Wednesday, November 4, 2009

To Have and Have Not

La ville est plus belle a velo. The city is more beautiful by bike. That's the motto of Velib, the bicycle-sharing program that began in Paris one day after Bastille Day in 2007. Loosely translated, Velib means either "free bike" or "bicycle freedom." For about $43 per year, a rider can purchase an annual pass that gives him access to the shared bikes for 30-minute periods, or longer if he pays a minimal fee. The city of Paris purchased 20,600 bikes. Each cost $3,500. I'll do the math for you. That's $72,100,000.

You can get a lot of bike for $3,500. In this country, $3,500 will buy you a custom-built bike. That means the bike is built to fit your measurements with the highest quality craftsmanship. You pick out the handlebars, saddle, and paint. In the end, it's one-of-a-kind. In Paris, each bike is one of 20,600.
Because they're for public use,
Velib bikes are of sturdy construction and the parts that are usually exposed, like the chain, are well-protected. Because the bikes are for Parisians, they must be aesthetically pleasing with clean curvy lines and just a dash of je ne sais quoi (literally, "I don't know what," but figuratively, that certain unnameable quality that makes a person or thing irresistible).

So far, Parisians and other cyclists who visit the City of Lights have rented bikes about 63 million times. (See "French Ideal of Bicycle-Sharing Meets Reality,"
The New York Times, 10.30.09). An unqualified success? Sort of. Don't let the perky logo fool you.

To date, more than 16,000 bikes have been stolen or vandalized. That's about 80%. (Again, I've done the math. This makes twice.) I almost understand the theft. The bikes are hip, and whereas most hip things are skinny and fleeting, the Velib bikes are rock-solid and durable. Why wouldn't someone steal one? Rent it. Ride it home. Can't thieves join the green movement? Haven't you ever heard of a get-away bike? But what about the vandalism? True, Velib parts have turned up in other countries where they're sold in black markets. But many abused bikes never leave the city limits. They are strewn all over Paris - high-end bikes with their tires punctured, frames bent, and rendered unrideable by vandals.

According to
The New York Times, the problem is the the bobos, or really, the resentment that they foment among Paris' underclass. Bobo is shorthand for bourgeois-boheme, and refers to those trend-setting city-folk who looked fabulous in their red hot pants and Ugg boots before they began scooting around on an expensive pair of wheels. The less privileged suburban population views the Velib program as one more perk for the beautiful people. The underclass rebels. It wants to make a statement.

"Take that, you hipsters!" it cries, metaphorically, that is. Vandals destroy the bikes and leave the crumpled frames in plain sight. (Statements not made in plain sight are just secrets.) I am not challenging the feelings of the disenfranchised. I don't deny them the right to protest and self-advocate. I don't know enough about them to even have an opinion. But bike destruction can't be the best way to make a point. That's despicable for so many reasons, and I'll name two here: Bikes for the World (BfW) and Pedals for Progress (P4P).

a project sponsored by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and P4P, based in New Jersey, are non-profit organizations that collect used bikes and ship them to people who need them for basic transportation and communities where a thriving bike shop contributes to economic livelihood.

BfW partners with
non-profit community programs and P4P works with non-profit community-owned bikes stores. In both cases, the recipient - whether it's a local Goodwill store or a fledgling bike business - pays nothing for its first shipment of bikes and tools, and then has to earn enough money by selling and repairing bikes to pay for the next one. So far in 2009, BfW and P4P together have shipped nearly 12,000 bikes to Panama, Ghana, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Moldova, El Salvador, and other developing nations. I found this photo of a young Ghanaian boy on the BfW website and he was too cute to keep to myself.

It costs about $35 to ship one bike, one-hundredth of the cost of one Velib.

Using the bike as metaphor seems inescapable. I've done it in this and other essays that I've posted and I can't seem to stop. Once I believed that bikes were simply fun to ride. Now I see them as symbols of privilege, hope, elitism, exclusivity, promise, and high -fashion. I can't resist stating the obvious: French vandals, some of them anarchists, are literally crushing their country's attempts to "go green," while a greater, more silent, less noticeable population is just trying to go - anywhere.


  1. Cathy,
    Yet again, a wonderful essay/ post. The writing was witty, informational, and somewhat political, yet I loved all of it! The incorporation of the pictures was also well done and the fantastic. Thanks for sharing another great post!

  2. I agree. Very entertaining post - "Take that, you hipsters!" You've managed to approach heavier subjects (poverty, for example) through the lighter vehicle (ha ha) of cycling. This is what all good humorous essay writing does, I think - on the internet or otherwise. Also, since I haven't commented on it yet, I like the new look: very clean.

  3. Great post!! It was very entertaining and informative. You were able to connect the French economy, Parisian style and the division between social classes all through your discussion of bicycles!!

    I saw these bikes all over the place when I was in Paris two months ago. I tried to rent one, but there were none available! I felt like vandalizing some people I saw riding bikes after all the walking I did.

  4. How much did your bike cost? Did I miss that somewhere?

    BTW, really appreciate the new layout!

  5. CAT,
    Fantastic. Read from the beginning. . . 'Ditch the pearls'; "Take that you hipsters!"--metaphorically speaking, of course--I could hear your voice in my head. And your analysis of the milk jug versus veganism was spot-on. As for me, I told my family to suck it up and just cut out milk and bananas. btw--I love my candy-apple Schwinn mountain bike which I've been riding for ten-plus years. Bike-on, baby!

  6. I really enjoyed this post! Your ability to infuse humor into such informative reports is amazing. Thanks for bringing our attention to this important international phenomemon and for providing so many links to more information.