French Cities Start To Question Bike-Sharing Costs And Benefits

Many international cities have adopted broad, bicycle-sharing systems that have become hugely popular. Early adopting French cities are now studying the bill.

Repairing a Velib station in Paris
Repairing a Velib station in Paris
Olivier Razemon

PARIS — You place your magnetic card on the reader, wait for the clicking sound, then take a bicycle that you'll later drop at one of many other docking stations in the city. The process is simple and convenient, and has become popular in cities throughout France, and beyond.

It's been 10 years since Lyon Mayor Gérard Collomb inaugurated Vélo’v, the first bicycle-sharing system of its kind in France with a network of 4,000 bikes spread over 300 stations in Lyon and neighboring Villeurbanne, developed by street furniture company JCDecaux.

Paris followed suit in July 2007 with an even larger service consisting of some 16,000 Vélib" bicycles in about 1,000 stations.

But this idea wasn't actually new. In the 1970s, La Rochelle Mayor Michel Crépeau introduced what were called "yellow bikes" for residents to use. Similar services were launched in Copenhagen, Vienna and Rennes in the 1990s, but not on the large scale that Lyon and Paris undertook.

The success of JCDecaux's system lies in its ease of use but also in its financing. Through its Cyclocity subsidiary, the distributor manages the stations and advertises the service. In exchange, it can display billboards across the city. The user's financial outlay is kept to a minimum, costing each regular client between 20 and 40 euros a year.

The success of self-service bikes has attracted the interest of other operators, in France and abroad, such as the mass media group iHeartMedia. But the system's financial viability has yet to be demonstrated: Although the service is almost free for the user, the costs for local authorities are significant.

After the 2014 municipal elections, several newly elected mayoral teams in France were staggered when they discovered the cost. In November, the newly elected mayors in Valence and Pau even considered dropping the service.

High bills

The figures are truly overwhelming. In Valence, the annual cost of Libélo, developed by a French company called Smoove, was a whopping 400,000 euros for fewer than 300 subscribers. In Pau, the IDECycles created by transport company Keolis, cost the city 703,000 for 400 subscribers. In both places, each bike costs local authorities more than 2,000 euros per year.

Of course, no city has ever claimed profitability of public transport, whatever the mode. But the figures for the bike-sharing systems are particularly high given their scale. Benoît Beroud, founder of consultancy group Mobiped, has studied a number of contracts between municipalities and their distributors. "The cost per bicycle and per year is 2,250 euros in Orléans, 2,413 euros in Rennes and 3,267 euros in Marseille," he says.

The problem is similar in the United States, where Bike Share Philadelphia founder Russell Meddin estimates the annual cost of a single bike at between $1,500 and $3,000.

In Lyon, each Vélo'v costs an estimated 2,000 euros — twice as much as the anticipated 1,000 euros. But in this case, it's the distributor, and not the mayor's office, that must pay the difference. "We're lucky to have been the first ones to sign a deal with them," says town counselor Gilles Veco.

JCDecaux learned its lesson and was more careful in its subsequent contracts. "The number of thefts and the level of vandalism surprised us," says Albert Assérad, the company's executive vice president for strategy.

Broken Vélib" — Photo: Luc Legay

In Paris, expenses have skyrocketed. According to economist Frédéric Héran, each Vélib’ costs taxpayers 4,000 euros a year. The service's requirement that bicycles be transported from stations that are full to those that are empty "accounts for about half of that sum, while one-third is spent on repairing vandalized bikes." The rest, he says, is for the actual operating. "It's not the advertising that finances the bicycles, but the city, which all but waives the usage fee."

All uphill for cities

Elsewhere, the bill is also steep. In Montreal, for example, the Bixi system, launched in 2009, quickly turned out to be a financial drain. The city handed its management over to a non-profit structure that must repay 3 million Canadian dollars every year.

In London, Barclays, the main sponsor of the bike-sharing system there, announced it was withdrawing from the project in 2013 after a deadly accident damaged the reputation of the "Barclays Bikes," which Londoners call "Boris Bikes," after the Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson. In April, the system was renamed "Santander Cycles," after another bank, which agreed to pay 6.25 million pounds ($9.78 million) per year until 2022.

Some cities have thrown in the towel. Russell Meddin says that 60 such services have been canceled around the world, including in Aix-en-Provence and Plaine Commune in France. The northern French city of Lille is considering moving little-used stations to other, smaller towns in the region where there's more demand.

"Boris Bikes" — Photo: Garry Knight

But after a period of doubt and consultation, the mayor of Valence decided to keep the system alive. "We managed to bring down the service's annual cost to 300,000 euros," a local administration source says. To reduce their deficits, Paris, Lyon and Barcelona have decided to raise prices. But user contribution remains ridiculously low in terms of overall financing, amounting to between 5% and 10% of the cost. By contrast, user fees for buses and the Metro represent 20% and 30% of overall costs.

But associations that represent bicycle users aren't begrudging higher fees. "Also because they're expensive, bicycle-sharing systems give credibility to this means of transport among decision-makers," says Olivier Schneider, president of the Bicycle Users Federation. Economist Frédéric Héran puts it differently. "With such sums involved, what else could we do to encourage people to use bikes?" he asks.

Reducing costs

Perhaps we should look to both Strasbourg and Grenoble for answers. The two cities have opted to develop long-term rental services, from one day to a year. Users are wholly responsible for the bikes, including financially, which limits the risks of damages. What's more, the bicycle must eventually be returned to the station where it was borrowed, which removes the costly administrative burden of moving cycles to and from stations.

"It's wasn't our goal to gift each inhabitant of Strasbourg a bicycle, but we want to encourage them to use it to move about the city," says Jean-Baptiste Gernet, a city counselor. According to his own calculations, "each Vélhop costs the city 400 euros a year." That's 10 times less than what the Vélib’ system costs the city of Paris.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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