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Monday, March 26, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Paris tries pushing pedal power

The Washington Post

PARIS — Paris is for lovers — lovers of food and art and wine, lovers of the romantic sort and, starting this summer, lovers of bicycles.

On July 15, the day after Bastille Day, Parisians will wake up to discover thousands of low-cost rental bikes at hundreds of high-tech bicycle stations scattered throughout the city, an ambitious program to cut traffic, reduce pollution, improve parking and enhance the city's image as a greener, quieter, more relaxed place.

By the end of the year, organizers and city officials say, there should be 20,600 bikes at 1,450 stations — or about one station every 250 yards across the entire city. Based on experience elsewhere — particularly in Lyon, France's third-largest city, which launched a similar system two years ago — regular users of the bikes will ride them almost for free.

"It has completely transformed the landscape of Lyon — everywhere you see people on the bikes," said Jean-Louis Touraine, the city's deputy mayor. The program was meant "not just to modify the equilibrium between the modes of transportation and reduce air pollution, but also to modify the image of the city and to have a city where humans occupy a larger space."

The Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanok, has the same aim, said his aide, Jean-Luc Dumesnil: "We think it could change Paris' image — make it quieter, less polluted, with a nicer atmosphere, a better way of life."

But there is a practical side, too, Dumesnil said. A recent study analyzed different trips in the city "with a car, bike, taxi and walking, and the bikes were always the fastest."

The Lyon rental bikes, with their distinctive silver frame, red rear-wheel guard, handlebar basket and bell, can also be among the cheapest ways to travel, because the first half-hour is free, and most trips are shorter than that.

"It's faster than the bus or metro, it's good exercise, and it's almost free," said Vianney Paquet, 19, who is studying law in Lyon. Paquet said that he uses the rental bikes four or five times a day and pays 10 euros (about $13) a year, half for an annual membership fee and half for rental credit that he never actually spends because his rides typically last just a few minutes.

Anthonin Darbon, director of Cyclocity, which operates Lyon's program and won the contract to start up and run the one in Paris, said 95 percent of the roughly 20,000 daily bike rentals in Lyon are free because of their length.

Cyclocity is a subsidiary of outdoor-advertising behemoth JCDecaux, which runs much smaller bike businesses in Brussels, Vienna and the Spanish cities of Cordoba and Girona.

The Cyclocity concept evolved from utopian "bike-sharing" ideas that were tried in Europe in the 1960s and '70s, usually modeled on Amsterdam's famous "white bicycle" plan, in which idealistic hippies repaired scores of bicycles, painted them white, and left them on the streets for anyone to use for free. But in the end, the bikes were stolen and became too beat-up to ride. A number of United States cities, including Portland, have also experimented with community-use bicycle programs.

JCDecaux experimented with designs and developed a sturdier, less vandal-prone bike, along with a rental system to discourage theft: Each rider must leave a credit card or refundable deposit of about $195, along with personal information. In Lyon, about 10 percent of the bikes are stolen each year, but many are later recovered, Darbon said. And to encourage people to return bikes quickly, rental rates rise the longer the bikes are out.

JCDecaux will provide all of the Paris bikes and build the pickup/drop-off stations. Each will have 15 to 40 high-tech racks connected to a centralized computer that can monitor each bike's condition and location. Customers can buy a prepaid card or use a credit card at a computerized console to release a bike.

The company will pay start-up costs of about $115 million and employ the equivalent of about 285 people full time to operate the system and repair the bikes for 10 years. All revenue from the program will go to the city, and the company will also pay Paris a fee of about $4.3 million a year.

In exchange, Paris is giving the company control over 1,628 city-owned billboards, including the revenue from them, for the same period.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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