Your humble author is TTAC’s resident cycling enthusiast, as shown in the eminently regrettable photo above which can best be titled “35-Year-Old Man Takes Mountain Bike To Skatepark For No Good Reason.” When I was younger, I had unveiled contempt for people who drove somewhere when they could ride. Three knee surgeries and a child later, I’m not so sure. Still, cycling is gaining momentum across Europe in precisely the same way that the economy isn’t. The public-bicycle scheme in Paris, Velib, now profitably shares 23,000 public bicycles across a subscriber network of 225,000 people — and the electric-auto-sharing service which has been operating for over half a year now looks to be headed for similar success. The implications regarding private and public property raised by both services are worth discussing.
As a cyclist, I considered my bicycles to be more sacred than my cars. Why would I ride some horrible public bike when I could ride my own? The Velib experience, which offers 45-pound rental bikes, no doubt inspires similar repugnance among French roadies. Furthermore, the adage about partying and rentals appeared to hold true in Paris. According to Eurasia Review’s excellent article on the subject:
While most Parisians snubbed the heavy public bicycles (weighing 23 kg), others destroyed or stole them. During the first year, 8,000 Vélib’ bicycles disappeared and another 16,000 were vandalized, according to official figures… But despite it all, when Vélib’ marked its fifth anniversary on Jul. 14, it was also able to celebrate its undeniable success: in five years, 138 million people have used the 23,000 rental bicycles, and the system currently has 225,000 subscribers out of a total urban population of 2.3 million… In 2011, Velib’ achieved profitability and is fully expected to yield profits again in 2012.
The implications are interesting: when a nation which is famous for individuality, and cycling snobbery, puts 138 million asses on rental seats over the course of five years, something is changing. The notion of personal transport is, perhaps, increasingly falling victim to class resentments, European economic immobility, official indifference towards urban theft and abuse of property, and the simple but irresistible force of raw convenience.
The Autolib scheme takes this a step further, to include electric cars. Pay between four and eight Euros and receive a fully-“fueled” electric car for half an hour. If you consider that the average new-car price is almost thirty grand now, and the payments on such an item, plus reasonable insurance and fuel fees, would cover perhaps fifty to eighty hours a month in a loaner car — more than two hours per day — it’s no wonder that the Autolib scheme is gaining momentum.
This isn’t a unique idea — Zipcar offers conventionally-powered cars for similar money in cities across the world — but its progress is worth watching. Every happy Autolib customer is one less customer for a conventional mass-market automobile. He or she is also a vote against many of the things TTAC readers enjoy about cars: speed, freedom, unlimited personal mobility, the choice of everything from interior color to camshaft specification. That is, of course, unless people are stupid enough to let you rent their Corvettes.