Friday’s New York Times had a report on the rent-a-bike system the city of Paris has been operating since 2007. For about $1.50, a Parisian can pick up a bicycle for half an hour from any of hundreds of unmanned rental stations and return it to any other station. Like other cities with similar systems–Oslo, Stockholm, Vienna, Luxembourg, Milan–Paris is preening itself on having gotten people out of cars and onto bikes.
Alas, the people who set up what’s known as the Vélib’ system forgot that Paris is not all yuppies and tourists. Certain Parisians, for example, burn cars for sport. July 14th, Bastille Day, is a favorite day for it, and this year, despite stepped-up patrols and 240 arrests, immigrant “youths” reduced 317 cars to cinders–a new record. New Year’s Eve is another time for burnt offerings, and the national total in January was 1,147–a few percent off the all-time record but still up by eight percent.
With even just a few of these “youth” about, you can be sure that sturdy, $3,500 bicycles that you can rent with the swipe of a stolen credit card are not always going to come back. About 40 percent of the initial fleet of 20,600 bikes have been stolen and another 40 percent have been burned or busted beyond repair. Bikes are showing up in Eastern Europe and even back home in North Africa, and the company that operates Vélib’ has to fix 1,500 smashed up bikes every day.
No one even pretends not to know who is doing the smashing. Bruno Marzloff, reported to be a sociologist of transportation, concedes that most of the thieves and vandals are angry African immigrants. “It is an outcry, a form of rebellion; this violence is not gratuitous,” he says. It’s no doubt all in the spirit of that favorite graffito of the immigrant suburbs, Nique la France (F*** France).
The Times story especially struck me because just the night before, I had been talking about bicycles with a charming lady who spends half the year in northern Montana. She told me that outside town she finds collections of unlocked bicycles at school bus stops. Children drop them off in the morning after they have ridden from home to take the bus, and their bikes will still be there when the children get off the bus to ride home in the afternoon.
Why does what works in Montana not work in Paris? Aren’t all people everywhere the same? No doubt Mr. Marzloff, sociologist of transportation, could explain it to me.
[Editors Note: Excerpts from the New York Times story can be read here.]