On yer bike, or his or hers

Observations on transport

London has already pinched a stage of the cherished Tour de France; now it looks as if we have an eye on their bikes as well.

Transport officials at City Hall are "watching with interest" a scheme being launched in Paris this month to provide citizens with thousands of free bikes they can pick up and drop off at hundreds of special stations located in the city.

Part of a green drive by Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë, that echoes Ken Livingstone's plans for a more sustainable London, the scheme, called Velib, will see 10,000 bikes on the streets by the roll-out date of 15 July and double that by 2008.

Users can ride the bikes for half an hour for free before dropping them at a station. It costs ?1 for an additional half-hour and ?2 for a further 30 minutes. The project is an expansion of a scheme launched in 2005 in Lyons, which now has an average of 15,000 rentals a day.

"The Paris initiative is an innovative idea, which we are watching with interest," a Transport for London spokesperson said.

However, with statistics showing that a bike is stolen at a rate of one every 71 seconds across Britain, and with central London as the bicycle theft hot spot, planners will be looking closely at whether any new technologies can be adapted to overcome problems of previous free-bike experiments in other cities.

The first schemes relied entirely on the trust and goodwill of the community, usually ending in spectacular failure. The "White Bike" scheme tried in Amsterdam in the 1960s ended after the bikes quickly disappeared, some migrating as far as Moscow and the US, with those remaining often unusable.

In the UK, Cambridge tried to bring in a "Green Bike Scheme" in 1993. All 300 cycles were stolen by the end of the first day. Last year, in a privately promoted "Orange Bike" scheme, thieves removed all ten of the cycles put on the streets of London, despite the pledge they would be sent to African charities when the promotion ended.

The French scheme relies on technology and heavy security deposits rather than trust. Cyclists use prepaid swipe cards to release the bikes, which are fitted with alarms. The undisclosed cost of the bike stands and anti-theft systems for the Paris scheme is borne by JCDecaux, the outdoor advertising company, in exchange for advertising sites around the city.

If the scheme does come to London, there are a few tips to be learnt from smaller-scale ventures. Bernie Hanning, founder of British OYBikes, a system that relies on remote unlocking by mobile phone, says the key to not having your bikes stolen is to make them as unattractive as possible: "We designed the bikes so when people try to resell, everyone laughs at them," he told the New Statesman, adding that only six of his 100 bikes had gone missing and three of those had been returned.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The new terror