Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bad News for Bike Sharing

The BBC reports that JCDecaux, the company that runs Velib, says it can no longer afford to operate the popular Parisian bike-sharing program.

This is bad news for the people of Paris, and anyone planning to visit. But what's worse is the precedent that it could set for nascent bike-sharing programs in cities around the world. San Francisco's own program is off to a rocky start, and certainly doesn't need something like this to take the wind out of its already slack sails.

Under the Parisian plan JCDecaux paid all the expenses and ran the system in exchange for the right to 1,600 billboards across Paris. The city itself got to keep all the fees that people paid to use the system. That has led to the problem Velib now faces, as the costs of repairing and replacing stolen and damaged bikes has balooned.

One difference that could work to SF's advantage, however, is that the financing strategy for our venture is more conservative than that between the city of Paris and JCDecaux. Our plan, to be run by ClearChannel as part of a contract with the SFMTA to replace Muni's bus shelters, bears a much stronger resemblance to Washington DC's SmartBike program.

Essentially, our the bike sharing program will just be icing on the MTA's $306 million advertising contract with ClearChannel. The advertising company will get to keep all the revenue generated by the program, and so may be able to avoid the problem in which Paris finds itself.

That amount of control in the hands of a private company with no demonstrated interest in public-benefit programs like this could be a curse all its own, however, so advocates shouldn't rest so easy yet. The initial program, under the edict issued by Mayor Newsom, doesn't appear to be set up for success, and a lack of will from ClearChannel combined with lowered expactations from the public would likely mean the worst.

As for Paris, apparently the city government has agreed to pay JCDecaux some of the costs to replace the damaged and stolen bikes but does not plan to bail out the company.

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