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Smarter Cities

After The Demise Of Paris' Pioneering Electric Car Sharing System

End of an era?
End of an era?
Denis Fansilber

PARIS — This past summer, Parisians bid adieu to Autolib", a pioneering electric-car-sharing service that came to a premature demise after operating for fewer than seven years. But that doesn't mean the French capital is turning its back on the overall concept. There is a plan B in the works, though what exactly it will entail — what, in other words, will be built on the ruins of Autolib's signature, self-serving "Bolloré Bluecars' — remains to be seen.

Most likely, the city will see an assortment of new options, from private car-rental agencies such as Drivy or OuiCar, to scooter and even electric-bike-sharing services. Indeed, competition is heating up as new proposals flood in.

"Autolib" was practically an anomaly," says Nicolas Oichon, a mobility expert with the Institute of Planning and Development of Paris' Ile-de-France region. "Everything is accelerating, with many initiatives coming from start-ups. These days, customers don't want to be restricted to one specific kind of transportation anymore. They may even look for a different mode of transport every day."

City authorities are doing their part to encourage all of this. The Paris City Council has just announced a quadrupling of parking spots reserved for "station-based" car-sharing vehicles (cars that must be returned to the spot from which they were taken). The players currently competing for the market are Communauto, from Quebec; Zipcar (Avis Budget); and Ubeeqo (Eurocar). Others will appear next year.

Now that Autolib" is gone, Paris' City Hall, under Mayor Anne Hidalgo, is more disposed towards these car-sharing companies and wants to give them more visibility. For one thing, it is now offering them 1,000 exclusive parking spaces, up from 226. It also cut the rates it charges the companies to operate in the public domain, from a maximum of 3,000 euros annually per car to 1,500 euros.

Competition is always good, but the city needs to regulate it properly.

"We will launch a call for a competition for each station, and we will award the place to the highest bidder, depending on the motorization of its cars — electric, hybrid, or fuel-burning," says Christophe Najdovski, the mayor's assistant for transport and roads.

Station-based car-sharing has existed for 30 years in North America and Europe, but in Paris, Autolib" (operated by the Bolloré industrial group and with a fleet of 4,000 electric cars) had crowded out all other similar services.

"Competition is always good, but the city needs to regulate it properly," says Federica Campina, head of the agency Communauto, in Paris. "So far, we have not been supported enough by the municipality."

As it stands now, Communauto's self-service cars are used, on average, by fewer than 1.5 customers per day. But Bolloré"s demise has opened the door for more opportunities. To meet the rush of customers, Communauto will increase its fleet from 135 to 170 cars by the end of the year.

Renault, in partnership with the rental agency ADA, is also getting into the mix, albeit with vehicles that are "free floating," meaning they can be left anywhere in the city. This week, the partners launch a service called Moov'in.Paris, in the capital's 11th and 12th arrondissement, with a combination of compact electric cars and two-seater quadricycles. In the coming months ADA-Renault plans to expand the service, which has a base rate of 39 cents per minute, to other parts of the city.

Only a third of Parisian households own a car, notes Antoine Scoyez, ADA's director of new mobility. "I don't see saturation of the car-sharing market in the short term. There's room for several players, even if their strategies are different."

Moov'in.Paris is just one of the services offered by ADA-Renault, which despite the city's emphasis on green vehicles, also offers standard gasoline models. In fact, ADA has more gasoline cars than electric — for longer journeys that extend past half a day.

Why should more cars be offered in this capital of traffic jams?

"We prefer that Parisians not depend on gasoline vehicles. But since fuel-burning cars are still essential for long journeys, such as weekends outside of the capital, we have to offer them," says Agnés Cherrier, ADA's marketing manager

But why should more cars be offered in this European capital of traffic jams? What more can be added in a city served by 19,700 VTCs, which drop off the customer where they want without parking, for an average of 20 euros? To justify their entrance into the new market, newcomers will have to deal with the move towards de-motorization. According to Zipcar, a car in the capital costs an average of 298 euros per month to its owner and is used 11 hours per month.

A study conducted by environmentalists found that 67% of users chose Autolib" for its system of available parking spaces, while only 6% stated that they were driven by environmental considerations. "Autolib" was more competitive with public transport and taxis than with the personal car," explains Nicolas Louvet.

Autolib" parking spaces — Photo: Suzanne.b.Godillot via Instagram

City hall is now trying to decide how to regulate (and monetize) the now-abandoned Autolib" parking spaces. What are Paris officials to do with these now useless relics, whose piloting software belongs to Bolloré?

The 100 or so municipalities around Paris that have hosted Autolib"", answer the dilemma in different ways: "Some want free parking, others want the places kept for electric cars, others a combination of the two," explains Xavier Caron, a delegate for the clean mobility of the Syndicat Intercommunal for Gas and Electricity in Ile-de-France. "And some may even just keep them vacant for other uses in the future."

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