where's it's called "Bicing".

Bicing in Barcelona
[Thanks to bicing.com for the photo.]

And what's next? Washington, D.C.

Monsieur Decaux, their French competitor, has now gotten "Velib" into Paris, Luxembourg, Vienna (Austria), Cordoba, Gijon and Sevilla (Spain), Brussels (Belgium), Lyon , Aix-en-Provence, Marseille, Mulhouse, Roen, Besançon, and Toulouse (France). He is now claiming to be Number One. He had said in a video I watched that it was his original idea. Now I see there is debate about that.

Clearly, this has become a race to see who can capitalize first on metropolitan visibility. (Both companies are into mass marketing.) With the participation of the municipal governments of each city, there's no way these projects can fail; however, they can become subject to government mismanagement and disappear, just the way they came.

I hope not. Their private-sector partners will probably see to it that things are done in an orderly fashion, at least as far as the bike services go. They will eventually end up with a monopoly of all of the prime-location signage on the bike service stations, just as they now hold all the signs in the subways, bus stops and other municipal spots all around the world. We know they'll take care of that aspect of it, which is, after all, where they'll make their money.

Although I love the idea (who wouldn't like cleaner cities and a little exercise at the same time?), I can't rid myself of an uneasy feeling that two giants are maneuvering themselves into the city-government bird's seat here, with our blessings through our elected state officials. We'll all win, I guess; but some more than others. The big payers will not be the bike riders; it'll be the city dwellers. This is what always happens when you have collusion between the state and a private cohort. (Think cable TV companies, hard-line phone service companies, water and power companies, public works companies. In California, you can add earthquake insurance companies, gas companies, electricity providers, and what am I forgetting?)

Stay tuned for the next update.

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